Published on: August 23, 2020
The Role of the Agile PMO in SAFe | Scaled Agile Framework
SAFe | Scaled Agile Framework

An enterprise-level business lives and dies by efficiency and agility. It’s a single company with multiple teams, offices, and divisions that all work together to create a profitable company that meets and exceeds its business goals. 

Organizations seeking efficiency often look to agile delivery approaches. They introduce Scrum to software delivery teams – usually with a positive effect on delivery. But Scrum is designed for small groups – not large organizations. Any system that focuses on self-organizing teams and face-to-face conversations is going to struggle to scale to work across enterprises.

The Agile scaling issue

There have been several attempts to solve the problems associated with agility at scale. Methods such as Disciplined Agile (DA), Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS), Nexus, and Scrum At Scale have all been developed to overcome the challenge of scaling up.

SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is one of the most widely adopted scaling frameworks. They boast over 600,000 practitioners trained worldwide, and they claim to have certified SAFe professionals operating in 70% of Fortune 100 companies.

SAFe has a simple mission: to enable the business agility that is required for enterprises to compete and thrive in the digital age. 

A Scaled Agile Framework helps streamline multiple teams using workflow patterns derived from lean, agile, and systems thinking approaches. We’ll examine the vital role an Agile PMO (APMO) has in the growth and development of a company using the Scaled Agile Framework.

The basics of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

SAFe was created by Dean Leffingwell and launched in 2011. It has gone through numerous expansions and iterations since then. The current version is SAFe 5.0, which was released early in 2020. SAFe 5.0 is built around seven core competencies:

SAFe 5.0 seven core competencies

  • Lean-Agile Leadership
  • Team and Technical Agility
  • Agile Product Delivery
  • Enterprise Solution Delivery
  • Lean Portfolio Management
  • Organizational Agility
  • Continuous Learning Culture

How does SAFe work?

SAFe 5.0 is a highly configurable framework that supports organizations on their Lean Enterprise and Business Agility journey. Using the most basic configuration: Essential SAFe, the focus is on developing a Continuous Delivery Pipeline where multiple software development teams are aligned using a construct called an Agile Release Train, or ART. Roles such as Release Train Engineer are introduced to oversee the process and work closely with systems architects and product management.

But there is much more to SAFe than aligning multiple Scrum teams. At the Portfolio level, SAFe advocates aligning around Value Streams rather than around projects. This is a significant shift for many project-centric organizations. SAFe provides a lot of guidance for taking an organization’s strategic themes and translating these into a portfolio vision. From here, a portfolio level backlog is created, with ‘Lean Budgets’ allocated to value streams. Governance is achieved through the use of ‘Guardrails’, which encompass the policies and practices for budgeting, spending, and other controls.

If you’re interested in aligning teams as efficiently as possible with the business, whilst budgeting effectively and developing a big picture view of how work flows throughout the Organization, then the Scaled Agile Framework was designed with you in mind. The Scaled Agile Framework helps maintain alignment, improve enterprise collaboration helps link the company mission and strategy directly to work package delivery.

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Why an Agile PMO is needed for today’s business world

We’ve talked elsewhere on this site about the many different acronyms used to describe the PMO. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) attempts to differentiate the role of the PMO in a SAFe environment by calling it an Agile PMO or APMO. They describe it as a team that works with other functions to provide Agile Portfolio Operations. Rather than viewing the Agile PMO as a support function for Project Management, they advocate moving away from project management entirely and focusing on Products and Value Streams instead. SAFe 5.0 defines three critical responsibilities for the APMO:

  • Coordinating Value Streams
  • Supporting Program Execution
  • Fostering Operational Excellence

The role of a PMO is to make sure procedures, operations, and practices are efficient, streamlined, and on budget. Today’s global business climate is fast-paced, digital, and highly competitive. Companies need to provide high value to stakeholders. But the processes that are put in place by many PMOs are not customer-centric. That is to say, they are not defined with the customer of the business in mind. The traditional method of running a PMO and projects relies heavily on functional silos and temporary teams, up-front and top-down planning and budgeting for the year, and a centralized ‘funnel’ for work intake. They require detailed business cases based on a speculated return on investment. Lacking other metrics, success is frequently measured in terms of milestones and how many tasks were completed.

While this methodology was sound at a time before the digital and global business revolution, it’s not for today. With more companies taking a lean and agile approach, companies need a PMO that resonates with those values. The Agile PMO blurs lines between delivery and operations like never before, whilst drawing on their strengths in coordination, execution, and continuous improvement.

An Agile PMO works with the business to ensure people are organized into value streams, and it promotes continuous workflow. The journey begins with strategy and investment funding to ensure everything is designed to meet targets for the entire portfolio in all teams and divisions. The PMO then promotes agile operations and uses decentralized program execution and operational superiority. Throughout the framework, the APMO continues to oversee spending, audits, compliance, forecasting, and measurement.

Lean Portfolio Management

Lean Portfolio Management is one of the seven competencies of the Scaled Agile Framework. It enables the alignment of strategy and execution by applying lean techniques and systems thinking approaches to investment, strategy, delivery, and governance. Lean Portfolio Management has three dimensions:

  1. Strategy and Investment Funding
  2. Agile Portfolio Operations
  3. Lean Governance
The three dimensions of Lean Portfolio Management

The three dimensions of Lean Portfolio Management (adapted from www.scaledagileframework.com)

According to this article over at scaledagileframework.com, the APMO focuses on the Agile Portfolio Operations and Lean Governance dimensions. This is quite a narrow view though, as many Enterprise PMOs also play a role in supporting strategy and investment funding too.

