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SAFe Agile Pros & Cons

Updated: May 10


SAFe Agile Pros and Cons

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) has emerged as a popular framework for implementing Agile practices at scale. SAFe addresses the challenges of coordinating and synchronizing Agile teams across large enterprises. While SAFe offers numerous benefits, it also has its share of drawbacks. In this blog post, we'll explore the pros and cons of the SAFe framework to help organizations make informed decisions about its adoption and provide details of alternative approaches. There is also a guide to help organizations determine which approach is best suited.


Challenges Of Implementing Agile At Scale

 
Scaling Agile Requires A Cultural Shift Within The Organization,
Moving Away From Traditional Hierarchical Structures
 

Coordination And Synchronization

Implementing Agile at scale presents several challenges organizations must navigate to succeed in their Agile transformation journey. Coordinating and synchronizing the efforts of multiple Agile teams across large enterprises can be complex. Each team operates autonomously, with its own priorities, backlogs, and cadences, making it challenging to maintain alignment and visibility across the organization. Additionally, scaling Agile requires a cultural shift from traditional hierarchical structures to a more collaborative and empowered approach. Overcoming resistance to change, fostering a culture of transparency, and promoting cross-functional teamwork are essential for successful Agile implementation at scale.


Managing Dependencies

Managing dependencies and integrating work across Agile teams can pose significant challenges. As organizations scale Agile, they often encounter dependencies between teams, such as shared resources, interfaces, or dependencies on external systems. These dependencies can lead to delays, conflicts, and bottlenecks if not managed effectively. Coordinating releases, conducting cross-team planning sessions, and establishing clear communication channels are critical for addressing dependencies and promoting smooth integration of work across Agile teams.


Adopting Robust Agile Practices

Scaling Agile requires robust Agile practices and supporting infrastructure. Organizations should establish consistent Agile practices across all teams, such as backlog grooming, sprint planning, and retrospectives. Additionally, they should invest in Agile tooling, metrics, and governance frameworks to support Agile at scale. Implementing Agile practices and tooling requires investment in training, coaching, and infrastructure, which can be resource-intensive. Moreover, organizations must continuously evolve and adapt their Agile practices to meet the changing needs of the business and the evolving landscape of software development. Addressing these challenges requires a holistic approach, involving leadership support, cultural transformation, effective communication, and ongoing improvement efforts.


What is SAFe?

 
SAFe Helps Organizations Streamline Their Software Development Processes,
Improve Collaboration, And Enhance Delivery Predictability
 

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a comprehensive framework for scaling Agile practices across large enterprises. SAFe provides guidance and best practices for coordinating the efforts of multiple Agile teams working on complex projects. At its core, SAFe is built on Agile principles and values, emphasizing collaboration, customer focus, and continuous improvement.


The framework is structured into three primary levels: Team, Program, and Portfolio, each with its own roles, ceremonies, and artifacts. SAFe enables organizations to align Agile initiatives with strategic business objectives, prioritize and allocate resources effectively, and deliver customer value more efficiently. By providing a structured approach to scaling Agile, SAFe helps organizations streamline their software development processes, improve collaboration, and enhance delivery predictability.


Case Study: IBM

IBM, a multinational technology company, adopted SAFe to streamline its software development processes across various business units. By implementing SAFe, IBM aimed to improve collaboration, alignment, and delivery predictability across distributed teams working on complex projects. SAFe enabled IBM to scale Agile practices effectively, providing a structured framework for coordinating efforts, managing dependencies, and aligning with business objectives. As a result, IBM experienced faster time-to-market, increased productivity, and higher customer satisfaction. The adoption of SAFe also fostered a culture of continuous improvement and innovation within the organization, enabling IBM to respond more quickly to changing market demands and deliver value to customers more effectively.


Pros of SAFe

 
SAFe Helps Break Down Silos And Improve Collaboration
Between Business, Development, And Operations Teams
 
  1. Scalability: One of the primary advantages of SAFe is its scalability. It provides a structured approach for scaling Agile practices from individual teams to large enterprises. By defining roles, ceremonies, and artifacts at various levels (team, program, portfolio), SAFe enables organizations to coordinate multiple Agile teams' efforts effectively.

  2. Alignment with Business Objectives: SAFe emphasizes aligning Agile initiatives with strategic business objectives. Through features such as the Portfolio Kanban and Lean Budgeting, SAFe enables organizations to prioritize and allocate resources to initiatives that deliver the highest value to customers and stakeholders.

  3. Improved Collaboration: SAFe promotes collaboration and cross-functional teamwork across different levels of the organization. By fostering communication, transparency, and alignment of goals, SAFe helps break down silos and improve collaboration between business, development, and operations teams.

  4. Predictability and Transparency: SAFe provides mechanisms for planning, tracking, and monitoring progress at the team, program, and portfolio levels. This enables organizations to gain visibility into the status of initiatives, identify dependencies, and make data-driven decisions to mitigate risks and ensure on-time delivery.

