A crucial business management challenge is aligning various seemingly isolated teams on organization-wide goals. Many leaders follow the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to create this alignment, leveraging this framework’s collection of principles and practices to encourage unity.

And at the heart of SAFe lies its agile ceremonies. More than just meetings or events, these ceremonies are the critical junctions that ensure every team — no matter how distant or disparate — aligns perfectly with overarching objectives. Carefully structured, these ceremonies are the antidote to the daunting challenge of synchronizing multiple teams’ efforts.

As you chart a course through the intricate world of large-scale agility, SAFe agile ceremonies are your guiding stars, ensuring everyone moves forward in concert.

What are SAFe agile ceremonies?

SAFe agile ceremonies are regular events where teams collaborate on, plan, and review work. While similar to regular team meetings, ceremonies differ in that they’re structured specifically for agile teams that follow the SAFe. Each SAFe event has a specific agenda and outcome determined by its role in the framework. And SAFe ceremonies are purposefully distributed among different teams and hierarchical organizational levels and include various meeting types, such as daily stand-ups, planning meetings, and high-level deliverable reviews.

Key benefits of SAFe ceremonies

At their core, SAFe ceremonies unite people to ensure work goes smoothly. These communication points are an essential part of the SAFe agile methodology, offering the following benefits to team members across the organization:

  • Alignment: These frequent and guided check-ins align everyone on short and long-term goals and give teammates an opportunity to ask questions and mention roadblocks so everyone’s informed and updated.
  • Transparency: Leaders use initial planning meetings to clearly designate roles, responsibilities, and initiative objectives. Then, frequent check-ins with employees and external stakeholders offer everybody visibility into project progress and how the team is handling challenges.
  • Continuous learning: Rather than siloing departments, teams across functions gain valuable insights from their peers.
  • Agility: The more alignment, transparency, and continuous learning, the better prepared a team is to adapt to ever-changing requirements.

Level 1: Essential agile ceremonies

Some meetings can’t be missed. These crucial ceremonies are a must for organizations that have implemented agile practices.

Team level

At this level, SAFe ceremonies focus on collaboration among close teammates. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Iteration planning: Iteration planning, or sprint planning, occurs at the start of a new iteration or sprint. The team gathers to discuss goals, workloads, and plans for the upcoming iteration and to produce a well-defined backlog to pull work from.
  • Daily stand-up: Also referred to as daily scrum, the daily stand-up is a short meeting at the start of each day. Each team member briefly discusses what they worked on the previous day, what they plan to do on the current day, and any obstacles impeding their work.
  • Iteration review: This review allows teams to showcase the work they accomplished at each iteration’s end, receiving feedback and offering teammates a chance to learn from their progress and mistakes.
  • Iteration retrospective: At the end of each iteration, team leaders host an agile retrospective to discuss improvement areas, coming away with actionable insights to improve processes and future iterations.

Program level

In agile project management, an agile release train (ART) is a group of teams working together to create a product, and a program is a group of ARTs collaborating to complete various shared goals. At this level, ceremonies involve more people discussing broader updates, roadblocks, and improvements.

Here are a few of the most common program-level ceremonies:

  • Program Increment (PI) planning: Program increments represent project work phases of about 8–12 weeks. Various department leaders and project managers come together to plan these increments, ensuring work aligns across groups and with agile principles.
  • System demo: In this meeting, teams demonstrate the working system they’ve developed throughout a program increment, gaining and implementing any valuable feedback.
  • ART sync: These ceremonies ensure cross-functional teams align on progress and responsibilities.
  • Scrum of Scrums: In a scrum-style agile approach, leaders from several scrums gather to provide team updates.
  • Product Owner (PO) sync: This ceremony brings all POs from across an ART together to align backlog priorities and make collective decisions about how to proceed.

Level 2: Optional agile ceremonies

While the following ceremonies aren’t essential, the more check-ins on progress and roadblocks, the better, as this constant communication helps leaders stay on top of roadblocks and delays.

Large solution level

Ceremonies at this level aim to align multiple ARTs. Similar to some of the meetings mentioned above, these syncs align larger groups. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Pre and post-PI planning: The pre-planning meeting sets the stage for a program’s upcoming PI, clarifying objectives and addressing questions. And in the post-PI planning session team leaders review outcomes and note improvement areas.
  • Solution demo: In this meeting, team leaders showcase the solution the program created, gathering and implementing feedback before launching the product.

Portfolio level

High-level and strategic business decisions are addressed at this level, with C-suite executives examining each initiative’s results and how it aligns with the company’s goals and vision. Here are a few portfolio-level ceremony examples:

  • Lean-budget review: Leaders discuss budget allocation, inefficiencies, and other resource plans to maximize return on investment. They might also explore market concerns and adaptation plans.
  • Community of Practice meeting: In agile, a Community of Practice is a group within an organization that shares a common interest or expertise. These groups come together occasionally to share their knowledge with less-knowledgeable teammates, offering learning sessions upon leadership request.
  • Portfolio sync: Here, leaders discuss the company’s current product portfolio and roadmap as well as new initiatives to add.
  • Roadshow: This ceremony involves organizational leaders presenting product development plans to key external stakeholders like investors and clients. The goal is to promote visibility and buy-in.

Mistakes to avoid when conducting SAFe ceremonies

Simply organizing agile ceremonies doesn’t ensure their success. Here are a few common mistakes to avoid when conducting these meetings:

  • Including the wrong people: Ensure the right people attend each ceremony to make collaboration and decision-making more effective and avoid wasting attendees’ time.
  • Changing the prescribed formats: The SAFe includes the agile ceremonies it does for a reason — because this check-in structure works. Stick to defined formats to get the most out of these meetings.
  • Showing up unprepared: Another common time-waster and frustration-maker is an unprepared meeting host — and even attendees must know what they should prepare to contribute in a meeting. Send an agenda that clearly outlines expectations and offers any necessary materials people require so everyone can contribute meaningfully in the call.
  • Failing to follow up: Avoid lost and unattended action items by always following up on to-dos.

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