The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) has rapidly become a widely discussed topic in the world of software development and project management. As organizations strive to expand Agile practices beyond single teams to entire departments and enterprises, SAFe proposes a solution to harmonize processes, maintain alignment, and achieve delivery efficiency at scale.
However, its rise has not been without controversy. Critics argue that SAFe's prescriptive nature dilutes Agile principles, turning them into a one-size-fits-all methodology that prioritizes processes over people. On the other hand, advocates commend its structured approach to solving complex coordination challenges in large-scale projects.
This article seeks to delve into the polarized views on SAFe, examining its principles, implementation outcomes, and the underlying question: Is the Scaled Agile Framework a workable method for enterprise agility or just the Waterfall in disguise?
What is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®)?
The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) is a set of organizational and workflow patterns that guide large companies with multiple teams as they scale Lean and Agile practices to an enterprise level – as opposed to a team level. Basically, SAFe is a framework that helps coordinate multiple Scrum teams working on related projects or products.
SAFe combines elements from Agile software development, Lean product development, and systems thinking to promote alignment, collaboration, and delivery across large numbers of teams.
SAFe was first introduced in 2011. Since then, 6 versions have come out, with each update incorporating feedback from the community of practitioners as well as the most recent trends in Lean-Agile thinking. As of writing this post, the latest edition is SAFe 6, released in March 2023.
In over a decade of existence, SAFe has gained significant popularity. Scaled Agile, Inc. claims that its framework is currently adopted by over 1 million practitioners and 20,000 enterprises worldwide. The annual State of Agile report showed that 53 percent of its respondents leverage SAFe as the Enterprise Agile framework.
As per the official Scaled Agile website, the main benefits of SAFe implementation are a 20 to 50 percent increase in productivity and a 30 to 75 percent faster time to market. In addition, their clients report a 27-75 percent quality improvement and a 10-50 percent better employee engagement.
For a better understanding, we suggest exploring what the SAFe framework is actually made of. So let’s briefly discuss its configurations and main elements, take a quick look at the values and principles it’s based on, and outline implementation stages.
Levels of SAFe
SAFe provides a structured approach to scaling Agile practices by defining different levels and roles within each level. SAFe 6 suggests three configurations that reflect the levels of scale.
Levels of SAFe
Essential SAFe is the basic building block of SAFe designed to be the starting point for an organization's journey toward framework implementation. It aims to provide the minimum necessary elements to achieve some level of scaling.
Essential SAFe is, in turn, comprised of two tiers:
- The Team level is the foundation of the framework, where small (5-9 people), cross-functional teams work on Scrum principles (e.g., two-week iterations or Sprints), with the same roles (e.g., Product Owner), same artifacts (e.g., backlog), same events (e.g., retrospective), etc.
- The Program level is where multiple agile teams – usually five to ten teams of ten each – work together on a single product or solution. SAFe refers to these “teams of teams” as an Agile Release Train (ART) that is coordinated by a Release Train Engineer (RTE) who serves as the chief Scrum Master for ART.
Within Essential SAFe, the concept of Planning Interval or PI is used. As Scaled Agile explains, “The PI is for an ART like an Iteration is for Agile Teams.” Commonly 8 to 12 weeks long, PIs are usually comprised of four development iterations or Sprints, followed by one “Innovation and Planning Iteration.” During PIs, ARTs plan, build, validate, and get feedback on their projects.
Other elements inherent to Essential SAFe are Continuous Delivery Pipelines, Lean-Agile leadership, Kanban practices, DevOps, and so on.
Large Solution Level is built on top of the Essential configuration and is meant to coordinate complex projects that require multiple ARTs, which together form a Solution Train. The roles involved at this stage are Solution Train Engineer (STE), Solution Architect, etc.
The Solution Backlog, made up of capabilities (which are then broken down to comprise backlogs for ARTs and separate teams), guides the teams' development process within the Solution Train. As for planning, the same PI cadence as for ARTs is used, with one cycle comprising 8-10 weeks.
Portfolio Level is the highest level that is designed for medium and large enterprises with over 500 employees. It contains guidelines that help align enterprise strategy with execution by organizing and funding a set of Development Value Streams (DVSs). One of the SAFe principles suggests organizing operations around value, so a DVS in SAFe is a set of activities necessary to develop a solution that delivers value to customers. Simply speaking, a DVS is everything related to a product that one or several ARTs are working on, e.g., an application, a website, a business management system or its module, etc.
