6 Scaled Agile Frameworks – Which One Is Right For You?

Updated Aug 3, 2022.

Following the best agile practices is easy when you are a small startup working with a small group of like-minded team members. Agile development is flexible under this arrangement. Your agile team tends to work in the same office space.

Since the goal of every business is to expand and make more profits, small agile teams can not stay small forever. As profit-minded companies add more employees to their agile development teams, the task of staying agile becomes increasingly tricky. 

For larger organizations with more than eight teams, staying agile across the entire enterprise can prove a massive challenge. However, thanks to scaled agile frameworks (SAFe), large enterprises can remain lean and nimble by adapting scaling agile practices even with multiple teams and thousands of employees. 

SAFe promotes alignment, strategic planning, lean governance, product management, and multiple programs in enterprise organizations.

This article covers what the SAFe is all about, the six agile scaling frameworks, and how you can use project management software to implement SAFe.

What is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?

SAFe enables business organizations to be more constructive in utilizing various agile techniques and mechanisms to be more efficient. In addition, this efficient framework for business agility is independent of the organization’s initial size and structure. 

A massive advantage of SAFe is that it helps position intending business organizations on the path to building their business solutions and operations around the key agile components. Such a move guarantees greater productivity, efficiency, business value, and better business outcomes. 

Lean agile practitioners created SAFe (the world’s leading framework for business agility) by investing in three bodies of knowledge, namely agile software system development, lean product development, and systems thinking. In addition, there is significant emphasis on customer satisfaction through critical thinking processes and development practices such as continuous integration. 

SAFe uses the lean value system, the agile value system, the scrum value system, and appropriate programming structures such as the eXtreme programming to strengthen the organization's leadership structure and deal with increasingly complex solutions.

SAFe Implementation Roadmap
Source: Apphawks

SAFe has different versions of frameworks to provide intending users with various options. However, the basic version of SAFe is best suited for small organizations or sub-departments within a larger organizational structure.

What are the Four Levels of Scaled Agile Framework?

The SAFe four levels act as critical indicators for the different versions of the agile scaling framework. Their designs vary based on each organization’s size and structure to meet specific and well-laid out requirements. 

  • Essential Level: The lowest level of all 4 SAFe levels is the essential level, known as the “bare minimum.” This level is the most basic configuration for effectively managing your assigned projects and the various project stakeholders. You can create this level by linking the corresponding team level with the appropriate program level. Therefore, essential SAFe include the team and program level or agile release train (ART) under the guidance of a release train engineer.
  • Large Solution Level: The large solution level comprises all the notables in the essential level but varies from the essential level due to a few stand-out inclusions. Unlike the essential level, the large solution level provides structures for effective management of project stakeholders’ relationships and restrictions and controls for high-risk plans.
  • Portfolio Level: Portfolio SAFe builds on the large solution level by introducing new strategies such as portfolio management and the organization’s objectives and resources. At this level, other levels join to ensure that the agile release trains align with the company’s strategic goals. In addition, the portfolio level includes concerns for strategic direction, lean governance, and investment funding.
  • Full Scaled Agile Level: The last level combines all the previous levels and their structures and peculiarities.

6 Scaling Agile Frameworks

Scaling agile frameworks usually involves thorough training and devotion to the process. The process is a long-term process and requires patience and dedication in carrying out step-to-step procedures, which lead to the ultimate goal of a customer-oriented and competitive lean agile innovation.

1. Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

SAFe helps the agile project team have a sense of direction across the four scaling agile levels in delivering actual value to its customers. 

This framework combines lean project management, agile project management, and DevOps practices. SAFe also combines required operational development practices to provide the much-needed dexterity needed during the entirety of the project process. Create a lean-agile center of excellence to optimize performance across the company.

SAFe Examples

An excellent example is the SAFe 5.1 portfolio which assists 3 of the four levels of the agile scaling framework. However, the SAFe portfolio level, which constitutes the top-level, can be introduced later. 

