Sunday, 29 September 2013

What Happens to Project Managers When You Implement SAFe?

What happens to Project Managers when you implement SAFe? I see this question come up time and again and while I am sure there is more than one answer, in my experience, the role of the Project Manager changes and there are less of them. In the specific case of the EDW Agile Release Train, pre-SAFe there were 18 Project Managers supporting up to 5 projects each. Today there are 4 Portfolio Managers each overseeing around 20 projects. Portfolio Managers are generally aligned to a specific line of business or program of work. They own the relationship with this stakeholder group on behalf of the Release Train.

Our Portfolio Managers are servants to our development teams, they help protect the teams from bureaucracy and support the teams by removing blockers beyond the teams control. When new projects arrive, they work to smooth the transition of the work into the development teams. They do this by understanding the end to end project and the role EDW needs to play, establishing the priority of the work and securing funding.  They confirm the stakeholders and induct them into our delivery approach, and where possible help break the projects down into pieces more easily consumed by the development teams.

Most of our epics, start with an analysis spike, which we call discovery. This is where our feature teams establish the high level design, estimate the effort involved in delivering the epic and work out an indicative release plan based on their current backlog. The Portfolio Managers support the teams by overlaying the financial profile and packaging up the findings for inclusion in the various enterprise gating processes.

During the delivery of the epic the Portfolio Managers participate in the daily Feature Wall stand up with the development teams, escalate and resolve blockers, manage the project financial and co-ordinate epic showcases with stakeholders. Where necessary, Portfolio Managers, will also negotiate changes in release windows and commercial coverage for additional features. Post deployment, the Portfolio Manager arranges for the formal project closure, facilitates a retrospective on the epic's delivery and obtains a Net Promoter Score from the epic owner.

So what happens to project managers when you implement SAFe? In our case, some grow, taking on the huge responsibility across a portfolio of epics and some move on, to less challenging, more traditional project management roles. I have a huge respect for our Portfolio Managers, its a very challenging role, which requires very advanced juggling skills to keep all the balls in the air.


  1. Hi Em I found this post a bit confusing.
    I'm used to managing projects with a budget of $10-$20M and 50 to 80 people so it's hard to understand how someone could be managing 20 projects like this at once.
    I guess that each of the projects you're talking about must be much smaller than this. You seem to have a team of about 50 people so would it be safe to assume that your projects are on average about $40K, 30 days effort and have a cycle time of 10 weeks?
    If so then your set up sounds similar to a large system support team managing a lot of change requests with your Program Managers playing a role similar to Customer Support Managers. This is not to downplay what they’re doing it just makes it easier to understand.
    I’m curious about the relationship between projects, PM’s and teams. Are projects given to whichever team has capacity at the time or are teams focused on particular customers like PM’s or particular types of work? Do PM’s always work with the same teams? Are PM’s responsible for the teams work at all?

    1. Hi Murray, The Portfolio Managers look after a range of projects and program. Some are very small others are significant multi-year programs of work. We don't look to the PMs to manage the delivery, we trust the teams to deliver. The PMs role is to support the teams.
      When it comes to alignment between projects and teams, all the PMs work with all the teams. On a large program it is not uncommon for there to be multiple teams working on different features of the project. Our teams are feature teams, there is an explanation of the shape of our teams in my previous post:

  2. Here you find a discussion (in German) to this topic:

  3. Doesn't it depend on what the boundaries are for the "project"? While the software development may no longer need a project manager, surely there may well be other activities which still do, e.g. infrastructure deployment, software rollout, business process changes, user training, etc.

    1. I agree with your comment and it would be great if Em expands on the activities and maybe give an example of where these activities sit. I think as long as the activity adds value then it will always exist and it needs to be done. It is very easy to get caught up in job titles and Project Manager can mean different things to different organisations.

    2. My intent was to share our experience and in our case we found we needed less project managers when we moved to SAFe. I think you are right Andy, that Project Manage can mean different things in to different organisations. I am certainly of the opinion that the number of project managers required is directly related to the type of work they are expected to do. Taking cg's example, I know in my world projects that require infrastructure or business change management tend to need a much heavier PM involvement. But for us these types of projects are more the exception than the rule.