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Scaled Agile and the (Portfolio) PMO

Agile PMOScaled Agile is all about business agility – combining Lean, Agile, and DevOps principles, practices and skills. The PMO has got interested for a couple of reasons:

  1. PMOs have been supporting the adoption of Agile and Lean approaches at the project level over the last five years or so.
  2. DevOps – or continuous delivery, has also become a way for teams to deliver change and the PMO wants to understand and support that.
  3. Ultimately the PMO is there to support change activities across a business regardless of what approach is used – but they need to first understand the approaches before being able to support effectively.
  4. Finally, some business leaders have seen the benefits that scaling up agile approaches can bring – the question is, how to make it happen.

In this session, we wanted to understand Scaled Agile and a specific framework called SAFe. Out of the different frameworks available for scaling agile (LeSS, Nexus etc) – or agile at an enterprise-level – SAFe has been the most popular within our community of PMO and PM practitioners. Back in 2017 in our Agile PMO Report – SAFe – or its full name, Scaled Agile Framework, was mentioned as a good starting point for PMO practitioners:

“SAFe would be my overall recommendation, it is a good course that tells you as a methodology how it would work and I think answers a lot of the questions that have been raised around what should a PMO do and on the course, you sit in there and go, wait a minute, that’s my job.”

Three years on, we explore it further and pull out the things a PMO practitioner needs to know about and perhaps explore further. Is it SAFe? Let’s find out more. We had John McIntyre from HotPMO take us through the session and kicked off the session with this: SAFe for Lean EnterprisesThis is the SAFe framework we will be looking at – sure there’s a lot here, some of it might look familiar, intriguing, even perhaps a little bit full-on. That’s what this session is all about – in one hour and nineteen minutes you’ll have a much better understanding and most importantly what matters to the PMO. We’ll also share some of the insights and sharing from other PMO practitioners including some direct quotes. First up, take a look at the session and the deck.

Video Session

We recommend that you listen to the session first then read the rest of the article.



>> The Deck from the Session We pick through some of the insights from the session.

The change impact to the organisation to implement SAFe will be far and wide

The Seven Pillars

Business Agility

All delivery philosophies have their limitations – understanding the strengths and weaknesses is what allows you to know how far you can go down that pathway.

  Team and Technical Agility – this is where most of us have been working – supporting SCRUM led project delivery – if you’re not familiar with SCRUM – check out the website.

Agile Product Delivery – the framework pulls from lots of established approaches – this one, for example, pulls from design thinking – here’s a source for you to check out.

Enterprise Solution Delivery – SCRUM of SCRUMs territory where big solutions and large changes take place. Here we are introduced to some new language for many of us – for example ‘release trains’. ARTs – Agile Release Trains – are a whole group of SCRUM teams containing around 50-125 people in a virtual team. The ARTs run over a longer period of time – 5 to 6 iterations, about 10-12 weeks. These chunks of time are called PIs – program iterations. There can be some confusion over the change from what is an ART and when it becomes a PI.

There’s also confusion around the concept of trains within trains! Read more details about ARTs.

This is all linked to value streams – our teams become aligned to value streams. You’ll want to know more about value streams here.

Organisational agility – changing the hearts and minds of people. It’s all about the people and the mindset. Read more here.

Continuous Learning Culture – ensuring creativity is in everyone’s DNA and everyone has a remit to improve. The PMO can certainly identify with the need to improve.

Lean-Agile Leadership – we need more than just SCRUM teams in an organisation – we also need leaders that model the desired behaviours for business agility. Read more about leadership.

Lean Portfolio Management – this is where the PMO figures a lot more. This is the strategic part, the funding and governance – the prioritisation of work. We’ll focus on this part in this session. In the framework, you’re able to unpick each of the pillars – and you can do that on the website.

Portfolio SAFe

You are able to look at different parts of the SAFe framework and we’re going to concentrate on the Portfolio SAFe – it’s here that we see the PMO role appear. Lean Portfolio Management

This will only work if there is a complete acceptance of the approach


Value Streams

Looking at that in closer detail – you can see the link from the enterprise to strategic themes and translating this to portfolio vision. There’s a Kanban board for all the things we want to do which then drop into value streams where the work is carri
ed out.

In SAFe work is not funded via projects, it is done via Value Streams. A Value Stream is mapped out and then a budget is allocated to that value stream. To me that sounds a little like benefits management – a value stream is an equivalent to the benefit or value we’re trying to extract/ create from the work so it’s not necessary one piece of work it’s a combination that when delivered together creates the value.