The subsequent updated SAFe version extended the top of the four levels with innovations from lean portfolio management. 

With a series of features which includes the ability to assign roles and tasks within the best practices, the latest SAFe version comes with a renewed sense of complexity and detailed requirements that aids its optimal utilization. 

Scaled Agile Framework
Source: ResearchGate

The influx of innovations comes at some cost as the new SAFe version derails slightly from its intended flexibility outlook, which is one of the components of the agile methodology. Although this likely disadvantage can turn around to be an advantage for larger organizations. 

One of the notable features of the updated SAFe structure is the Program Increment (PI) planning tool utilized for its quarterly event planning cycle. This tool makes use of a hierarchy system that arranges various sprint cycles in Kanban boards

PI planning helps organizations plan their tasks and activities quarterly based on their goals and objectives. In addition, the program increment planning helps build the much-needed dependencies between various project development teams to ensure the priority of the project team towards achieving the PI goals is not misplaced. 

The updated SAFe structure assists at the four levels of the scaled agile framework. 

  • At the essential level, SAFe combines Scrum and several XP (eXtreme Programming) practices. 
  • At the program level, the lean-agile team efforts work hand-in-hand with the quarterly Program Increment Planning (PI Planning) and a team of teams called the Agile Release Trains (ARTs) and Release Train Engineers (RTEs). 
  • At the portfolio level, SAFe works to manage other portfolio-level levels to meet the project goals and objectives. 

Relationship Between Scaled Agile Framework and Kanban

SAFe provides larger organizations the choice of either co-implementing with Scrum or Kanban. Although there are restrictions on the Kanban teams placed by the SAFe, its normal operations, such as visualizing, managing, and limiting workflows, do not suffer from such limitations. 

Restrictions are put in place to ensure strict compliance to the rule that all agile project teams must plan, practice, and work together throughout the entirety of the project implementation process. 

SAFe expects Kanban teams to invest more in planning for their respective teams and others. However, this notable fact is against the principles on which Kanban stands, as it further reduces its flexibility and agility. 

Unlike Scrum teams, Kanban teams invest little or no time estimating tasks and activities. Instead, they make up for the time involved in splitting significant duties and re-introducing them into the Kanban system until they are complete. 

This setup is quite different from what is applicable for PI planning. SAFe teams always compare the task or activity demands against their capacity to complete them, which acts as the much-needed estimate that helps give the project process a sense of direction.

2. Scrum at Scale (SaS)

Scrum at Scale (SaS) is the latest SAFe framework available and efficient for scaling agile for product delivery. SaS operates on the assumption of trying to keep the what and how questions of a product delivery process as far apart as possible. 

The goal of SaS Is to find the balance between two separate and inexistent worlds, which are the Scrum Master approach (solely based on product delivery), and the Product Owner approach (which revolves around the discovery of new and innovative products). 

Merge these two contradicting approaches to create a perfect working condition that aligns with the organization’s goals and objectives. 

Each approach is accountable to a leadership group that helps guide its scope of operation. For example, in the case of Scrum at Scale, the leadership role is the Executive MetaScrum for the Product Owner approach who has the task of playing the part of the product owner at the organization level. 

For the Scrum Master approach, the management is the Executive Action Team, whose main task is to provide effective and efficient ways of improving the organization’s operational process. The introduction of these two new roles necessitates the introduction of a new scaled version of scrum events.  

Scrum of Scrums (SoS)

Although Scrum of Scrums (SoS) and Scrum at Scale (SaS) get mistaken for one another, they are entirely two different scaling frameworks. 

Scrum of Scrums (SoS) is suitable for cross-team coordination and is not ideal for scaling agile for product delivery. SoS utilizes its separate team structure to coordinate its involvement in various tasks and activities and solve major project problems that a single team structure cannot tackle. 

Regular and periodic meetings among various teams’ representatives are conducted in the Scrum of Scrums framework in a daily scrum of scrums to plan for upcoming tasks and discuss the progress of ongoing tasks.