Strategy and Investment Funding

Strategy and Investment Funding

Strategy and Investment Funding (adapted from www.scaledagileframework.com)

In our Lean Portfolio world, funding is aligned with value streams. The focus is on creating and maintaining solutions needed to meet business targets. To achieve this, there needs to be a good understanding of the business objectives and portfolio strategy, but also a good understanding of both the current state of the portfolio and future operating models. For this reason, SAFe says this dimension requires the active engagement of executives, business owners, portfolio stakeholders, technologists and Enterprise Architects. The group work together to:

  • Connect the portfolio to enterprise strategy
  • Maintain a Portfolio Vision
  • Realize Portfolio Vision through Epics
  • Establish Lean Budgets and Guardrails
  • Establish Portfolio Flow.

Those who have studied Portfolio Offices in P30 and the Axelos Management of Portfolios standard will find much of this to be familiar territory. Indeed, it is worth noting that SAFe has done a good job of assimilating learning from a broad church and pulling it together in a cohesive framework. The PMO can play a vital role here by holding everyone involved in the Strategy and Investment Funding dimension to account, ensuring the process flows smoothly, communicating outcomes and developing feedback loops.

Agile Portfolio Operations

Agile Portfolio Operations

Agile Portfolio Operations (adapted from www.scaledagileframework.com)

The Agile Portfolio Operations dimension centers on:

  • Coordinating Value Streams
  • Supporting Program Execution
  • Fostering Operational Excellence

In this dimension, the Agile PMO (APMO) works closely with the Lean-Agile Centre of Excellence (LACE), Communities of Practice, and RTEs. The APMO works to keep the Portfolio in Sync across multiple Agile Release Trains, establishes objective metrics and reporting. They should also cultivate and apply successful execution patterns across the portfolio – taking learning from one area and proliferating it in others.

Lean Governance

Lean Governance

Lean Governance (adapted from www.scaledagileframework.com)

Whilst governance may be seen as a dirty word with some agilists, it is an essential part of scaling. Lean Governance manages spending, compliance forecasting expenses, and measurement. This third dimension focuses on:

  • Forecasting and budgeting dynamically
  • Measuring portfolio performance
  • Coordinating continuous compliance

As many teams businesses have found to their cost, it is relatively easy to accelerate delivery if you ignore regulatory and industry standards compliance. Such gains are only short-term and this approach can lead to fines, reputational damage, injury, and death. It is important therefore that when we focus on the flow of work, we build in audit and compliance throughout the flow. This integrated approach reduces the risks of rework and legal exposure that come from trying to add compliance on as an afterthought. You can find out more about compliance in SAFe environments in this white paper.

A deeper look at Agile PMO

Enterprise-level businesses can deal with billions of dollars in investments across multiple value streams. An Agile PMO using a Scaled Agile Framework makes sure investments go to the right places to do the right things.

The goal is to know and understand the business objectives and ensure the work needed for those objectives are funded. The PMO has to understand the portfolio inside-out and not only know it’s current state but also develop a plan to improve it. The PMO has to anticipate issues and problems, and adjust the portfolio plan when issues arise or the business context changes. 

This isn’t just the PMO’s job. It includes the leaders of all aspects of the project, including executives, stakeholders, architects, and technologists. By working with each group, the team ensures the portfolio is connected to the company’s strategy, creates a consistent vision for the portfolio, establishes budgets and guardrails, and develops the project’s flow.

Agile Release Trains and Solution Trains help create decentralized operations. Even with a Scaled Agile Framework, there needs to be someone to make sure these trains stay on the tracks. The PMO makes sure they are aligned and work together.

The Agile PMO works to develop a budgeting method that is more fluid than a long-range budget. They understand both historical and forecasted costs for each solution, and budgets are adjusted every six months based on budget reviews. 

The PMO help determine the metrics for portfolio performance, including strategy implementation, spending, and expected results and timeframes. These metrics are used for each area of development, from research to marketing. 

Once the project budget, metrics, and strategy are aligned, the Agile PMO maintains constant vigilance to ensure all key performance indicators are met, and all teams are working together efficiently.

Many companies that develop Scaled Agile Frameworks feel the need for an Agile Project Management Office to make the framework and their projects as efficient and profitable as possible. The framework can help develop strategy and performance, but there needs to be someone that can manipulate it and maintain order.

Agile PMOs Were Made for the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

If you think of the Scaled Agile Framework as a train network, then the Agile PMO is the controller. It keeps the trains running and makes sure everyone arrives at their destination on time. Without the controller, the whole system grinds to a halt.

At HotPMO, we understand the needs of companies and are experts in the Scaled Agile Framework. We work hard to support organizations implementing SAFe, and building Agile PMOs.

We can meet and listen to your problems and challenges and help you fix those issues. We are continually developing our skillsets to meet the most significant problems today’s companies are facing. 

If you’re interested in learning more about our Agile Project Management Office programs or Scaled Agile Frameworks, please explore our site. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. 

© SAFe and Scaled Agile Framework are registered trademarks of Scaled Agile, Inc.

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