The greater the potential for reward in the value portfolio, the less risk there is.
—Warren Buffett, “The Superinventors of Graham-and-Doddsville” 
A SAFe Portfolio is a set of value streams that delivers a continuous flow of valuable solutions to customers within a common funding and governance model.
A SAFe Portfolio is a set of value streams that delivers a continuous flow of valuable solutions to customers within a common funding and governance model.
A SAFe portfolio aligns strategy to execution via a collection of Development Value Streams (DVS). Each DVS develops one or more Solutions necessary for the portfolio to accomplish its business mission and vision, operating under a shared governance model.
This article clarifies the characteristics of a SAFe portfolio and how the many practices and concepts in the portfolio level of SAFe fit together. It then introduces considerations to identify, design, and organize portfolios around value, including examples of the different enterprise approaches used to structure them in practice.
The portfolio facilitates decentralizing decision-making by providing essential funding, strategic intent, and the minimum necessary governance. This helps development value streams focus on building the right things with the appropriate solution investment levels to meet the portfolio’s strategic objectives — while ensuring sustainable solution operation. The portfolio also provides the information needed to advance the enterprise strategy, allocate the budget, and collaborate productively with other portfolios when necessary.
The most effective way to manage the portfolio is to apply the lean and systems thinking approaches defined by the Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) core competency. LPM ensures that the necessary collaborations and events are in place to provide purpose, funding, operational support, and governance to the DVSs that comprise the portfolio. LPM provides strategy and investment funding, Agile portfolio operations, and Lean governance for one or more value streams.
Enterprises that require SAFe’s portfolio capabilities will implement either the Full configuration (Full SAFe) or Portfolio SAFe configuration (Figure 1).
The Full and Portfolio Configurations include all the elements described in this article and introduce the LPM and Organizational Agility competencies. Figure 2 shows the elements specific to SAFe’s portfolio level.
Each SAFe portfolio is defined by its purpose, its context, and the structure chosen to achieve the purpose, as explained below.
The portfolio’s purpose is to enable existing businesses to operate and advance new strategies on behalf of the enterprise. The portfolio explores options and communicates the general approach to achieving its Strategic Themes through its Portfolio Vision. It then shapes the decentralized pursuit of that vision by allocating Lean Budgets and associated Guardrails. These lean budgets may be established using Participatory Budgeting techniques.
The portfolio operates within the context of its enterprise and the markets it serves. It influences the overall enterprise strategy by communicating its strategic themes, portfolio vision, the selected lean budget guardrails, and the overall progress against its Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The portfolio connects with other portfolios in the enterprise by collaborating to create Portfolio Roadmaps that improve overall enterprise flow. It may provide Shared Services that are consumed by other portfolios.
The SAFe Portfolio consists of multiple Development Value Streams (DVS). Each DVS has a lean budget and consists of one or more Solutions and the people who maintain and evolve those solutions. Typically, these people are organized into Agile Teams, Agile Release Trains (ARTs), and Solution Trains. Additionally, the portfolio defines a set of Portfolio Epics representing significant solution development initiatives. The Portfolio Backlog captures those epics to enable governance of their investments’ discovery, risk, and MVP evidence. Portfolio epics may span multiple DVSs and require coordination using Value Stream Coordination practices. Epic Owners take responsibility for guiding the collaborations needed to realize value from epics. Enterprise Architects assist in ensuring Business Epics advance the overall enterprise technical architecture. For more technical Enabler Epics, they may also act as Epic Owners.
The Value Management Office (VMO) coordinates, supports, and encourages continuous improvement across the portfolio. To ensure the maximum flow of business value through each DVS, portfolio members apply Value Stream Management. The portfolio may also coordinate and apply Big Data practices to ensure optimal use, and that value is gained from the data collected and managed across the DVS.
As shown in Figure 3, the Portfolio Canvas captures the portfolio’s current state by making the following visible:
- The portfolio’s DVSs
- The value propositions and the solutions they deliver
- The customers they serve
- The budgets allocated to each value stream
- Other vital activities required to achieve the portfolio’s goals
The Portfolio Vision process uses the portfolio canvas to explore and consider different portfolio configurations. More specific guidance on using the portfolio canvas is found in the Portfolio Vision article.
