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Scaling agile with SAFe® and Jira Align

Vinesha D'Mello
26 February 21 Agile
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In the world of business today, market environments are undergoing constant, relentless change. The ability of organisations to adapt, pivot, and innovate quickly are now the table stakes for success. Practicing agile methodologies at the team level helps achieve this to some extent, however the need to expand these practices out to every level of the organisation is quickly becoming universal. Businesses that truly want to lead must practice agile at scale.

While there are several frameworks in existence to help organisations accomplish this, the Scaled agile Framework® (SAFe®), currently in use by over 70 percent of the Fortune 500, has become the most widely adopted.

Scaling agile, no matter how it’s approached, requires multiple facets within the organisation to come together to be successful. We at Adaptavist favour a pragmatic, holistic view of such transformations which you can learn more about here. Considerations include people and leadership, complexity thinking, technical cultural practices, and tools and automation.

In this post I’ll focus on tools, specifically Jira Align, and how it can be used as a central platform to help organisations adopt SAFe® successfully.

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While delivery teams can and should continue using Jira as their day-to-day agile tool, everything from the Program level up can be managed and tracked in Jira Align.

Some of the key features in Jira Align that support SAFe® include:

  • Functionality inclusive of all configurations and levels of SAFe®
  • Direct connection from strategy to technical execution via the ‘Why’ button
  • Support for allocation of investments to strategic themes
  • Robust backlog functionality at every SAFe® level
  • Ability to attach Framework Maps (including SAFe®)
  • Kanban boards at each SAFe® level to view and manage work in progress
  • Ability to create Product Roadmaps
  • Support for Big Room Planning
  • Tracking for dependencies and risks
  • Calculations for Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF)

From this list alone it’s clear how strongly Atlassian has prioritised support for SAFe® in Jira Align’s enterprise agile planning feature set. I’ll now look a bit more closely at three important areas which may help you decide whether to consider Align to underpin your own implementation of SAFe®.

PI Planning with Jira Align

Program Increment (PI) Planning is arguably SAFe®’s most critical ceremony. It’s certainly its most challenging and complex, demanding intense coordination from many different roles and teams. As Scaled agile® recommends, PI Planning runs most smoothly and efficiently when it’s done face to face. However, as this past year has taught us, doing PI Planning in person is not always possible. Even outside of a pandemic, distributed teams or other factors can make gathering in one room unworkable. This is where Jira Align can become a one stop shop to manage and coordinate all activities digitally in PI Planning.

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The Jira Align Program Board is one of its most useful features for remote PI Planning

Program Backlog: Jira Align provides the capability to maintain a prioritised backlog of Features for the entire Program.

Program Room: This function acts as a dashboard for Release Train Engineers (RTEs) and Program Managers, giving them an overview of the entire PI. From creating a checklist, which acts as a configurable list of steps to be done before and during the event; to listing the dependencies and risks between teams; to showing the Load versus Capacity and Runway for each team in the agile Release Train (ART).

Program Objectives: Setting up Business and Technical Objectives for the agile Team to deliver in a PI is important. Jira Align provides the ability to create the PI Objectives, associate them to Features, and provide a Business Value for each Objective.

Program Board: Traditionally, in-person PI Planning teams maintained a big board with hundreds of sticky notes and threads to depict stories and dependencies between teams. This makes planning and tracking very cumbersome, and nearly unmanageable remotely. Jira Align provides the ability to maintain a board with stories, their statuses, and a visual representation of the dependencies between teams.

Dependency Maps: Highlighting Dependencies with other teams and trains is key during the PI Planning event. This allows teams to plan and execute their work effectively during the PI. Jira Align not only tracks these Dependencies, but also shows them in various views including Grid, Wheel, and Analytics.

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Dependency Maps can be viewed in multiple ways in Jira Align

Lean Portfolio Management

Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) is one of the seven core competencies of SAFe®. It aligns Strategy and Execution by applying Lean and Systems Thinking approaches to Strategy and Investment funding, agile Portfolio Operations, and Governance. Jira Align has multiple functions that support LPM.

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Viewing Investment by Theme is one of the ways Jira Align supports Lean Portfolio Management

Value Streams: Defining Value Streams is foundational in SAFe®. This identifies how value is to be flowed continuously to customers. Jira Align provides the ability to create Value Streams, set up process steps based on value, and allocate the Value Stream to the Programs executing them.

Strategic Themes: Enterprise executives can set up Themes which translate to business goals for the organisation. These Themes connect the Portfolio Vision to the Enterprise Business Strategy

Budgeting: SAFe® provides a Lean-Agile approach to financial governance. Jira Align supports allocating budgets to Programs and Trains, and then allocating percentages of that budget to Strategic Themes and the corresponding work executed under the Themes.

Portfolio Backlog: Just like the Program Backlog, Jira Align provides the ability to create, maintain, and prioritise an epic Backlog.

Reports, Reports and more Reports

Reports help an organisation inspect, evaluate, grow, and pivot when necessary. Jira Align delivers here, with over 150 Reports out-of-the-box including real-time data at each level of SAFe®. These reports can be exported in various formats including PDF, JPEF, PNG or SVG to facilitate consumption by executives and teams of all kinds.

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Investment versus Actuals is one of over 150 reports Jira Align provides out-of-the-box

Some of the reports available in Jira Align which are most relevant for SAFe® include:

  • Program Predictability Report
  • Program Velocity
  • Risks and Impediment Status
  • Team Member Allocations
  • Budgetary Tracking
  • Strategy Tree
  • Investment vs Actuals
  • Process Step Cycle Time

In sum, Jira Align has very robust functionality to support an implementation of the Scaled agile Framework®. And as Atlassian is investing heavily in the tool, it will only continue to grow and mature. Jira Align is not a panacea however, and it isn’t a perfect fit for every organisation looking to adopt SAFe®. But in the right situations, it can be a powerful enabler indeed.

Adaptavist is a leading global Atlassian Platinum Enterprise Partner with Jira Align Specialization, and also a Scaled agile® Gold Partner. More important than tech and framework expertise however, is the fact that our team will put your long-term outcomes at the forefront of any conversation regarding your choice of tooling to support agile at scale.

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About the author: Vinesha D'Mello is a Senior Business Consultant, and agile expert who works with technical and non-technical teams to coach them on best practices, transform their processes, adapt to change, and scale. Vinesha is certified SAFe® 5.0 Program Consultant (SPC).

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About the authors

Vinesha D'Mello

Senior Business Consultant
Vinesha is an Agile expert and certified SAFe® 5.0 Program Consultant (SPC) who works with technical and non-technical teams to coach them on best practices, transform their processes, adapt to change, and scale.