Related DVSs are grouped into portfolios, each dedicated to building and supporting a set of solutions. They have to be strategically managed at this highest level, so SAFe provides principles and practices for Agile portfolio operations, Lean Governance and budgeting, measuring progress, and more. The main roles at this level are Enterprise Architect and Epic Owners.
Designed to guide its implementation across enterprises, here are the core values that SAFe is built on.
Alignment. SAFe emphasizes alignment across all levels of an organization, establishing a tight connection between business and IT departments and ensuring that everyone is working toward a common mission and goals. It’s also about constant feedback and understanding the customer.
Transparency. Making information and progress visible to all stakeholders leads to better decision-making and creates trust among teams. Besides providing access to needed information, SAFe encourages open communication and the use of visualization tools.
Respect for people. SAFe promotes coaching, building long-term partnerships, and valuing diversity in all manifestations.
Relentless improvement. Striving for perfection and continuously improving your products or services ultimately lead to better results, higher profits, and happier customers. SAFe suggests creating a constant sense of urgency, building a problem-solving culture, and encouraging innovation.
SAFe is founded on the following Lean/Agile principles that support the framework's practices and roles.
Take an economic view. SAFe encourages organizations to make decisions based on economic factors, understand the financial implications of choices made throughout the development process, and prioritize work that maximizes business value.
Apply systems thinking. SAFe recognizes that complex organizations are composed of connected parts and encourages a holistic view of the entire system.
Assume variability; preserve options. SAFe acknowledges that uncertainty and variability are inherent in software development. Organizations should embrace change and maintain flexibility by preserving options throughout all workflows, allowing for better decision-making in the face of evolving requirements.
Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles. SAFe advocates for iterative development in small, accumulative steps, delivering valuable increments of work at frequent intervals, allowing for early feedback, and reducing risk.
Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems. SAFe suggests regularly evaluating the working solution throughout the development life cycle. The purpose of such continuous assessment is to ensure that investments deliver economic benefit.
Make value flow without interruptions. Flow in SAFe relates to continuous value delivery. This principle describes how flow-based systems work, defines the six metrics to measure flow, and provides recommendations on how to accelerate flow to avoid delays, bottlenecks, and other challenges. The main metrics here include flow velocity, flow time, flow predictability, etc.
Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning. SAFe encourages the use of regular, predictable cadences for planning, execution, and delivery. For example, the PI (Program Increment) Planning event must be held regularly so that different teams can synchronize their work and align with larger organizational goals.
Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers. SAFe recognizes that motivated and engaged employees are more productive and creative. It encourages organizations to create an environment that fosters autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Decentralize decision-making. SAFe promotes decentralized decision-making by empowering teams and individuals closest to the work to make decisions. This allows for faster value delivery, quicker responses to challenges, and better adaptability.
Organize around value. SAFe suggests building the most agile organizational structure by focusing on value delivery instead of functional expertise. Value streams represent the end-to-end flow of work, from concept to delivery, and help align teams with customer needs.
Scaled Agile, Inc. provides a SAFe Implementation Roadmap that contains detailed guidelines on how to adopt the framework across the enterprise. The strategy reflected in the roadmap consists of the following steps:
- Reach the tipping point – realize the need for change and establish the vision of what you want your company to be.
- Train Lean-Agile change agents – educate people who will drive your organization's transformation as Certified SAFe Practice Consultants.
- Create a Lean-Agile center of excellence (LACE) – designate a group of people who will enable and lead the transformation.
- Train executives, managers, and leaders – educate those who will manage and influence others throughout the transformation. It can be people participating in LACE or outside it but directly involved in managing operational workflows.
- Lead in the digital age – become the Lean-Agile manager who will lead others by example;
- Organize around value – identify the flow of value through the enterprise and focus on continuous value delivery when building the organizational structure and workflows.
- Create the implementation plan – develop a step-by-step strategy on adopting a new way of working. Take one value stream and define the first ART.
- Prepare for ART launch – take practical steps towards ART launch such as training ART leaders, Product Owners, and Scrum Masters, forming teams, preparing the ART backlog, etc.
- Train teams and launch ART – make sure all team members understand their role in the new SAFe environment and conduct the first PI planning.
- Coach ART execution – help teams master all the Scrum concepts, roles, events, artifacts, etc.
- Launch more ARTs and value streams – learning from the first ART launch, scale SAFe implementation by adding more ARTs and applying Large Solutions Trains, roles, and practices as needed.
- Enhance the portfolio – as you shift to the new way of working, expand SAFe practices to the strategic level and portfolio management.
