Navigate around common challenges with SAFe

Leaders contemplating or already undergoing significant transformation will no doubt reflect on how to successfully shift to modern, agile ways of working. There are many frameworks available and the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a popular, big-bang approach though one that is not without complications. For those who are considering the merits of a Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) implementation, this article highlights some fundamental considerations before investing in the next step on your transformation journey.

Looking at SAFe through the lens of Emergn’s Value, Flow, Quality (VFQ) approach provides a perspective to help you find the best way to navigate the real-world complexities of a SAFe implementation; complexity that is rarely analyzed in the public domain.

Breaking down the barriers

The promise of a Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) implementation is change and agile adoption at enterprise scale following a standardized roadmap. Yet there are notable obstacles that get in the way of successful outcomes. And these tend to differ depending on which stage you have reached in your SAFe implementation.

Challenges for organizations contemplating SAFeChallenges for organizations still adopting SAFeChallenges for organizations after the initial adoption of SAFe
• Gaining clarity regarding how to navigate the complexity inherent in realizing the well-grounded SAFe principle of ‘Organize Around Value’.

• Adjusting roles, processes, and culture when transforming the organization, or part of the organization, from a project mindset to a product mindset.

• Understanding what change is required to get started, including non-trivial activities such as reaching a ‘Tipping Point’, creating new roles, and large-scale coordinated planning and execution that requires short learning loops.
• Establishing an effective mindset, measures, and mechanics with leaders to move away from a traditional to a product-oriented leadership approach and realize the value of SAFe.

• Ensuring that – despite the process-oriented framework of SAFe – the organization does not become overly focused on process at the expense of business or customer outcomes.

• Making the foundational, transformative change that SAFe requires but through complex, adaptive, and non-predictive endeavors that go further than the SAFe Implementation Roadmap as presented in published materials – which is more-or-less linear and not well suited to the challenge of such far reaching, non-linear change.
• Being able to implement the significant transition that’s required to shift the whole approach to leadership away from traditional management towards product orientation.

• Taking deliberate action to set up short, healthy feedback loops in both product and process domains to avoid the rigidity of 10- to 12-week Program Increment (PI) cadence that can cause organizations to drift to longer feedback loops.

• Understanding and measuring the value and impact of work as it’s now being done in a new way that is different and may be harder to embed into organizational decision-making.

• Continuous improvement drifts towards a once-per-PI event, focused at the team or ART, missing the opportunity to make changes that optimize flow and value delivery across the wider organization.

SAFe and Emergn’s VFQ approach are built on the same foundations and share many practices. Both SAFe and VFQ embrace the notions of prioritizing work by value and managing the flow of work based on the observations of Don Reinertsen – one of the most respected names in modern product development thinking.

But where SAFe is a standardized, comprehensive, and prescriptive method for large-scale agile adoption, VFQ is a very different approach that resolves the key challenges highlighted above.

What is Value, Flow, Quality (VFQ)?

VFQ helps organizations design work processes and deliver products and experiences that their customers love. It’s an approach built from the ground up to support enterprise-scale change and consists of the latest models, techniques, and tools for delivering work in an agile and effective way. VFQ brings a common language easily understood by the broader organization and a set of scalable tools that can be used in the context of the organization’s needs versus a one-size-fits-all methodology.

At Emergn, we use VFQ principles and practices in all our engagements to help organizations define their change programs, develop their people and deliver their outcomes. We believe that people and companies can improve the way they work and achieve better outcomes by following three guiding principles:

  1. Deliver VALUE early and often
  2. Optimize the FLOW of work end to end
  3. Discover QUALITY with fast feedback

VFQ and SAFe: Common roots, clear differences

The work of Don Reinertsen. The emphasis on products. The importance of quality. These are the mutual characteristics that are so influential in both VFQ and SAFe.

While we share these common roots, VFQ offers an approach that creates tangible value sooner. With less up-front risk or investment. And without compromising on the vision of a thriving business that can adapt to fast-changing and unpredictable conditions.

A deeper dive into the three core principles highlights the specific ways in which VFQ enhances an organization’s transformation to modern, agile ways of working.


VFQ emphasizes delivering value early and often. Instead of focusing on cost and resources, it is all about increasing benefits and bottom-line impact.

With a proven approach to products, customers, and customer feedback loops and by defining and measuring value, organizations can start to see impact very quickly. VFQ equips these organizations to explore, validate, develop, and deliver products or services that delight customers in more tangible ways than the Continuous Delivery pipeline concept within SAFe.

