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Scaled Agile – SAFe Backlog & Roles Simplified

SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is complex and to understand how best to implement SAFe, you need to break it down into smaller pieces. In this article I'll breakdown some of the essential pieces of SAFe, the backlog hierarchy and roles.

SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is complex by design, because implementing Agile at scale is complex. To understand how best to implement SAFe, you need to break it down into smaller pieces like you do a backlog. One of the many questions that I get often about how to implement SAFe are about the backlog hierarchy and roles. In this article I’ll breakdown some of the essential pieces, or building blocks, of SAFe.

FYI:In order to provide baseline definitions and context, all of the links in this article are to pages on the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) web site.

SAFe’s Structure Centers Around Levels

The structure of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is primarily organized around levels of complexity, that often can be related to organizational levels, backlog levels, and/or planning levels. They manifest themselves on the landing page of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) web site as SAFe Configurations.

SAFe Configurations Selector from the SAFe web site

The SAFe configurations are Essential SAFe, Large Solution SAFe, Portfolio SAFe, and Full SAFe and are described on the SAFe for Lean Enterprises page in the SAFe Configurations section. This diagram uses the Full SAFe configuration to illustrate the essential SAFe levels, and the backlog hierarchy levels that it is related to – the backlog work item types are in parentheses.

Illustrates Levels using the Full SAFe Configuration

SAFe Levels Map To Backlog Levels

As illustrated in the diagram above, each SAFe level maps directly to a level of the Backlog hierarchy.

SAFe LevelBacklog Level
PortfolioEpics
Solution TrainCapabilities
Release TrainFeatures
Agile TeamStories > Tasks

Roles At Each Level Are Very Similar

Broadly speaking the key SAFe roles can be organized into these 3 categories. The Scrum framework is similar and is represented in this discussion. Of course there are many other roles, but while starting to break down SAFe to understand how to implement it, we’ll start with just these key roles that are very similar down through the SAFe and Backlog levels.

Illustrates Roles using the Full SAFe Configuration
ExpertiseBrief DescriptionRoles
Framework, Process, Planning, Tool ExpertiseServant leader, Coach, Facilitator.
Deep expertise with Agile frameworks – SAFe, Scrum, Kanban.
Tool expertise with things like Jira, Azure DevOps, Rally, Confluence, etc.
Scrum Master
Release Train Engineer
Solution Train Engineer
Product, Solution ExpertiseDeep product and/or solution expertise.
Has primary responsibility for the backlog.
Writes and prioritizes backlog items.
Represents stakeholders, business owners, etc.
Product Owner
Product Management
Solution Management
Epic Owner
Architecture ExpertiseResponsible for defining and communicating a shared technical and architectural vision.
Establishes a technology strategy and architectural roadmap.
System Architect/Engineering
Solution Architect/Engineering
Enterprise Architect

Roles Map To Levels

Finally, we can see how the roles map to the levels of SAFe and the Backlog hierarchy.

Illustrates Levels and Roles using the Full SAFe Configuration

Framework, Process, Planning, Tool Expertise

The Scrum Master role has similar expertise and responsibilities as a Release Train Engineer and Solution Train Engineer roles.  Each of these roles are servant leaders and coaches, and have expertise in SAFe and Scrum frameworks and with the various planning and management tools, they just work at different levels of the backlog. 

Scrum Masters are servant leaders and coaches for an Agile Team.

Scrum Master – SAFe web site

The Solution Train Engineer works at the Solution Train level of the backlog.  The Release Train Engineer works at the Agile Release Train level. And the Scrum Master works at the Agile Teams level of the backlog.

The Release Train Engineer (RTE) is a servant leader and coach for the Agile Release Train (ART).

The Solution Train Engineer (STE) is a servant leader and coach for the Solution Train

Release Train Engineer and Solution Train Engineer – SAFe web site

Product, Solution Expertise

Also similar are the roles with the product expertise.  Each of these roles is similar to the Product Owner in Scrum.  Here also, the essential difference is that they work at different levels of the backlog.

The PO is the member of the Agile team who serves as the customer proxy responsible for working with Product Management and other stakeholders…

Product Owner – SAFe web site

The Product Management works at the Agile Release Train level, where Features are located in the backlog hierarchy.  Check out Features and Capabilities.  And the Product Owner works at the Agile Teams level of the backlog, where Stories > Tasks are located in the backlog hierarchy.

Product Management is responsible for defining and supporting the building of desirable, feasible, viable, and sustainable products that meet customer needs over the product-market lifecycle.

Product Management – SAFe web site

The Solution Management works at the Solution Train level of the backlog, where Capabilities are located in the backlog hierarchy.  The Epic Owner works at the Portfolio level of the backlog, where Epics are located in the backlog hierarchy.

Solution Management is responsible for defining and supporting the building of desirable, feasible, viable, and sustainable large-scale business solutions that meet customer needs.

Solution Management – SAFe web site

Architecture Expertise

While the roles [of Solution Architect and System Architect] are similar in most respects, they manage different levels of concern.

From the SAFe web page describing the System  Architect/Engineering role, quoted from the middle of the 4th paragraph.

The differences between Enterprise Architect, Solution Architect/Engineering and System Architect/Engineering in Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is that a Enterprise Architect works at the Portfolio level, Solution Architect works at the Solution Train level of the backlog, and the System Architect works at the Agile Release Train level. 

Solution Architect/Engineering is responsible for defining and communicating a shared technical and architectural vision across a Solution Train to help ensure the system or Solution under development is fit for its intended purpose.

Solution Architect/Engineering – SAFe web site

System Architect/Engineering is responsible for defining and communicating a shared technical and architectural vision for an Agile Release Train (ART) to help ensure the system or Solution under development is fit for its intended purpose.

System  Architect/Engineering – SAFe web site
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