SAFe. Flow of Epics and Epic Owners

Now that we are no longer discussing about project management, multiannual planning, work breakdown-structures, fixed plans, fixed scope and so on, how are the big initiatives being pushed to implementation and who takes care of their lifecycle?

Now that we are no longer discussing about project management, multiannual planning, work breakdown-structures, fixed plans, fixed scope and so on, how are the big initiatives being pushed to implementation and who takes care of their lifecycle?

When you think about Agile processes you might think they cannot be applied to big companies with big needs - implemented in terms of volume of work, cost and resources. Well, this is the third topic in our SAFe article series.

Like we talked about in an earlier section, in SAFe there are multiple available configurations. One of them is the Portfolio configuration, aimed at organizations that deliver a portfolio of solutions and/or services to their customers. At the top most layer of this configuration, which is called Portfolio layer, the framework describes a set of artefacts called Epics and the role that manages them throughout their life span is called Epic Owner. It also includes the tools and processes that can be used.

The Epics are designed specifically to express those big initiatives requiring a huge investment in implementing them. They can be split into functional and enabling Epics depending on whether they are directly delivering new features or just preparing the ground for future functionalities. There can be Epics impacting only one of the portfolio products or a set of products. The definition of an Epic contains all the details needed to support the implementation of that specific idea. An epic contains a Lean Business Case which has a pragmatically chosen quantity of information needed for supporting its implementation. A very important section describes the minimum set of Features which once implemented will be creating an MVP (minimum viable product).

SAFe. Flow of Epics and Epic Owners.jpg


Structuring Epics through Portfolio Kanban


A Kanban board is used to structure all the steps needed for the definition and implementation of epics. Steps like analyzing, prioritization, estimation, go/no-go decision, planning, forecasting, implementation and deployment. This is a very well-known Agile tool, which in this case is called the Portfolio Kanban. Using a Kanban board has a lot of advantages:

  • Makes all the work visible
  • Provides context for economic decision making
  • Brings all the perspectives together in one place
  • Provides support for creating a constant and sustainable flow of value by using WIP limits for instance
  • Brings a lot of transparency to the whole process
  • Supports the continuous improvement effort


The Epic Owner is a role rather than a job description, taking care of the Epic evolution throughout the various stages of its existence, modeled by the Portfolio Kanban board. During the first half of the board the Epic Owner drives the definition, analysis, creation of the Lean Business Case, estimation, prioritization and so on.

These activities are preparing the epic for the Go/No-Go decision moment when the Epic Owner will have to present the results of this work in front of the LPM group in order to get the green light for implementation. During the second part of the Epic existence, the Epic Owner will be the shepherd of the implementation and acts more like a stake-holder for the program or programs working on implementing the Epic features.

During the implementation phase the recommended approach to be followed is the Lean Startup Cycle, borrowed from Eric Ries well known book. Its main steps are:

  • Build the MVP
  • Check the benefit hypothesis
  • If validated continue the implementation by adding new features
  • If not validated then pivot without mercy

Even when continuing to work on new features, they will enter the prioritization process together with all the rest of the features for all the other epics under implementation. This means that in most cases there wont be a Completed state for the epics, but rather a Good enough end state. This proves that even in the implementation of these big ideas, the process which is followed is hard-core pragmatic and agile targeting the achievement of the best economic outcome for the entire organization.

Interested in adopting SAFe in your organization? Check out our SAFe training portfolio.


Iulian Velea
Certified SAFe Program Consultant (SPC4)

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