Determining a single portfolio’s purpose and internal structure represents a set of significant strategic decisions. Larger enterprises must also address the potential need to organize and operate multiple portfolios. This, then, adds decisions around the external structure of a portfolio and its relationship with other portfolios in the enterprise. Initially, companies must decide how to structure their portfolio design when adopting SAFe and LPM. They should revisit that decision periodically as the enterprise and portfolio contexts change. Indeed, this ability to organize and reorganize around value is a critical component of Strategy Agility as described in the Organizational Agility competency. Guidance for the initial adoption of LPM can be found in the Enhance the Portfolio step of the Implementation Roadmap.
The organizational changes associated with the initial configuration of a portfolio may be relatively minor, especially for companies that adopt the single portfolio pattern described below. Often, the initial effort focuses on capturing or representing the existing overall budget, systems, and people as a SAFe portfolio. This leads to applying the Organize Around Value and Enhance the Portfolio steps of the Implementation Roadmap to iteratively improve the overall flow of value through the portfolio(s).
Organize portfolios around value
Smaller enterprises and government agencies may only need a single SAFe portfolio to build all the digitally-enabled solutions required to fulfill their mission. As shown in Figure 4, larger enterprises may have thousands or even tens of thousands of IT, system, application, hardware, and software development practitioners working across hundreds or thousands of solutions. These solutions support various lines of business, customer segments, and specific business capabilities. Typically, these larger enterprises identify and instantiate multiple portfolios to effectively focus energy, funding, and strategic intent while decentralizing decision-making.
When multiple portfolios are needed, they are often divided along the most significant business, product, and market boundaries. Each portfolio is designed to optimize flow for all the contained DVSs while also allowing them to rapidly respond to emerging threats and opportunities in the market by reallocating funding among its value streams – essentially enabling Business Agility in the largest enterprises.
Several examples of how portfolios can be organized around value appear below. In each example, the portfolio supports relevant business strategies while avoiding delay-inducing coordination and negotiation with other portfolios.
Note: This is a partial list intended to inform and inspire different ways of organizing portfolios. Larger enterprises will mix and match these to achieve their organizational objectives. Additional inspiration can often be found by looking “outside-in” at a company’s website and how it explains its products and services to the public.
Example 1 – Single portfolio
Many enterprises, especially smaller ones, can accomplish all the solution development required to achieve their mission in a single portfolio. They can choose not to introduce additional complexity to the organization by identifying multiple portfolios. A single portfolio is the default option if an enterprise is free from the complications that lead to requiring multiple portfolios:
- Large numbers of people
- Complex technology landscapes
- Divergent business unit solution sets
- Challenging geographical dynamics
- Differing levels of regulatory risk.
Benefits of a single portfolio include:
- Portfolio decisions affecting the entire enterprise are made in a single forum with all necessary stakeholders
- The portfolio is funded as a single lean budget, allowing significant changes as determined by market conditions and emerging opportunities
- Enterprise Architects can maintain a single view of the overall solution landscape to ensure that sufficient Architectural Runway exists for all solutions
- Maintaining flow is simple and cost-effective, free from the complexity of coordinating and managing multiple portfolios
Challenges with a single portfolio include:
- Based on their size, some epics and decisions specific to a single area or business unit become a portfolio concern and are perceived as distractions by many members of the portfolio collaboration
- Because portfolio collaboration time may focus on more exciting or strategically essential pursuits, some areas fail to get the leadership attention they need
- Solutions may become more interdependent than intended, leading to future dependency management challenges in the face of rapid growth
- Business units struggle to pursue differing strategies because the single portfolio must support all the business units’ goals and needs
Example 2 – Business unit portfolio
Enterprises often find that their business units pursue different strategies against different market landscapes using distinct solutions to deliver relevant customer experiences. In these cases, the enterprise may create a portfolio specific to the business unit. This portfolio contains all the solutions needed to operate the business and pursue its strategy, That includes the people, funding, authority, and responsibility required to operate and extend the Solutions supporting that business.
