Whether or not you believe in the concept of “agile at scale”, implementing it is big business across many industries and software disciplines. Companies as diverse as eBay, Capital One, Bank of America, and many others have espoused some type of agile scaling in one form or another.

What does “agile at scale” mean exactly? It is an effort to fill in the (perceived) blanks from the Agile Manifesto, which doesn’t provide explicit guidance on how to coordinate agile techniques across largescale software development teams. Consider reviewing Mike MacDonagh’s excellent thoughts on the topic Here.

This article will give an overview of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), which are two of the more robust frameworks currently available. For a high-level comparison of these and other methods, AgileScaling.org provides a useful matrix and additional resources.

Love it or hate it, the concept of scaling agile is here to stay. If you’ve had experience with scaling agile within an enterprise, please share your thoughts and comments!


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Description: SAFe is a combination of Scrum, XP, and Kanban techniques, overlaid on four enterprise “levels”, including the portfolio, value stream, program, and team. SAFe prescribes the use of business epics at the portfolio level, which are then filtered down through the rest of an enterprise via various approaches, with the most important being the Program Increment (PI). Despite the top-down structure, user stories can originate at the lowest level, but in theory would need to be aligned to the business’s epics, vision, and roadmap.

Key Differentiators: The battle cry of SAFe is “develop on cadence, release on demand.” In other words, SAFe places a heavy emphasis on coordinated development sprints. Lean/agile budgeting, in which value streams are funded instead of cost centers or projects, allows an enterprise to more flexibly and nimbly fund key initiatives. SAFe also seeks to limit WIP, citing Little’s Law and Donald Reinertsen’s research as evidence that smaller batches result in faster releases. Program portfolio management (aka the PMO) plays a crucial role in the overall enterprise execution.

Pros: SAFe boasts an extensive resource bank of detailed case studies, explanatory links, trainer networks, and conference events. SAFe’s emphasis on a formal structure offers organizations looking to grow their agile maturity an “off-the-shelf” roadmap.  

Cons: For agile purists, SAFe is too prescriptive and lacks flexibility to be considered a true agile framework. They argue it creates unnecessary complexity and deemphasizes the role of self-organizing teams. According to AgileScaling.org, SAFe is one of the more costly frameworks to implement.

Expert Take: Check out these blog posts from Lynn Adkins (an agile coach) and Ron Jefferies (one of the Agile Manifesto authors) for a much more detailed dive into the pros and cons of SAFe.


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Description: LeSS is a framework for development, but the details of that development are left up to the implementing organization. Requirement Areas teams are comprised of an Area Product Owner and 4-8 development teams. An overall Product Owner oversees the different Requirement Area teams via a single backlog. Each sprint’s output is a potentially shippable product increment.

Key Differentiators: LeSS strongly emphasizes the Scrum principle of empirical process control. Rather than prescribe the “how” of largescale software development, LeSS encourages teams to learn by doing and adapt in short bursts of activity. In contrast to SAFe, LeSS does not assume that smaller WIP levels automatically result in shorter cycle times. Also unlike SAFe, LeSS does not automatically ship a completed product feature based on value alone.

Pros: According to AgileScaling.org, LeSS offers high flexibility and low costs to implement. Training, coaching, and case studies are readily available. For organizations with a strong background in scrum, LeSS will feel very intuitive.

Cons: Due to its inherent flexibility, LeSS will be more of challenge to implement with larger enterprises (although its website has several case studies of largescale teams doing it successfully). The tradeoff of increased team autonomy is less coordination across an enterprise.

Expert’s Take: Ari Tikka and Ran Nyman offer a fascinating contrast of SAFe and LeSS on their Gosei blog. Marlene Stroj shares an interesting third party case study here.

Disclaimer: Article content is solely intended as an informational starting point, not as a comprehensive purchasing guide. Readers should conduct their due diligence when considering agile at scale programs. The author does not endorse or reject any methodologies mentioned or linked to in the article. PMforTODAY.com did not receive any remuneration or kickbacks for the publication of this article from third parties. SAFe® and Scaled Agile Framework are registered trademarks of Scaled Agile Inc.



Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Justin Scoville

Justin Scoville

Contributing Author

Justin Scoville's unique adventures in project management have spanned international volunteer opportunities in Mexico and Israel, complex government grant programs, and more recently education technology implementations in the private sector. Proudly bearing the battle scars of initiatives both small and large, Justin enjoys exploring the frontiers of project management, particularly its intersection with process improvement methodologies, strategic planning, and product management.


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