Issues that arise from dependencies during the project process get the necessary attention and resolution during these regular sit-ins. 

Scrum of Scrums (SoS) is effective for a range of 3 to 9 teams with a participation range of 3 to 9 members. However, organizations that can not break into groups under this structure have to adapt. The solution is a new scaled agile framework called Scrum of Scrums.

3. Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)

This agile product delivery scaling framework bases its operation on providing intending users with the most of its available tools and procedures in carrying out various operational procedures while demanding little or nothing in return. 

Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) aims to reduce to the barest minimum the likely occurrence of overhead optimizations. This framework exploits the diversity of options an organization has to deliver actual value to its customers. LeSS rearranges the organization project team to focus on different product delivery operational methods, all working together to provide actual value to its customers. 

Like other Scrum-based frameworks, Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) utilizes a single-team scrum for its operations, although you have to make specific tweaks to make it stand out among the crowd. 

One of the most notable tweaks is in the area of sprint reviews. The usual per-team sprint review is no longer in use, replaced with an all-teams one sprint review. 

This framework supports an open space communication system that allows you to discuss crucial aspects of the project. 

LeSS also promotes regular sit-ins among different project teams to strengthen cross-team interactions and distribute them into communities based on their shared peculiarities of interests.

4. Nexus

This framework is suitable for scaled agile product delivery. The main aim of Nexus is to reduce the complexity that constantly plagues the agile scaling framework to the barest minimum.

Nexus works to reduce inter-dependencies among the agile project team by causing a complete overhaul of the organization’s initial structure and mode of operation. This framework combines a range of 3-9 Agile scrum teams with a singular leadership and product description. You can liken Nexus to a Scrum at Scale arrangement. 

The Nexus framework makes use of a Nexus integration team whose main aim is to coordinate the overall project process while tracking the project dependencies among various agile project teams. 

Another responsibility the Nexus integration team is in charge of is promptly spotting and resolving issues that may arise from the project integration process. This task is essential to prevent the timely and continuous delivery of the newly integrated products. 

The typical makeup of a Nexus team involves the product owner (who plays the lead role in the project process), the scrum master (responsible for coordinating the project process in its assigned project team), and the members who make up each scrum. 

Nexus has other distinguishable features, such as its sprint planning, the centralized tool for coordinating the activities of all project teams involved in the Nexus framework. 

Another notable feature is its daily scrum feature, which provides a daily update on each scrum activity and tracks inter-dependencies among teams and integration issues that occur. 

The Nexus sprint review acts as an efficient replacement for individual teams’ sprint reviews. On the other hand, the Nexus sprint retrospective acts as an efficient tool to close the sprint and provide a detailed review of the happenings during the implementation process. 

5. Disciplined Agile (DA)

Initially referred to as Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) with a primary focus on product delivery, this framework faced a series of changes to its initial scope of operation to accommodate changes in the agile structure. 

The main aim of the Disciplined Agile (DA) is to point out the operational functionality of an organization in delivering its operation services under strict and precise agile conditions. 

DA helps provide solutions for delivering optimal value but is grossly ineffective in answering the how question. Therefore, the design of this framework focuses on assisting at the four agile scaling levels. 

The foundational level guides the DA principles in collaboration with the agile and lean principles and other traditional project management platforms in providing an effective lean agile team-based operational structure in carrying out project tasks. 

The second level is the Disciplined Agile developmental, operational level. On this level, the DA framework assists in restructuring its basic operations by introducing efficient and well-integrated data management strategies.

DA helps provide value to your organization’s product delivery process. By delivering an innovative and conducive learning experience for your organization, Disciplined Agile (DA) helps link your organization’s strategies with its detailed structure. 

This framework is the most extensive of all the agile scaling frameworks and utilizes all other scaling framework tools and methods in its approach. Disciplined Agile (DA) offers a wide range of flexibility to equip the lean enterprise with the unique ability to tweak and utilize various tools available to meet its customer requirements and deliver actual value.