  5. Continuous Improvement: SAFe encourages a culture of continuous improvement through practices such as Inspect and Adapt (I&A) workshops and the Agile Release Train (ART) retrospective. By reflecting on past experiences and identifying opportunities for improvement, organizations can adapt and evolve their Agile practices over time.


Cons of SAFe

 
The Learning Curve Associated With SAFe Implementation Can Be Steep, Particularly
For Organizations Transitioning From Traditional Project Management Approaches
 
  1. Complexity: SAFe is a comprehensive framework with multiple layers, roles, and ceremonies, which can introduce complexity, especially for organizations new to Agile. The sheer number of components and dependencies in SAFe may overwhelm teams and lead to resistance or confusion.

  2. Rigidity: Some critics argue that SAFe can be overly prescriptive and rigid, particularly in its early versions. The framework may not be suitable for organizations that require flexibility to tailor Agile practices to their unique context and culture.

  3. Learning Curve: Adopting SAFe requires significant investment in training and coaching to ensure that teams and leaders understand the framework's principles and practices. The learning curve associated with SAFe implementation can be steep, particularly for organizations transitioning from traditional project management approaches.

  4. Dependency on Tooling: SAFe relies heavily on specialized tools and software to support its implementation, such as Agile project management tools, ALM (Application Lifecycle Management) platforms, and metrics dashboards. Dependency on these tools can increase costs and create vendor lock-in for organizations.

  5. Resistance to Change: Implementing SAFe often requires a cultural shift within organizations, including changes in mindset, behavior, and organizational structure. Resistance to change from stakeholders accustomed to traditional working methods can pose significant challenges to successful SAFe adoption.


Alternatives to SAFe

Several alternatives to the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) exist, each with its principles, practices, and intended use cases. Here, we'll explore three prominent alternatives to SAFe: LeSS (Large-Scale Scrum), Nexus, and Spotify Model.


This table provides a different perspective on how each framework aligns with various company traits related to complexity, organizational structure, culture, and scalability. It can help organizations identify which framework best fits their specific context and goals.



Complexity

Org Structure

Culture

Scalability

SAFe

Well-suited for complex environments

Large enterprises with diverse business units and hierarchical structures

Requires strong leadership support and commitment to change

Effective for scaling Agile across large enterprises with multiple teams and complex dependencies

Nexus

Well-suited for complex environments

Companies with multiple Scrum teams working on a single product or product line

Requires strong Scrum foundation and commitment to Scrum principles

Suitable for scaling Scrum within a product or product line

Spotify Model

Well-suited for dynamic environments

Fast-growing organizations with decentralized decision-making structures and high autonomy

Organizations with a culture of innovation and cross-functional collaboration

Suitable for scaling Agile practices in large, fast-growing organizations

LeSS

Well-suited for simplicity

Organizations looking for a lightweight, more Agile approach

Requires strong collaboration and trust among teams and stakeholders

Suitable for scaling Agile within a single product or product line


LeSS (Large-Scale Scrum)

 
One Of The Main Benefits Of LeSS Is Its Simplicity; It Retains The Core Principles
And Practices Of Scrum While Guiding Scaling Agile To Large Organizations
 

LeSS is a framework for scaling Scrum to multiple teams working on a single product. It simplifies the organizational structure, minimizes dependencies, and optimizes communication and coordination. LeSS emphasizes the principles of empiricism, self-managing teams, and lean thinking. One of the main benefits of LeSS is its simplicity; it retains the core principles and practices of Scrum while guiding scaling Agile to large organizations. By reducing complexity and promoting transparency, LeSS enables organizations to foster a culture of continuous improvement and customer-centricity.


However, LeSS may not be suitable for organizations with highly complex product portfolios or requiring a more prescriptive framework. Organizations with a strong Scrum background and a culture of collaboration and trust are best suited for implementing LeSS. Additionally, LeSS requires significant buy-in from leadership and stakeholders to overcome resistance to change and ensure alignment with business objectives.


Case Study: Ericsson

Ericsson, a telecommunications company, adopted the LeSS framework to scale Scrum practices across its product development organization. By implementing LeSS, Ericsson aimed to simplify its organizational structure, reduce complexity, and improve time-to-market for its products. LeSS provided Ericsson with a lightweight, more Agile approach to scaling Agile, emphasizing the principles of transparency, inspection, and adaptation. The adoption of LeSS enabled Ericsson to break down silos, foster cross-functional collaboration, and deliver value to customers more quickly and efficiently. As a result, Ericsson experienced improved product quality, increased customer satisfaction, and higher employee morale. The adoption of LeSS also facilitated a culture of continuous improvement and learning within the organization, enabling Ericsson to stay competitive in a rapidly evolving market.


Nexus

 
Nexus May Be Less Suitable For Organizations With Diverse Product Portfolios
Or Requiring A More Tailored Approach To Scaling Agile
 

Nexus is a framework for scaling Scrum to multiple teams working on a single product or product line. It provides additional practices and roles to facilitate team coordination, integration, and dependency management. Nexus builds upon the core principles of Scrum, such as empiricism, inspection, and adaptation, while addressing the challenges of scaling Agile in complex environments. One key benefit of Nexus is its focus on minimizing overhead and complexity by leveraging existing Scrum practices and roles.