- Accelerate – after several years of working on SAFe principles, you can analyze your value streams and workflows and find opportunities for improvements and optimization.
You can visit the official Scaled Agile site for more detailed information about the framework and its implementation.
SAFe implementation use cases and success stories
Scaled Agile publishes multiple testimonials and customer success stories from such well-known brands as FedEx, Oracle, CVS, Porsche, and many others. If we consolidate the main reasons enterprises implement SAFe and the benefits they obtain as a result, we can boil it down to several typical use cases.
Moving away from Waterfall. Big enterprises often struggle with transitioning from legacy practices, especially in compliance-heavy industries. SAFe provides a structured approach to transforming workflows and adopting an Agile approach.
Example: By implementing Agile principles, Mercedes was able to launch better technology, enhanced operating systems, AI and face recognition, as well as integrate different data sources and utilize improved risk models.
Accelerated product delivery. Many testimonials speak about a significant reduction in time to market due to synchronizing and aligning teams across the enterprise.
Examples: Southwest saw a 5x faster time to market, together with increased deployment success. In 2018, before the transition, they did 28 releases with 45 percent deployment success, but in 2020, after SAFe adoption, they coped with 349 releases and 93 percent deployment success. The Swedish bank Handelsbanken reported that the average process time for developing features improved by 30.
Scaling automation. Automation, with its improvements of speed, accuracy, and efficiency, lies at the heart of Agile philosophy. Among other areas, SAFe promotes automated testing as the basis of its Continuous Delivery Pipeline.
Example: Oracle managed to eliminate 54 percent of manual accounting across the organization. Due to that, it closed its books and reported earnings to shareholders in less than 10 days, which is 21 days faster than the average Fortune 500 company.
Enhancing quality and predictability. SAFe promotes built-in quality practices and aims to improve the predictability of delivery schedules, which is vital for planning and meeting business objectives.
Examples: The Californian nonprofit healthcare organization Easterseals reported higher quality on a more predictable and reliable timeline and lower defect levels as the main SAFe adoption benefits. Another company, Fred IT, witnessed an average of 82 percent better predictability on features and enablers.
Improved alignment and collaboration. By establishing a common framework and language, SAFe fosters collaboration across various teams, departments, and levels of management. It’s especially valuable in the case of connecting business and technology teams through shared planning and execution.
Example: PlayStation’s biggest challenge was related to poor collaboration between teams in eight different cities. Implementing SAFe helped the company to improve coordination which, in turn, doubled the value delivered, reduced downtime, and led to $30 million in savings over the year.
Testimonials also include other valuable SAFe adoption outcomes such as cultural changes, large-scale digital transformation, higher employee engagement, better portfolio management, accelerated growth, and so on.
The use cases and customer stories we described create an impression that SAFe is the true lifesaver for big enterprises, instantly making everything in the company work right. But is it really so?
Criticism and controversy around SAFe
While SAFe has many devotees who believe it provides a structured and scalable approach to Agile that can be beneficial for large organizations, it also receives a significant share of criticism. Here are the main points that its opponents put forward.
Resemblance to Waterfall
There’s a widespread opinion that SAFe, with its long-term planning practices (remember PIs of 8-10 weeks?), is closer to a Waterfall approach than to Agile since the development process can’t be revised and adjusted frequently. A number of reviewers also complain about excessive bureaucracy and an inefficient hierarchical structure inherent in SAFe.
Some critics reckon that SAFe can be too prescriptive in its approach, which does not align with the Agile principle of valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools. They contend that strict adherence to SAFe practices can stifle creativity and innovation within teams as top-level decisions are often prioritized over the team’s opinions and suggestions.
SAFe is often criticized for being overly complex. It includes a wide array of roles, practices, and artifacts, which can be overwhelming for teams and organizations, especially if they are new to Agile principles. Critics argue that this complexity can hinder the agility and adaptability of an organization and make it difficult to implement SAFe effectively.
Lack of flexibility
SAFe provides a fairly rigid, structured framework, and some organizations find it challenging to adapt SAFe to their specific needs and contexts. Critics argue that this lack of flexibility can be a limitation, as companies may need to modify or customize the framework to fit their unique circumstances.
Resistance to change
Implementing SAFe often requires a significant cultural shift within an organization. Resistance to change can be a major challenge, and SAFe may not address this aspect adequately in its framework.
SAFe offers a certification program for individuals and organizations, which some critics argue has led to a focus on obtaining certifications rather than truly understanding and implementing Agile principles. This commercial approach can detract from the genuine adoption of Agile values and practices.
