“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” This timeless quote, widely attributed to Benjamin Franklin, is especially poignant when considering businesses that use the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®).

The SAFe aims to align various departments across an organization to deliver more customer value and team efficiency. But when it comes to planning, that’s easier said than done. It isn’t easy to visualize how everyone’s work fits together, much less describe it to others in a way that makes sense.

A SAFe program board helps on all fronts. It respects SAFe principles and procedures while offering a structured way to visualize and align teamwork, helping you plan for success.

What’s a SAFe program board?

A SAFe program board is a visual tool for mapping a team’s upcoming work. Traditionally, you’d make these boards with sticky notes and red string. Boards have since evolved, with most teams using digital tools to create them. These digital boards are easier to share, and you don’t have to deal with a mess of sticky notes and handwritten details.

Think of a SAFe program board as a giant checkerboard where each space represents an upcoming task or project. It’s a roadmap that outlines what everyone is working on and how each team connects. During planning sessions, teams work together to fill out the program board, mapping dependencies, identifying milestones, and planning the next several months.

What’s the purpose of a program board?

A program board is a centralized location to view the plan for upcoming work, track progress, identify risks, and understand dependencies. Looking at a program board, you can quickly see how each team is progressing toward its goals and whether there are any roadblocks to address.

Initially, creating a board helps you define goals and timelines and clarify how teammates will work together. You can then use your program board to track progress. As a team reaches milestones or accomplishes tasks, you can update the board and accurately visualize where each project stands at a given time.

After reaching the final milestones, you can review the board to see what worked and where you ran into problems, using this information to improve future action plans.

Key terminology of a SAFe program board

To understand what’s found on a program board, it’s helpful to define some common terms:

  • Agile Release Train (ART): In SAFe, an ART is a group of multiple agile teams that work together to accomplish a common goal. It’s common practice for each ART to create its own program board.
  • Program Increment (PI): This is a project work timeframe for ARTs that usually lasts about 8–12 weeks. Program boards generally account for one PI.
  • PI planning session: These are events where ARTs come together to plan their work for upcoming PIs and fill out program boards.
  • Iteration: During PI planning for scaled agile teams, the PI is broken down into iterations, usually about two weeks long. Each iteration has its own column on the board where teams write their plans.
  • Milestone: A significant event used to track progress, milestones have their own row since they can apply to multiple teams.
  • Feature: This is a chunk of work that’s small enough to fit in a single PI but large enough to require assistance from multiple teams. There’s usually a space for features at the intersection of each team and iteration.
  • Dependency: These are tasks a team or teammate must complete before another person or group can start the next. Program boards help you view dependencies to see how different features relate.

How to create a SAFe program board in 4 steps

While you can create a board yourself, it’s helpful to gather leadership stakeholders across teams to ensure the board meets everyone’s needs. Once you’ve determined who to involve, follow this four-step guide to get started.

1. Set up the board

In your preferred project management software, create a table with one column for each PI iteration. The top row represents milestones, followed by a row for each team. In the end, you should have a grid with a horizontal timeline and a vertical list of teams.

2. Fill in the details

During the planning session, fill in the grid with more information about each team’s goals during every board iteration. In the milestones row, list each major milestone the team aims to accomplish during the timeframe.

3. Identify risks and dependencies

Add notes about risks to monitor during the PI. Traditionally, dependencies were represented by pinning pieces of string to connect multiple items on the grid. Nowadays, people usually use digital tools to simplify the process. Either way, you should be able to look at the board and quickly see how different teams and tasks interconnect.

4. Set up a progress tracker

As the team works through each iteration, you’ll want an easy way to update progress. Again, you could use old-school methods like sticky notes, but it’s easier to use digital project management tools like an automatically-updated Gantt chart to streamline the process. Throughout each PI, you can look at this progress tracker to see how each team is getting along.

Tips for SAFe program board efficiency 

A few simple best practices make a big difference in helping your team understand and use your board to its full potential. Here are some essential best practices for SAFe program board creation and execution:

  • Share the board: Everyone benefits from seeing how the pieces of the business fit together. Share program boards with those involved to increase project and planning awareness.
  • Get the team engaged: Encourage a range of people to participate in creating and updating the board. This provides a sense of shared ownership and responsibility across the team.
  • Make the visuals clear: A confusing and unclear board defeats its purpose, so use colors, labels, and symbols to make the board easy to understand.
  • Keep it comprehensive: More than just a high-level overview, your board can be used to fill in details about upcoming work. As you add more information, the board becomes increasingly beneficial to the team.
  • Update the board regularly: A program board is a living document. Update it regularly as the team achieves milestones, resolves dependencies, and identifies new risks.
  • Check your team’s understanding: If your team doesn’t understand the board, they won’t use it. Support every teammate by answering questions and offering quick training sessions on reading and using these boards effectively.
  • Ask for feedback: It isn’t always clear at first glance how you can improve your board. Ask around or conduct board auditing sessions regularly, implementing any valuable suggestions.

The best tools for your agile team

Enjoy further planning support with Tempo’s project management tools. Use Roadmunk to create roadmaps that clearly define priorities, goals, and dependencies. Then, try Timesheets to track team progress and make sure everything runs smoothly. And explore other Tempo solutions to find the best agile tools for your team, no matter your needs.