Note: In situations where the organization has multiple portfolios, Enterprise Portfolio Management (EPM) may be used to coordinate large cross-cutting initiatives. The Enterprise article contains more information on EPM.
Benefits of business unit portfolios include:
- Market changes and strategic decisions generally occur at different times and cadences for the various business units, allowing each portfolio to respond locally without disrupting the others
- The platforms and solutions that support each business area are mostly distinct, and the necessary interactions typically occur through well-understood interfaces also used by partners outside the company
- The overall finances of the enterprise treat the portfolios as very distinct business areas, including board-level investment plans and quarterly earnings reports
- The business areas pursue very individual business strategies with relatively little interplay
Challenges with business unit portfolios include:
- The same people are often customers of multiple portfolios and, because of the separation, face a disjointed experience
- Efforts to cross-sell between business areas often face significant coordination challenges and internal resistance due to having different sets of strategic themes and, by extension, different OKRs and performance incentives
- New strategic opportunities requiring close coordination between businesses introduce significant challenges when coordinating across portfolios. This places considerable stress on the people attempting to lead the associated epics
- Shared services needed by other areas may exist solely in one business area’s portfolio, leading to dependency and priority management challenges
Specific examples of multiple business unit portfolios include:
- A large bank places the solutions supporting its various investment and advisory services into a different portfolio from one supporting its retail and commercial banking operations
- An enterprise software product company creates a portfolio for each product unit, sharpening its strategic focus on creating, evolving, and supporting the products serving a single market or category
- A large aircraft manufacturing company that creates a different portfolio for designing and manufacturing military aircraft versus building commercial aircraft
Example 3 – Platform portfolio
Larger enterprises often find that various business units rely on the same solutions for their core operations as they pursue strategies unique to each business unit. These solutions can be directly monetized by exposing capabilities to strategic partners or through an API commerce model. In these cases, the enterprise may create a portfolio responsible for operating and extending the core platform. This allows the portfolio to develop the required architecture, invest to ensure future capabilities, and maintain the low technical debt needed for a high-availability, highly resilient set of services with many clients. The platform portfolio adheres to a distinct strategy, prioritizing the needs of its many customers based on the overall enterprise strategy and the capacity of the platform to absorb various types of requested change.
One special case of a platform portfolio is a ‘corporate systems portfolio.’ This is usually a small portfolio containing all the solutions needed to operate the business smoothly while serving as an enterprise operations platform. These solutions typically don’t directly support any OVS. Instead, they support specific functions or generally support all employees. Solutions commonly found in a corporate systems portfolio include those for enterprise communications, employee productivity, payroll, financial reporting, and talent acquisition.
Benefits of platform portfolios include:
- Treating the business units as platform customers ensures consistent service and security for all portfolio internal and external portfolio customers
- The platform portfolio can independently explore and test new offerings to external customers while maintaining clean interfaces and simplifying go-to-market efforts with its business-unit customers
- The platform portfolio can maintain a distinct external market strategy while allowing the business units to advance their strategies
- Fewer unvalidated feature ideas are implemented into the platform because they are inspected more rigorously as Epics, meaning new requests have explicitly identified MVP and business success criteria
Challenges with platform portfolios include:
- The platform portfolio may produce a distinctly different company culture than the business units, leading to collaboration hurdles on large efforts
- Business unit leaders are sometimes frustrated getting their platform investment needs met. The platform portfolio has direct revenue goals, while business unit requests are prioritized and sequenced together with Features and epics that drive direct business value for the platform portfolio.
- Without consistent customer contacts, the platform portfolio can become disconnected from the company’s overall business model and purpose
- The platform portfolio must maintain a strong strategy and clear vision, or it risks devolving into an “order-taking” entity that may lead to significant customer dissatisfaction and higher technical debt
Specific examples of platform portfolios include:
- An automotive company maintains and advances its core vehicle platforms in a single platform portfolio. Product lines draw upon it to produce various vehicle makes and models.
