SAFe portfolio management in practice

By Sander Spanjaard

How to ensure that agile and devops teams realize the strategic organizational goals?

Traditional portfolio management is based on multi-year and annual plans for projects and programs, with associated budgets and management. The portfolio is evaluated over the course of a financial year and priorities are recalibrated. Because the vast majority of technology is developed in an agile way, or even devops, this conflicts with the traditional portfolio cycle. Because agile teams do not commit to the long term; you don't have to expect any planning from these teams. Agile teams are accountable with reviews (demo) every two weeks; progress reporting as an accountability mechanism is a far cry. What is the guarantee worth to a portfolio manager that the capacity is properly allocated? How do you ensure that the realization of the agile teams is in line with the organizational strategy and therefore the portfolio? 

How to ensure that agile and devops teams realize the strategic organizational goals

SAFe portfoliomanagement

Ron provides the answers to those questions in this blog with the help of SAFe (see box). SAFe offers a powerful best practice for portfolio management: lean portfolio management, for convenience referred to as SAFe portfolio management. Based on 3 characteristic differences with traditional portfolio management, they make it clear how SAFe portfolio management ensures that agile and devops teams work on achieving organizational goals.

Characteristic differences

With SAFe portfolio management you manage the portfolio entirely based on lean-agile principles. The following illustration compares both variants.

Source: Agile poster

In this blog we will discuss the following 3 characteristics in more detail, based on a number of practical situations:

  • Alignment with organizational strategy. Making and delivering plans versus reprioritizing biweekly in the boardroom
  • Metrics (status and reporting). Status reports with traffic lights versus Daily current information with kanban boards
  • Communication and stakeholder management. Closed steering groups with reports versus 1 open space with all information – Obeya

1. Stop planning: reprioritize your portfolio every two weeks

Within agile environments it is common to regularly prioritize all work at hand. Plans such as those that happen a few times a year in traditional portfolio management are not in line with the working methods of the agile teams. If you recalibrate your portfolio every two weeks, based on the multi-year and annual plans, then there is indeed a connection. Why frequent recalibration at a strategic level, you may wonder? This is necessary because it introduces considerations at a strategic level; such as which requirements from business or compliance have the highest priority to be realized. This is necessary because otherwise the agile teams will pick up work independently, without monitoring whether it is still sufficiently in line with the portfolio. By introducing a biweekly recalibration, you are not only in control anymore; you are able to anticipate current events more. That's called agile, to use a fad word. Current examples for recalibrating portfolios: the Citrix security breach at the end of 2019, or the effect of the one and a half meter economy as a result of the corona crisis.

2. Don't look back at traffic lights; current insights with kanban boards

To facilitate the frequency and weighing every two weeks, SAFe portfolio management uses (initially physical) kanban boards. Traditional portfolio management uses reports in e-mail, Excel sheets, meetings, etc. The form used mainly affects the response speed to this management information. By reporting you look back. This means valuable time is lost; drawing up, approving and then forwarding to the management layer the reports and the actual status of the work. Sometimes the teams are already two sprints further, so a month of work may be lost if adjustments are made based on the report.

SAFe portfolio management therefore works with (1) a realization kanban, the (2) portfolio kanban, and a (3) Impediment/improvement kanban. The organization's strategy is visualized with the performance, projects and improvements of the operation (agile and devops teams). These kanban boards are displayed in the Obeya room.

3. No closed steering groups, but open Obeya space with rules for making decisions

The Obeya is an open space where all kanbans are visible and can accommodate approximately 40 people. Portfolio management takes place in the Obeya. A multidisciplinary portfolio team facilitates the decisions and insights here and is responsible for current kanban boards and the space for the organization. For example, in 7 working days a problem from one of the teams is visible in the Obeya on the impediment kanban. The portfolio team can then take immediate action if necessary, because the decision makers meet in this room. 

Finally, in practice, SAFe portfolio management leads to visibly fewer meetings, more transparency and a positive atmosphere. Not the most important difference for achieving organizational goals, but an important argument for trying it out. SAFe portfolio management is a pleasant way of working together. Interested? Please contact Ron Mostert. 

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