Since our goal is to help you make a more informed choice, let’s zoom out a bit and look at what else there is for scaling Agile practices throughout enterprises.
SAFe alternatives: Scrum@Scale, Large-Scale Scrum, Disciplined Agile, Spotify
If you see that SAFe isn’t the right fit for your growing company, there are several alternatives. Each of them has its own approach, principles, and focus areas.
Adopted by: Bosch, Toyota, Nationwide Insurance
Scrum@Scale (some also call this approach by one of its main practices, i.e., Scrum of Scrums) is an Agile framework that extends the principles of Scrum to large organizations. It is focused on enabling multiple Scrum teams to work together efficiently and scale Scrum practices.
Like SAFe, Scrum@Scale provides guidance on roles, events, and artifacts, but it allows for more flexibility in how companies customize their scaling approach. It emphasizes the importance of lean thinking and organizational adaptability.
Adopted by: John Deere, Ericsson, BMW
Large-scale Scrum (LeSS) is another framework for scaling Scrum practices to enterprises. It simplifies the Scrum framework and retains the core Scrum principles while providing rules for scaling.
LeSS is also less prescriptive compared to SAFe and allows organizations to tailor their processes to their specific needs. It promotes transparency, empiricism, and a culture of continuous improvement.
Since both Scrum@Scale and LeSS are entirely built on Scrum principles, they are often a better choice for smaller organizations that already practice Scrum as they can incrementally scale this approach across the company. For enterprises with complex, siloed structures and legacy workflows that want to alter their operations completely and shift to Agile practices, SAFe can be more suitable. However, remember that such a full-scale transformation requires greater upfront investment and typically results in a significant reorganization.
In addition, all Scrum-based approaches consciously leave certain gaps in their frameworks to encourage creativity and support flexibility in implementation, while SAFe is a comprehensive solution that defines all the roles and processes. For this reason, if you want more detailed guidance, consider SAFe. But if you prefer to have the freedom to do things your own way and are ready to tolerate some level of uncertainty, select Scrum@Scale or LeSS.
Adopted by: Panera Bread, Barclays, OpenLink
Disciplined Agile or DA (also called Disciplined Agile Delivery or DAD when applied to software development) is a process decision framework that incorporates various Agile and Lean approaches and provides lightweight guidance to help organizations choose the best approach for their context.
DA promotes flexibility and adaptability, allowing organizations to adopt a combination of practices based on their unique circumstances. Unlike SAFe, DA does not prescribe a specific set of roles, ceremonies, and artifacts. Instead, it provides options to choose from.
So, similar to Scrum-based frameworks, if you want a clear transformation roadmap, go with SAFe. But if your company values flexibility and is ready to experiment with different approaches to find the best-fitting one, consider DA.
The Spotify model is not a formal framework but rather an organizational model inspired by how Spotify used to organize its teams and work. It emphasizes a "tribe-squad-tribe" structure with autonomous, cross-functional teams, a strong culture of innovation, and a focus on product excellence. It encourages experimentation, knowledge sharing, and continuous improvement.
You can read a detailed description of how the Spotify model works in one of our previous posts.
In contrast to SAFe, the Spotify model isn’t a full-fledged scaling framework, as it places its main focus on interactions and breaking the silos but doesn’t provide a complete operational toolset or organizational guidance. That’s why this approach can be adopted together with any other scaling framework.
How to choose the right framework?
As you can see, there are plenty of scaling frameworks that involve more flexibility, provide a broader range of options, are more adaptable to various lifecycles, and/or offer a less formalized model focused on fostering a culture of autonomy and innovation.
To decide which alternative works better for your organization, consider the following factors.
- Organizational needs – assess your company's unique challenges, size, and goals for scaling Agile. Different frameworks may be better suited to different contexts.
- Flexibility – evaluate how much flexibility you need in tailoring the approach to your specific needs, as some frameworks are more prescriptive, while others offer greater customization options.
- Existing practices – take into account your current Agile practices and whether any of the alternatives seamlessly integrate with or build upon your existing processes. It’s always easier to scale what you already practice than adopt a completely different approach.
- Culture and values – some frameworks may align better with your cultural aspirations and the way you want to work.
- Training and adoption – consider the availability of training and support for the chosen framework, as well as the readiness of your teams to adopt it.
Ultimately, the choice of the best framework should align with your company's specific circumstances and objectives, and it may involve experimenting with different approaches to find the right fit. It also makes sense to consult with experienced Agile coaches or consultants who can provide guidance based on their expertise and your organization's needs.