From our PMO Flashmobbers:

Value stream = product line? Can be product line, can be “subject” / overall subject (i.e. complimentary projects)

Read on to understand more about the two different types of value streams.

It’s hard enough to get money for defined projects; I’d get laughed out the door if I asked for money for a “value stream”

So where does the PMO fit?

Agile does embrace the PMO and so does SAFe. But it might not be called a PMO – perhaps Value Management Office? In SAFe it is actually called an Agile PMO (APMO)

The PMO is most likely to be involved in these three competency areas – Strategy and Investment, Lean Governance and Agile Portfolio Operations. Even though the APMO doesn’t figure in the Strategy & Investment diagram it absolutely does get involved at that level – more of a facilitator role for sure.  

Sounds like the impact of implementing this would be quite far reaching across an organisation! Needs everyone to buy in to it.

Strategy and Investment

This is the part that is about connecting the portfolio of work to the strategy of the organisation. SAFe GuardrailsThere are a couple of terms there we focused on – Lean Budgets and Guardrails.

When funds are allocated to value streams, the team has the remit to do what it takes to deliver the value within reason.

Guardrails are what prevent teams coming off the rails and going in a dangerous direction with the budget.

There are four key guardrails – get the detail here. The PMO often gets involved to help broker conversations around guardrails – there is an art and a science to it.

So guardrails are a control on scope?

Agile Portfolio Operations

This is the part that will be familiar already to many PMO practitioners already working at a Portfolio level.

If you substitute the words value streams for projects here – it’s about coordinating the projects in the portfolio.

You’ll see a couple of terms: LACE – Lean-Agile Centre of Excellence

RTE & SM CoP – Release Train Engineer & Scrum Master Community of Practice

Our “self-organising teams” have many qualities but self-organising definitely isn’t one of them. They need constant vigilance….but I think that’s a symptom of unclear strategy

Lean Governance

Another one which the PMO should already be familiar with – making sure we’re doing things right. Here we focused on measurement: Further detail on Value Stream KPIs, Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) Self-Assessment, and the full overview of all the different metrics for different aspects of SAFe.

My current boss ran Agile at scale (LeSS) successfully at one organisation, and another guy ran NEXUS at a big company. Scaled Agile does work…. but I confess I’m yet to see a big old waterfall bank do anything more than give teams new names and work in sprints.


The Case for the PMO

This is a useful image – without the Lean Portfolio Management aspect of SAFe these are the problems you’ll run into. If we’re saying the PMO is part of Lean Portfolio Management we can see how the PMO helps to support and provide solutions that enable the organisation to avoid these problems.    

How do you get the organisation to move to this model – this is a culture/mindset change – requires top-down steer – examples would be really useful on how you move from one to the other

There is an argument to all of this is that actually there is nothing in the Lean Portfolio Management that is new to us. The PMO is there to keep everyone and everything connected – we’re there to oversee planning and budgets and we’re constantly vigilant on the metrics and measures. We’re still vital within the SAFe framework.

Make sure you listen to the session to hear answers to these questions (check out the session from the hour mark-ish):

  1. Is risk management part of SAFe?
  2. Who is overall in control and accountable for Lean Portfolio Management?
  3. How can you make this happen in an organisation with a certain culture?
  4. Can this be tailored? Can you cherry-pick parts of it?
  5. How does work with the finance department? See the CapEx and OpEx
  6. We need more case studies – if anyone has direct experience of using SAFe in their organisation, please get in touch, we’d love to hear your story.


I’ve last week persuaded Finance we should measure benefits with overall outcomes, not projects……we will see how long this lasts. I think what they want is to be comfortable things are under control…they handle flexibility if they trust delivery are doing the right thing.


More About John

John has over 18 years’ experience helping organisations deliver projects and programmes that deliver business outcomes. With real-world experience of project management in the trenches and the breadth of knowledge that comes with an MBA from the UK’s leading Business School, he’s a passionate advocate of the PMO’s role as a business catalyst and agent for Business Agility.

That’s the official bio, here’s ours. John’s also a great friend and supporter of PMO Flashmob. In his previous role at Ticketmaster, he has hosted a lot of our more creative and fun events; he’s been our Stand Up compere; he’s helping us understand Agile and BOTs in the workplace, and he really is a genuinely nice guy. John blogs regularly at HotPMO where you can find out more about the brilliant services he offers to PMOs.

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