6. Enterprise or Portfolio Kanban

The Kanban agile scaling framework encompasses the basic visualizing, limiting, and managing workflows used with other agile frameworks. However, enterprise or portfolio Kanban gives little or no value to the organization’s initial structure in providing the much-needed procedural change in an organization’s operation. 

Before discovering the agile manifesto, the Kanban agile scaling framework was in existence. The kanban agile scaling framework has a series of principles and practices that guide its operation. 

Portfolio SAFe helps organizations better optimize their workflow while placing a considerable amount of resources and time on meeting the needs of their customers and prompt delivery of their respective expectations. 

This framework helps provide a deep sense of leadership in the organization’s structure while also emphasizing continuous improvement and learning. 

The central stand-out point of the Kanban agile scaling framework is its unique ability to coexist with any other workflow platform during any phase of the project implementation process. This specific attribute is the reason for the scalability of the framework. 

Utilization of the Kanban agile scaling framework involves proper training of the agile team on Kanban’s principles and practices while also grouping workflows and programs to visualize dependencies.

SAFe Principles

SAFe comprises ten principles (from existing lean and agile principles) that guide its operation and utilization in any business organization. These essential principles emphasize the operational business processes and the actual value of the business organization to its customers. 

All the principles of SAFe originate from Scaled Agile Inc. Implementation and integration of various iterations, and decentralization strategies make up the principles of SAFe merged into one singular idea. 

  1. Take an Economic View. Make adequate consideration of the project’s economic aspect by harnessing the most out of the available resources at the cheapest available cost while focusing on providing the most value.
  2. Apply Systems Thinking. Make efficient use of critical thinking methods and reduce placing too much operational focus on a single project process.
  3. Assume Variety; Preserve Options. Be dynamic in selecting the right strategies and tools to help preserve options for later.
  4. Build Incrementally with Fast, Integrated Learning Cycles. Improve productivity on a stage-by-stage basis by utilizing efficient and integrated learning sequences.
  5. Set Achievable Milestones. Base your milestones on the objective evaluation of working systems. Both developers and customers must ensure that the invested resources will deliver the necessary economic advantage.
  6. Visualize and Limit WIP, Reduce Batch Sizes, and Manage Queue Lengths. Utilize various visual tools in reducing the project’s workflow size to keep the focus of the project’s team as streamlined as possible. 
  7. Apply Cadence, Synchronize with Cross-Domain Planning. Place considerable emphasis on ensuring the project’s tempo harmonizes with the project’s cross-domain planning in maintaining a harmonious project process.
  8. Unlock the Intrinsic Motivation of Knowledge Workers. Provide a space for project stakeholders, especially knowledge workers, to breed innovative and cost-effective project ideas. 
  9. Decentralize Decision-Making. Ensure you decentralize the decision-making process to accommodate all project stakeholders. 
  10. Organize Around Value. Place significant emphasis on value delivery.

Benefits of the Scaled Agile Framework

SAFe provides enormous benefits to intending users. These benefits help distinguish SAFe from other Agile-related frameworks such as disciplined agile delivery (DAD). 

Apart from improving the overall productivity of the project’s process, SAFe emphasizes the project’s stakeholders and their interpersonal relationships, leading to employee engagement improvements.  

1. Teamwork

The critical element to every successful business solution is teamwork. Teamwork sums up all individual contributions towards achieving a set goal.

SAFe is big on teamwork as it makes up one of the fundamental principles of its operation. Collaboration ensures every project stakeholder is accountable to each other during the entirety of the project span. 

This SAFe benefit creates room for the provision of incentives which helps spur practical cooperation among project stakeholders. Proper stakeholder relations tools are part of the SAFe framework.

2. Cross-Team Collaboration

Harmony is crucial to the SAFe and the project process in general. SAFe intends to capitalize on this vital fact by spurring the much-needed collaboration among and across the project team. 