The methods, tools, and learning pathways of VFQ also enable organizations to connect to end customers more directly. These help to fill in the open spaces in Customer Centricity and Continuous Exploration concepts within SAFe. VFQ supports organizations with much more concrete ways to discern customer value compared to the Relative Business Value rating commonly used in SAFe environments. VFQ also embeds customer perspectives at every stage via personas, user journeys, jobs-to-be-done, structured experimentation, and disciplined problem-solution fit evaluations.


Rather than focusing on time, VFQ focuses on optimizing the flow of work end to end to improve results. In particular, pinpointing and eliminating constraints that are typically found within any system of work. By doing so, VFQ improves how quickly work – and its associated value – is delivered.

A common concern with SAFe implementations is finding ways to deliver value within the parameters of a Program Increment (PI) or similar mid-range planning timeframe. VFQ provides practical, actionable ways to move to more frequent delivery. This overcomes the inertia of the PI boundary and improves end-to-end flow. Through adaptive planning and dynamic demand management combined with stable capacity and frequent releases, VFQ also establishes the structure and insights that identify yet more opportunities to improve the flow of work.


Building the right thing and building it right are fundamental to VFQ and can only be achieved by discovering quality with fast feedback.

Organizations tend to seek feedback only after getting a product or service built. SAFe guidance follows this pattern and leans towards feedback from internal stakeholders during a PI. This leaves any direct customer validation with the Product Manager but with no specified timeframe. In turn, this has the potential to significantly elongate one of the most critical feedback loops in product development. VFQ guides organizations towards shorter customer feedback loops and more direct interaction between customers and product development teams. Identifying small, valuable increments.

Obtaining feedback via a disciplined Discover, Alpha, Beta, Live sequence. Work selection driven by value and learning. These are key to discovering quality with fast feedback. The added impact is that uncertainty is incrementally reduced through the input of the customer, without developers being bound by the PI timeframe. And while SAFe 6 does take a step towards more direct customer interaction, VFQ already offers proven, concrete, and actionable ways to do this.

Implementing VFQ practices is all well and good. But to fully adopt modern, agile ways of working and become a thriving business, an organization must also embrace an adaptive mindset.

Why mindset matters

In our experience, organizations that adopt SAFe end up focusing on implementing mechanics. And while SAFe embodies some truly positive principles, these tend to become overshadowed by the mechanics. At the root of this vicious cycle is a certainty mindset.

To create an adaptive mindset, the people and the organization as a whole must learn how to think and act in ways that optimize value, flow, and quality end to end.

VFQ supports this shift towards embracing uncertainty and developing an adaptive or discovery mindset. As a result, the organization can thrive by following an evolutionary path that is unique to its circumstances, its challenges, and its people.

Evolving measurements and metrics in step with transformation

Teams can often struggle to measure, track, and understand whether they are working in an efficient and effective way. It is not always clear how the changes they make to their own processes influence wider outcomes. And while teams and organizations may have the intention to continually improve, they may lack the data or insights from their own system of work to guide them in making incremental, measurable, and valuable changes.

VFQ promotes the use of a set of analytics that will measure, model, and visualize the team’s system of work to improve its flow. In doing so, new ideas can make more of an impact because digital products and experiences are delivered so much faster. And as the organization and its teams continuously improve their system of work, the metrics from VFQ can evolve at the same time.

Extending your learning from the classroom to “on the job”

Continual improvement is a continuum. As the organization and its teams embrace change, they learn. So Emergn’s view is that learning should be a life-long activity. And in the real world of work, it should be a central part of any employee’s journey – from being a new starter through the rest of their career.

Clearly, a two-day, front-of-the-classroom training session – often hosted by an external consultancy that knows little about day-to-day activities – is insufficient. This is why VFQ blends cohort-based learning pathways, work-based learning, and leadership development to support the adoption of new ways of working. Crucially, all Emergn engagements are structured to leave the organization capable of sustaining its own transformation without the need for ongoing external support.

Unlocking the potential of your SAFe implementation

All frameworks are blueprints and do not reflect the reality of the organization, teams, and people. Understanding and adaptation of any framework is essential and leaves space for other factors to influence the effectiveness of the framework’s adoption and the business and customer outcomes. Recent research suggests the health and quality of processes within teams, management support, and inter-team collaboration are key.

Through a coordinated focus on mindset, mechanics, and measures via a blend of approaches to learning, VFQ will help you achieve sustainable, measurable change, grounded in a healthy foundation. It encourages a shift in organizational culture while providing the practical, everyday support to make the shift to modern, agile ways of working. For leaders contemplating, in the midst of, or having finished an initial SAFe adoption, there are significant benefits to embracing the VFQ approach. Crucially, achieving faster and less risky organizational transformation.

If you’d like to learn how we can help you achieve this – wherever you are with SAFe – get in touch with our experts to tell us more.