- A financial services company places its core processing capabilities in a platform portfolio serving various business units selling financial products and exposes commercial APIs to smaller FinTech partners to create unique and innovative products
- A travel services company places its core booking, pricing, and availability services into a platform portfolio it consumes for its branded offering. It additionally licenses the APIs to third parties for bespoke travel sites, thus exposing a data marketplace for the consumer travel data generated by the platform
Example 4 – Regional operating portfolio
Global enterprises often find that different operating regions must engage regional markets differently due to local customer expectations and competitive landscapes. Usually, they derive most of their revenue from a single “home” region while needing to subsidize expansion into new regions. In these cases, the enterprises may place all the solutions necessary to deliver and improve the business in their home region into a single portfolio and then establish a set of small portfolios aligned to a single country or geographical region.
The home portfolio is responsible for maintaining, operating, and improving the core business solutions and exposing its capabilities to all the regional operating portfolios. Meanwhile, each regional operating portfolio will consume and extend those solutions as required by their regional business strategies and regulatory environments, often working as a Combined Portfolio as described in Business and Technology. The enterprise allocates funding to the regional portfolios based on the overall international business strategy for the company. In practice, these regional operating portfolios are often significantly smaller than the home portfolio, with several observed cases of a 100:1 ratio in budget and people.
Benefits of regional operating portfolios include:
- The regional operating portfolios get access to cutting-edge capabilities they could not afford to fund locally
- The regional operating portfolios can focus on rapidly engaging and growing their local markets without getting bogged down in large technology investments
- The home portfolio ensures global cyber risk exposure is well-managed to the tightest security standards
- The home portfolio can respond with significant investments and pivots, which protects and grows the company’s largest source of profit
- Funding often aligns with the independent operating entities in various countries, simplifying compliance with international financial reporting law
Challenges with regional operating portfolios include:
- The main portfolio often fails to treat the international portfolios as customers needing “out-of-the-box” solutions, leading to excessively high adoption costs
- International portfolios struggle to get their needs prioritized
- Independent operating entities create limits on financial transfers between portfolios, requiring internal services to be priced and tracked in ways that add overhead until repeatable patterns are established
Enterprises can mitigate many of the above challenges by including representatives of the regional operating portfolios in the Participatory Budgeting events for the home portfolio. This introduces ‘regional portfolio developers’ as explicit user personas for the ARTs creating solutions intended for international use.
Specific examples of regional operating portfolios include:
- A large insurance company with a home portfolio in the U.S. and a variety of regional operating entities in countries worldwide
- A manufacturing company based in Germany serves the European market from its Germany-based home portfolio. Regional operating portfolios extend, manufacture, and support localized products in geographies around the world
- A streaming and media services company serves most of the world from its home portfolio based in Europe while establishing small operating portfolios in several countries that require extensive local content moderation and regulatory oversight
Example 5 – Regulatory & risk portfolio
Due to human safety, national security, anti-trust, or insider trading concerns, some enterprises operate highly regulated businesses. In these cases, the enterprise may create portfolios containing the solutions for the products and services sharing a regulatory context. Often, these regulatory contexts also correlate to specific market segments. This alignment to market segments and regulatory contexts allows each portfolio to innovate faster without constraining or introducing risk to other portfolios.
