Back to top

SAFe Principles


Easy to Use Cards

The Principles cards have been updated for SAFe v5.0 can be found here.


The SAFe® principles are very powerful but they can be quite hard for people to understand and therefore whole-heartedly support.

To this end we have produced a set of cards that we believe present the nine SAFe® principles in a self-contained, readily accessible fashion — allowing executives, leaders, and team members to readily understand them and quickly assess their relevance. This is something that is invaluable at any stage of a SAFe® adoption.

The cards can also be used to perform a health check on any of the programs and teams that have, or are intending to, adopt SAFe.

What are the SAFe Principles?

In addition to fully supporting the agile manifesto and its 12 agile principles, SAFe promotes its own house of lean and introduces the following nine complementary lean-agile principles:


# 1 – Take an economic view
# 2 – Apply systems thinking
# 3 – Assume variability; preserve options
# 4 – Build incrementally, with fast integrated learning cycles
# 5 – Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems
# 6 – Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths
# 7 – Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning
# 8 – Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers
# 9 – Decentralize decision-making

Although incredibly valuable, we have always found these to be quite obtuse and inaccessible. Unlike the agile manifesto and its twelve supporting principles, it has always been almost impossible to present these to anyone and have them understand and accept them without significant training or discussion. Even reading the comprehensive descriptions on the Scaled Agile Framework web-site doesn’t really seem to do the job, and let’s face it: how many people want to read 10 quite long and information dense articles before agreeing to support the underlying principles?

Wouldn’t it be great if everything was summed up on a simple to share PDF, in a format that 1) every one could understand and 2) presented in a format that allowed them to be easily sorted, discussed and assessed. This is the goal we set for ourselves when looking to produce our set of SAFe Principle Cards.

What’s on the Cards?

The cards are simple, double-sided playing cards.

The front of the card presents the principle in a simple, short format that:

  • Expands on the title of the principle to illustrate the benefit of applying it
  • Adds a brief description of the principle as a statement with which you can easily agree or disagree
  • Adds a simple quote or aphorism to bring the principle to life.

Here are the cards for the first and last of the nine principles:

It is our belief that they are self-explanatory and presented in a way that makes it easy for the reader to say whether or not they agree with the sentiment expressed. Take another look at the cards. Given the information presented would you be prepared to sign up to them?

If you need a bit more information you could turn the card over to see a complementary, “what do good and bad look like” assessment card. Here are the backs of the two cards presented above.

These present what good looks like (alongside the happy face) and what bad looks like (alongside the sad face). These are deliberately cartoonish and elaborated for affect. No-one would really behave like the sad face on the decision-making card, would they?

The additional information on the back of the cards helps to bring the practices to life and illustrate their importance.

Playing with the Cards

There are lots of uses for the cards. Activities include:

Prioritization and Agreement

Split the audience into groups of four to six people and give each group a set of cut cards. It is also good to give each individual player an uncut set of cards for reference purposes.

Challenge them to rank them in importance and separate out any that they either individually or as a group disagree with.

It’s OK to let them self-organize to meet the challenge and to have multiple cards at the same position in the ranking.

Regardless of how they play the game it typically results in a result like this, where the most important principles are at the top of the picture and no principles are rejected or disagreed with.

This exercise only takes ten minutes and gets the groups discussing and understanding the principles, an invaluable thing to do before any discussion of the mechanics of SAFe.

Health Check and Gap Analysis

The previous exercise can be followed-up by using the back of the cards to perform a simple health check.

To do this all you need to do is create a simple happiness radiator with four columns, or maybe five if you want to capture the ranking from the previous exercise.

The columns would be:

  1. The principle – the easiest way to complete this column is to stick the cards into the appropriate rows
  2. Happy – tick this column if you think the principle is being applied and adhered to in your organization.
  3. Indifferent – tick this column if the principle is considered but abused as much as it is applied.
  4. Sad– tick this column if you think the principle is generally ignored in your organization.

Then ask the attendees to tick the column that expresses best how they feel about the principle’s application within their organization. No need to build consensus just let everyone express themselves and how they feel. The end results would look something like:

In this case the groups were all experienced Release Train Engineers, and the results clearly showed that they have some work to do to really establish the Lean and Agile mindset that they are looking for in their organizations. Note: you might want to add the ranking from the first exercise.

Other variants include:

  • Adding the ranking from the prioritization game to the radiator
  • Do a ‘how happy are you to sign up to the principle’ radiator.

And I’m sure there are many others you’ll be able to come up with once you’ve got your hands on the cards.

Getting Hold of the Cards

This is all well and good but useless without a deck of cards. Simply complete the short form below to receive your own PDF copy of the cards. The sheets are formatted in a easily printable format so that you can print and cut your own cards, and immediately start using them with your teams.

Many thanks to Brian Kerr and Brian Tucker for their help in producing and formating the cards.

Download Cards