Essential SAFe® 4.0 – How is it Different from SAFe® 4.0?


Essential SAFe® 4.0 was launched by Scaled Agile Inc. in 2016 as a method to help organizations scale up their existing agile practices. But isn’t that also the reason behind organizations adopting the Scaled Agile framework in its glorious entirety? How is Essential SAFe® 4.0 different from SAFe® 4.0? What was the need for Scaled Agile Inc. to introduce a derivative of their existing and successful Scaled Agile Framework?

Essential Safe 4.0Image Credits: Scaled Agile Framework

For starters, the Essential SAFe® framework is limited to 2 levels, namely Program and Team, as opposed to the original SAFe® framework which at launch had 3 levels and later was ‘scaled up’ (excuse the pun!) to 4 levels. Whilst SAFe® v3 – now discontinued – had Portfolio, Program, and Team levels; Scaled Agile Inc. added an additional Value Stream level between the Portfolio and Program levels to provide a blueprint to help organizations scale agile in programs with higher complexity and greater resources.

The Challenge

As Dean Leffingwell points out in his article introducing Essential SAFe® 4.0, Scaled Agile Inc. was frequently asked what the most important tenets of the Scaled Agile framework were, i.e. which ones if adopted, would result in quick benefits for the delivery organization. Owing to the richness and the resulting intricacies of the SAFe® 4.0 framework, it was daunting indeed for various organizations to dive headfirst into a SAFe® roadmap implementation. Hence, organizations were looking for a way to take up specific, smaller efforts to achieve faster results.

So, what does Essential SAFe® focus on?

Essential SAFe® 4.0 is a simplified framework, great for organizations that are looking for proof-of-concept implementations of SAFe® tenets, and should ideally pave the way for a more comprehensive SAFe® adoption.

Essential SAFe® 4.0 provides the right foundation to organizations – especially those that do not have an Agile practice at all. Once adopted successfully, these organizations can build up their agile delivery framework by gradually adopting SAFe® 4.0 in its entirety.

Lean-Agile Mindset

The biggest challenge that a large organization faces is an absence of a Lean-Agile mindset. The need for a framework to scale agile practices arises out of the need for a coordinated effort to implement those agile practices in a reasonably uniform manner throughout the organization.

A small organization clearly has the advantage over a large organization in this regard. The smaller organizations typically have an agile mindset embedded in their DNA – they are small and need to move fast to survive! However, their challenge might be simply the lack of management bandwidth to take on an enterprise-wide initiative. They may be better positioned to take on something more manageable in terms of scope and effort.

To address both these challenges, the first principle advocated in Essential SAFe® 4.0 is to train the top management and change leaders in Lean-Agile and SAFe® principles. SAFe® 4.0 is highly influenced by systems thinking the approach and strongly recommends the organizational transformation to be top-down in this regard. Anything that impacts the whole organization must have a full understanding and buy-in of the senior management of the organization. Most organizational initiatives that fail cite this as one of the most important factors that lead to failure. Of course, the top-down intent should ideally be bolstered with bottom-up transformation efforts. If specific teams and departments can already demonstrate some of the business benefits of such a transformation, that is all the confirmation senior management needs to make the right decision.

Release Train and Cadence

Essential SAFe® 4.0 calls upon organizations to launch Agile Release Train (ART) for driving organizational change towards the Lean-Agile framework. The Agile Release Train comprises 50 to 125 resources working towards a common objective. Without an Agile Release Train, it would be impossible to have multiple teams delivering in Cadence, with synchronized sprint start and end dates.

Team, Program and RTE-level Roles

Essential SAFe® 4.0 strongly advocates that a subset of the SAFe® roles be adopted. The RTE (Release Train Engineer) is one such role recommended by Essential SAFe® 4.0. An RTE is to a Train (ART) what a Scrum Master is to a Sprint. In other words, the RTE is responsible for the governance of an Agile Release Train, which is the basic unit around which the SAFe® framework is organized.

At the ‘Team’ level, the roles suggested for adoption are that of the Product Owner and the Scrum Master. At the ‘Program’ level, apart from the RTE, the other important role is that of a ‘Business Owner’. The ‘Business Owner’ acts as an important bridge between the Strategic Themes decided by the Enterprise and how these ‘Strategic Themes’ influence value delivered by specific Agile Release Trains. Business Owners are Lean-Agile leaders of the organization with fiduciary powers and are critical to the success of a Scaled Agile initiative.

The Portfolio and Value Stream level roles have been excluded from Essential SAFe®, namely Enterprise Architect, Epic Owner, Value Stream Engineer, Solution Architect, Solutions Management and Program Portfolio Management.


Essential SAFe® 4.0 stresses on the need to follow SAFe® events/ceremonies as a means to create an agile culture within the delivery organization and a strong orientation towards a shared goal. One such event is the PI (Program Increment) planning, where the entire team convenes preferably in a common physical location (but possibly some joining remotely) to plan for the work to be done and goals to be reached over a period of 4 sprints that comprise a PI. Also stressed is the need to have regular System Demo events, where the work done by the teams is demonstrated to the key stakeholders and business leaders. The System Demo works as an effective motivational event that teams can work towards in a short-time frame and stay focused on their short-term goals.

As in the case of SAFe® roles, the Portfolio and Value Stream level events are excluded from Essentials SAFe®, namely Solution Demo, Portfolio Roadmap or Value Stream coordination meetings. Almost a pre-condition to realizing the benefits from all the Essential SAFe® 4.0 tenets is that all the teams that comprise an Agile Release Train should be agile (that is, using Scrum, Scrumban, Kanban etc.). This means that at the ‘Team’ level, agile tenets must be observed on a daily basis to deliver work and meet the sprint goals and objectives.


Essential SAFe® 4.0 is designed as an entry point for organizations, both large and small, to quickly start realizing the benefits of scaling the agile approach effectively. Essential SAFe® 4.0 abstracts the essential practices of SAFe® that an organization can adopt in order to realize the benefits of Agile in a short period of time. It helps greatly if the leaders are the torch-bearers to carry forward this movement and serve as examples by displaying a Lean-Agile mindset. The adherence to key ceremonies and events can serve as an effective template to bring the entire organization on the same page. Done effectively, this can quickly snowball into an organization-wide Lean-Agile culture shift.

The culture change challenge is tough to win, but Essential SAFe® 4.0 hopes to show you can do it.


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

Share the Knowledge

Anshuman Singh

Anshuman Singh

Anshuman brings 9 years of experience in Information Technology products and services in India. Prior to Digité, Anshuman was with Capgemini and Tata Interactive where he was responsible for creating and managing key accounts. Anshuman also plays guitar and is big fan of the works of Oasis.

Simplifying Project Management!

Explore Nimble! Take a FREE 30 Day Trial

Other popular posts on Nimble!

We are on a Mission to

Join 150,000+ Pioneers, Leaders & Mavericks receiving our updates!

Conduct Retrospectives

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Request Demo for Nimble Agile

Nimble Agile Project Management

We are on a Mission to #HumanizeWork

Join 150,000+ Pioneers, Leaders & Mavericks receiving our updates!

Conduct Retrospectives