What is the role of a product manager in SAFe®?
Product managers are a bit like chameleons — in a good way. You need to be comfortable switching contexts — reviewing customer ideas with the product team one minute, presenting a roadmap to executive leadership the next. The same goes for development methodologies. You need to be prepared to adapt to different methodologies depending on your team and organization.
Whether your team follows scrum, lean, or Extreme Programming, it is essential to understand the framework and how it guides teamwork and development. No matter which framework you follow, the objective is the same — realize your product vision and keep everyone aligned along the way.
This guide focuses on one of these development frameworks, the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) approach. We will explore how product managers fit into the overall framework, what your responsibilities are, and who you will be working with — so that you can prepare yourself for success.
Note: If you are new to SAFe, you might find it helpful to read our guide on the Scaled Agile Framework to become familiar with major concepts and terms.
What is SAFe?
While agile principles can be a natural fit for smaller development teams, larger organizations sometimes struggle to apply those principles at scale. It can be difficult to remain adaptive and flexible as a company's internal headcount and project scopes increase. This is where SAFe comes in. It takes the guiding principles behind agile and translates them to work across enterprise-level teams and organizations.
Coordinating the efforts of multiple agile teams is core to SAFe product development. SAFe introduces additional structure and reliability, helping teams synchronize their planning around predictable release cycles. By providing specific guidelines for each level of an organization — from teams to programs and portfolios — SAFe gives organizations the tools to remain aligned on strategy and work in progress.
In many ways, SAFe helps large organizations retain the speed and agility of their smaller counterparts — so they can deliver new and updated software as quickly as possible. Product managers are key to the successful implementation of SAFe. After all, you are responsible for setting product strategy, understanding what customers want, and prioritizing features. And you facilitate the cross-functional collaboration required to keep everyone aligned and on track.
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Where does product management fit in SAFe?
What does product management in a SAFe environment look like in practice? To answer that question, you first need to understand how SAFe organizes batches of work and the teams responsible for delivering that work. A full SAFe configuration includes four levels — team, program, portfolio, and value stream. Product management functions at the program level. By approaching teams and collaboration at these different levels, organizations can plan and execute in a cross-functional, coordinated way.
Here is an overview of what happens at each level of the framework.
Agile teams are the most granular level within SAFe. They use agile methodologies, such as scrum and kanban, to deliver working software iteratively and incrementally. A group of these agile teams is referred to within SAFe as an Agile Release Train (ART).
The program level aligns business strategy with product development — so it is no surprise that this level is where most product management initiatives live. Programs zoom out from teams by one level to coordinate how cross-functional ARTs get work done. They each deliver value in program increments (PI) and share a common product vision, roadmap, features backlog, and milestones.
Stepping back just a bit further from the program view, organizations set business strategy for multiple products at the portfolio level. At this level, that strategy includes funding and governance decisions as well as defining a portfolio vision, setting strategic themes, and establishing a portfolio backlog.
This is an optional level for organizations building large and complex solutions across multiple ARTs. Each value stream represents all the actions required to add value to a product for a customer — from initial concept to delivery.
Ultimately, a product manager is responsible for ensuring an ART delivers solutions that meet customer, market, and business demands. You manage the flow of features from idea to build and release. This work includes maintaining the program backlog and prioritizing features to fit in a PI. Features are then broken down into user stories and implemented by agile teams within an iteration. New functionality is continuously integrated and deployed so it can be released when the business is ready.
Product management and SAFe core values
As a product manager, you ensure that each piece of work ties back to product and business strategy. This positions you as a leader on the product team who can help reinforce SAFe core values across your organization. These values are not simply best practices — they form the very foundation of SAFe.
Let's take a look at each of the four core values and how your work as a product manager supports it:
Staying aligned on work, progress, and goals is always critical to team success — this is especially true in large enterprise environments. Alignment is not always about following top-down instructions. Many agile teams are self-organizing with the autonomy to make some decisions and plans on their own. For these teams, alignment comes from communication, transparency, and shared vision within the team.
How product managers fit in: Product managers enhance team alignment by managing product backlogs, maintaining roadmaps, and keeping stakeholders in the loop. You communicate goals and direct how teams will achieve them.
2. Built-in quality
Ensuring high-quality deliverables at every stage of software development creates efficient, reliable processes — especially at scale. When each segment of system architecture and line of code is verified and validated early on, you reduce cumbersome rework down the line.
How product managers fit in: You are often the bridge between teams — facilitating cross-functional coordination to ensure quality work across the board. For example, one way to achieve this is to collaborate with your DevOps team to adopt a "Continuous Everything" approach to delivery and deployment. This will help you increase the quality of testing, monitoring, and deployment processes.