Benefits of regulatory portfolios include:
- Each portfolio can operate at the fastest possible speed while respecting the specific safety concerns of its market and regulatory context
- Portfolios with access to otherwise restricted technology (e.g., export-controlled military technology) can innovate based on that Solution Context without introducing risk to other portfolios
- Information can be made generally available inside the portfolio while providing more robust controls against sharing outside the portfolio, reducing the risk of exposure (e.g., material non-public trading information, classified data)
- Collaboration between portfolios is transparent and well-governed, providing clear evidence of meeting portfolio-specific legal and regulatory obligations when required (e.g., anti-trust situations)
Challenges with regulatory portfolios include:
- Due to the knowledge-sharing boundaries, fewer new insights and practices are shared across the portfolio
- Creating customer experiences and solutions that cross portfolios is more challenging to coordinate and introduces marketing complexity in finding a shared brand voice
- Different degrees of safety culture led to misunderstanding and disrespect for other’s portfolio contexts
- Different expectations between portfolios may limit employee career mobility within the company
- Shared functions (e.g., finance, corporate audit) may unintentionally default to the most rigorous standards, introducing delays and unnecessary friction on the less-regulated portfolios
Specific examples of regulatory portfolios include:
- A medical device company places the solutions for its most tightly regulated medical devices into a different portfolio than lower-risk devices and other healthcare solutions
- An engine company places all development associated with its export-controlled military engines into a different portfolio than the globally available commercial engine products
- A financial services firm isolates the solutions for its investment bank into a different portfolio from other operations to limit access to material non-public information and reduce the risk of insider trading
Example 6 – Innovation portfolio
Larger enterprises often find it challenging to create new business models that differ substantively from their prior successful businesses. Realizing new business models usually requires a range of new solutions and significant modifications of existing solutions to support the different operational flows. These changes can be resisted in portfolios conditioned to support a different business model. In these cases, enterprises often create a new portfolio to provide the entire solution set for that emerging business unit. To achieve this, businesses may:
- Build new solutions
- Acquire companies with compatible business models and solutions
- Harvest existing solutions from the rest of the enterprise.
Pursuing new business models often requires frequent and significant pivots. Thus, innovation portfolios must work closely with their market-facing business partners, rarely have meaningful longer-term roadmaps, and often choose to operate as Combined Portfolios, as described in the Business and Technology article. Due to the coordination cost and different speeds of pivoting required, it’s less typical for an innovation portfolio to participate in enterprise epics. Indeed, a primary reason for creating innovation portfolios is to eliminate the need for numerous enterprise epics to coordinate the many solution changes of a new business model.
Benefits of innovation portfolios include:
- The new business and associated solutions get focused leadership time and attention while gaining temporary freedom from the stress of quarterly revenue and margin goals
- Closely connected with a single goal, it can keep up with frequent, significant pivots in emerging business models and doesn’t have to support a full range of enterprise needs
- It provides a smaller, safer space to integrate newly acquired businesses, allowing their unique capabilities and cultural offerings to take root in the acquiring company
- It isolates many disruptive “break-the-rules” behaviors within a single portfolio, minimizing the disruption of routine business and allowing a more intentional setting of future operating guidelines
- The new business’s focus and urgency create acceptance of new practices and approaches that can incubate within the new business before spreading across the Enterprise
Challenges with innovation portfolios include:
- The perception of the portfolio playing by different rules and being special introduces challenges to company culture
- People in other businesses find new business models threatening, reducing productivity and connection with their work
- Functions supporting many portfolios (e.g., finance, human resources) are unaccustomed to working at the accelerated speed of the new portfolio, creating stress on their processes and challenging relationships
Specific examples of innovation portfolios include:
- An enterprise purchases or invests heavily in multiple small startups, utilizing the innovation portfolio construct to decide which solutions to pull into/merge with the other SAFe portfolios over time
- A vehicle manufacturer creates a new portfolio to design and prototype concept cars that focus on brand awareness, customer feedback, and pricing
- An enterprise with extremely high technical debt and reliance on legacy systems creates a portfolio focused on new businesses using only current technology. These capabilities are then iteratively transitioned into the legacy solutions (e.g., using the Strangler Pattern). Over time, these new solutions and habits remove the need for an innovation portfolio
- A medical device company adopts wildly different business models than it’s accustomed to as it moves into subscription-based patient monitoring and connected care. It then places the solutions for that business into a different portfolio to allow close connection and rapid pivots as the business learns how to deliver the new products.
Learn More Buffett, Warren E. The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville. Hermes, Columbia Business School magazine, 1984. https://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/sites/valueinvesting/files/files/Buffett1984.pdf
Last Update: 31 October 2023