However, Nexus may be less suitable for organizations with diverse product portfolios or requiring a more tailored approach to scaling Agile. Organizations with a strong foundation in Scrum and a culture of collaboration and experimentation are best positioned to adopt Nexus. Additionally, Nexus requires strong leadership support and a commitment to continuous improvement to overcome scaling challenges and realize its full potential.


Case Study: Microsoft

‘Microsoft, a global technology company, implemented the Nexus framework to scale Scrum practices across multiple teams working on Microsoft Office 365. By adopting Nexus, Microsoft aimed to address the challenges of coordinating and integrating work across distributed Scrum teams while maintaining alignment with product goals and priorities. Nexus provided Microsoft with additional practices and roles for managing dependencies, facilitating communication, and ensuring product integration. As a result, Microsoft experienced improved collaboration, reduced time-to-market, and increased product quality. The adoption of Nexus enabled Microsoft to deliver new features and updates to Office 365 more frequently and reliably, enhancing the overall user experience and driving business growth.


Spotify Model

 
The Spotify Model May Be Less Suitable For Organizations With Hierarchical
Structures Or Require More Formal Governance And Control
 

The Spotify Model is an organizational model for scaling Agile practices within large, fast-growing organizations. It emphasizes autonomy, alignment, and cross-functional collaboration by organizing teams into "squads," "tribes," "chapters," and "guilds." Squads are autonomous, cross-functional teams responsible for delivering customer value, while tribes provide alignment and support across multiple squads. Chapters and guilds serve as communities of practice for knowledge sharing and skill development. One of the key benefits of the Spotify Model is its emphasis on autonomy and alignment, allowing teams to innovate and iterate rapidly while staying aligned with strategic objectives.


However, the Spotify Model may be less suitable for organizations with hierarchical structures or require more formal governance and control. Organizations with a culture of innovation, collaboration, and continuous learning are best suited for implementing the Spotify Model. Additionally, the Spotify Model requires strong leadership support and a willingness to experiment and adapt to evolving organizational needs and market dynamics.


Case Study: Spotify

Spotify, a leading music streaming platform, developed its own Agile scaling model known as the Spotify Model to support its rapid growth and innovation. The Spotify Model organizes teams into "squads," "tribes," "chapters," and "guilds," fostering autonomy, alignment, and cross-functional collaboration. By implementing the Spotify Model, Spotify aimed to enable fast-paced delivery of new features and improvements while maintaining a high degree of innovation and flexibility. The Spotify Model facilitated seamless communication and knowledge sharing across teams, enabling Spotify to respond quickly to user feedback, market trends, and competitive pressures. As a result, Spotify experienced significant growth in its user base, revenue, and market share, solidifying its position as a leader in the music streaming industry.


Conclusion

 
Organizations Considering SAFe Adoption Should Weigh The Pros And Cons Carefully
To Determine Whether It Aligns With Their Goals, Culture, And Context
 

SAFe offers a structured approach for implementing Agile practices at scale, enabling organizations to coordinate the efforts of multiple teams and align Agile initiatives with strategic business objectives. However, SAFe also comes with its share of challenges, including complexity, rigidity, and resistance to change. Organizations considering SAFe adoption should weigh the pros and cons carefully to determine whether it aligns with their goals, culture, and context. Ultimately, successfully implementing SAFe requires a commitment to continuous learning, adaptation, and improvement to realize its full potential in driving organizational agility and innovation.


While SAFe remains a popular framework for scaling Agile practices in large enterprises, alternatives such as LeSS, Nexus, and the Spotify Model offer different approaches and principles for addressing the challenges of scaling Agile. The suitability of each alternative depends on factors such as organizational culture, complexity, and desired level of prescriptiveness. By understanding the benefits and drawbacks of each alternative, organizations can make informed decisions about which framework aligns best with their goals, values, and context.


The case studies presented in this blog demonstrate how well-known companies have successfully implemented Agile frameworks such as SAFe, Nexus, Spotify Model, and LeSS to drive business agility, innovation, and growth. Each framework offers unique benefits and advantages, enabling organizations to scale Agile practices effectively and deliver customer value more efficiently.


About The Author

Jon White is an experienced technology leader with over 34 years of international experience in the software industry, having worked in the UK, Malaysia, Bulgaria, and Estonia. He holds a BSc (Hons) in Systems Design. He led the Skype for Windows development teams for many years (with 280 million monthly connected users), playing a key role in the team's transition to Agile.


Jon has held multiple leadership positions throughout his career across various sectors, including loyalty management, internet telecoms (Skype), IT service management, real estate, and banking/financial services.


Jon is recognized for his expertise in Agile software development, particularly helping organizations transform to Agile ways of working (especially Scrum), and is a specialist in technical due diligence. He is also an experienced mentor, coach, and onboarding specialist.


Over the last few years, he has completed over a hundred due diligence and assessment projects for clients, including private equity, portfolio companies, and technology companies, spanning multiple sectors. Contact Jon at jon.white@ringstonetech.com.

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