SAFe teams operate at high speeds and maintain high production standards. Both depend on transparency at every level of your organization.
How product managers fit in: As a product manager, you can contribute to building an environment of trust where people feel comfortable owning up to mistakes and everyone has access to workflow documentation. This will not only help you catch bugs early and stay aligned — your team will be happier too.
4. Program execution
Ultimately, SAFe comes down to applying agile principles within enterprise organizations to consistently deliver quality products and meet business objectives. Alignment, built-in quality, and transparency each contribute to achieving the overall aim of successful program execution.
How product managers fit in: Your work as a product manager is central to keeping your team organized and working towards a shared vision — so you can achieve significant results together.
What are the key responsibilities of product managers within SAFe?
Product managers have a number of important responsibilities. This is especially true in SAFe — since coordinating multiple teams working on multiple products can easily introduce complexity across workflows. Your responsibilities are not that different from what you would expect in any product management role. The difference is in the scale of the work at hand.
Product manager responsibility
Promote a shared vision
Define the vision that will be your team's north star. It should reflect customer and business needs and align with the strategic themes of the organization. Your vision should also include a long-term direction for the overall product solution as well as a short-term vision for each ART.
Understand customer and business needs
As a product manager, you advocate for the customer — keeping each ART focused on delivering solutions to real customer pain points. You perform continuous user research to understand what customers need and want and use those insights to inform the vision and roadmap. You also work with business stakeholders to maintain alignment as priorities and scope change.
Build and maintain product roadmaps
Create program and release roadmaps based on delivery milestones. You will share these roadmaps across your teams and the larger organization to keep everyone in sync.
Maintain workflow board and program backlog
Keep work moving forward and ensure the product backlog is always up to date through careful grooming. In SAFe, features are defined on a program kanban board — each card includes a benefit hypothesis and acceptance criteria. You might also take this one step further by analyzing the economic impact of each feature using “Weighted Shortest Job First” (WSJF). Features approved by the product management team are moved to the program backlog and prioritized for implementation.
Lead program increment (PI) planning
During PI planning, you present the vision, roadmap, and highest priority features of the program backlog. As a team, you review what can be achieved based on capacity, dependencies, and technical knowledge. Then you define the overall objectives for the PI, update the roadmap, and adjust the forecast for the next two PIs.
A system demo takes place at the end of every iteration within the PI. Product managers and product owners are responsible for running the demo. This is your opportunity to gather feedback from primary stakeholders and review progress against the PI objectives. From there, you validate features against the acceptance criteria and approve them for release.
Which roles do product managers work with?
Cross-functional collaboration is at the heart of the successful implementation of SAFe. The table below describes the various roles you can expect to interact with as a product manager.
Business owners are accountable for the overall return on investment and governance of solutions developed by ARTs. Product managers work with business owners to ensure PIs deliver the right business outcomes.
Customers are the internal or external buyers of a solution. You are responsible for engaging with customers to continuously improve products and services and ensure you are delivering a valuable — and lovable — product.
At enterprise organizations, each agile team usually has a dedicated product owner, who focuses on work at the team level. They are responsible for the team backlog and for defining and accepting user stories. The product owner answers the team’s questions during development, serving as a proxy for the customer. They work closely with product management to plan and manage program increments (PI).
Release train engineers
Release train engineers (RTE) are the Chief Scrum Masters for the entire release train. The RTE is responsible for the flow of value through the program-level kanban, PI planning, and more. Product managers work with release train engineers to provide guidance throughout the planning and execution of each PI.
Solution managers are necessary when building large-scale solutions that require multiple ARTs. The solution manager has content authority for the solution backlog and works with the solution train engineer and solution architect to deliver capabilities. Solutions managers collaborate closely with product managers to break capabilities down into features for individual ARTs to implement.
System architect and engineers
System architects (or engineers) are responsible for providing technical enablement for an ART. This role creates an architectural vision for an ART and aligns teams around a shared technical direction. Product managers work with system architects to identify technical requirements to support the solution and allocate capacity for enablement work.
SAFe gives large enterprises a framework to build better software — by responding quickly to changing market conditions, customer needs, and emerging technologies. Product managers play an essential role in the framework, guiding the team through what is planned and ensuring that the end result delights customers and drives the business forward.
Aha! is a trademark of Aha! Labs Inc. SAFe and Scaled Agile Framework are registered trademarks of Scaled Agile, Inc. All other company and product names may be trademarks of the respective companies with which they are associated.
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