The project team gets motivated by the framework to better collaborate by detailing good benefits. So if you want to build collaboration, customer satisfaction, and operational excellence into your company’s DNA, SAFe is the go-to solution.

3. Planning Security

SAFe is an efficient security planner that provides considerable measures to tackle potential risks as they arise at various stages of the project process. This framework acts as an efficient risk tracker and an effective containment mechanism to provide your project’s process with much-needed security.

4. Customer Focus

Every project aims to provide value to a wide range of customers as available resources can afford. SAFe is big on value based on its significant focus on customers. 

This framework considers the customers the essential component of every project process. Therefore, SAFe directs all its operational operations at providing actual value to its wide range of customers.

SAFe vs. Scrum vs. Waterfall

Various agile frameworks differ due to their numerous qualities and specifications, making them distinct. The three powerful frameworks are SAFe, Scrum, and Waterfall. 

Each framework has its unique benefits and shortcomings, which users need to take cognizance of when choosing the most suitable framework for implementation.

Differences in Approach

SAFe

SAFe is a unique framework for scaling agile, with its customer-based approach to delivering actual value to its intending customers. This framework also affords its users flexibility in making timely changes while executing various projects. 

Despite its numerous advantages under its belt, the SAFe has a complex outlook that indirectly slows down project execution. 

Scrum

The scrum framework is unique in its approach as it makes up for speed which SAFe does not provide while providing users with flexibility in decision-making. 

Organizations with a limited timeline for project delivery often use this framework. However, scrum is a poor choice if you need proper agile scaling and organization. 

Scrum is grossly inefficient to provide the much-need agile scaling and fails to provide proper organization among various project teams.

Waterfall

The waterfall framework methodology is one of the oldest and most traditional agile software development frameworks. 

Moreover, this framework is unique for its efficient, agile scaling attribute and service delivery approach, making it a likely choice for intending agile teams. 

The waterfall framework methodology does not allow flexibility and customer involvement in providing these services. As a result, this framework loses speed benefits, which is its major disadvantage.

How Project Management Software Can Help with Implementing SAFe Agile Principles

Your project management framework makes up the foundation of any organization’s structure. For this reason, place considerable emphasis on the success of this framework. SAFe development and implementation involve utilizing various essential tools, which all work hand-in-hand in delivering the necessary and expected outcome. 

The primary tool for implementing SAFe is the project management software. Project management software provides organizations with extensive features and integrations for running their various agile projects while maintaining stability.

1. Standardize Workflows with Custom Boards and Access Control

Various project management software helps organizations transition to agile principles with ready-made customized tools to create an innovative outlook. 

They provide unrestricted access to organizations to make suitable changes to meet their different organization’s project requirements. In addition, the use of templates and custom boards makes the transitioning process seem more straightforward.

2. Use of Wide Range Integrations to Save Data

Project management software tools provide a series of robust integrations to help with excellent and prompt data sharing. They help to alleviate the problems associated with the manual sharing of data. Sharing data among the project’s agile team is more accessible and less time-consuming with its unique tools.

3. Centralizing Data for Better Collaboration

Agile project management platforms provide a centralized system for data sharing and distribution, which helps minimize the likelihood of data loss to the barest minimum. In addition, they present a cheap solution to building the functionality your agile needs with little or no resources required.

4. Keeps Your Organization Agile

Project management software helps provide agility in connection with the speed of delivery and inter-connectivity among agile project teams irrespective of the organization's size. 

With the long list of framework mechanisms and techniques to choose from, project management software provides the much-needed efficiency in integrating the organization’s goals and objectives with the necessary framework.

Martin Luenendonk

Editor at FounderJar

Martin loves entrepreneurship and has helped dozens of entrepreneurs by validating the business idea, finding scalable customer acquisition channels, and building a data-driven organization. During his time working in investment banking, tech startups, and industry-leading companies he gained extensive knowledge in using different software tools to optimize business processes.

This insights and his love for researching SaaS products enables him to provide in-depth, fact-based software reviews to enable software buyers make better decisions.