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Can SAFe frameworks ever be successful without ITIL?

Blog posted by: Fredrik Hulten – trainer, consultant and co-founder, Olingo, September 2023.

In the past 10 years, there has been a significant move towards agile practices. It’s brought about a shift in the frameworks that leaders and their teams are applying to deliver projects, products and services to market.

Scrum and DevOps top the list and, more recently, there’s been a growing trend to adopt SAFe, which stands for Scaled Agile Framework. SAFe is a set of principles and practices that let organizations and development teams introduce and scale agile processes.

It’s particularly useful for teams who want to overcome the constraints that larger, complex organizations can impose on the ways things are done. By using SAFe, they have great autonomy but still co-operate efficiently with other teams and deliver results quickly.

However, the trend to adopt frameworks like SAFe has prompted confusion because of a lack of understanding. Companies that learn about SAFe gather ideas about how it could transform their working practices. True enough it can, but because there’s no great depth of knowledge on how to apply it and how to integrate it with existing frameworks like ITIL, SAFe falls short of expectation.

Preconceptions about SAFe

One of the fundamental reasons why this happens is related to the notion that SAFe replaces all other frameworks. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The great benefit of using SAFe is that it provides a description of the work streams and how to deliver IT services. But what it doesn’t do is outline the operations, and this can lead to conflict within the organization and ultimately non-compliance.

Take the example of new financial software that’s developed and scaled with SAFe. The guiding principles of the framework ensure the new release can be launched and generate new revenues quickly. However, what if there’s an incident involving customer data? How can the development team assure any compliance or history of remedial actions? The details of how to handle this are out of scope of SAFe.

Synergies between SAFe and ITIL

However, by using ITIL as well, organizations have both the SAFe option to develop and scale at pace and do it according to ITIL’s framework of detailed requirements and documented history of actions, all bound by well-defined roles and responsibilities for delivery.

What’s more, ITIL provides the capability to capture incidents and helps project teams understand how they should be prioritized, as well as provide the tools that should be applied to manage them.

Enterprises that use ITIL in conjunction with SAFe, and even blend it with other frameworks such as DevOps, are more successful. They can deliver their goals, learn from mistakes to ensure they are not repeated and have a mindset of best practice.

It’s worth underlining the point about best practice. Culture is hugely important in the application of frameworks. There must be leadership that advocates high standards of operational delivery and execution, as well as models that help improve high quality products and fast time to market (DevOps and SAFe). After all, what use is a new national train ticketing system if it is launched within a few months but doesn’t work?

Complementary frameworks

Leadership teams that truly understand the benefits of using frameworks alongside one another also recognize that one area of the business might be transformed by the introduction of Agile and SAFe, but another won’t be. They also acknowledge that ITIL provides definition of purpose and operational delivery, and it can provide the ‘how’ differently compared to SAFe, Agile, DevOps and Scrum.

There is therefore a balance to strike between the different approaches and how one may lean on the other: SAFe will lean on DevOps, for example, while DevOps will bridge the gaps in Scrum. But, fundamentally, none will work in the long-term without the right governance of ITIL.


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