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Is SAFe Truly Agile? The Critics Argue

Updated: Feb 29

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Software development teams have proven time-and-time-again that implementing agile frameworks like Scrum, Lean and XP helps them to deliver solutions to customers faster and gives them the ability to react quickly to changing requirements. SAFe has also become a popular method for managing software development projects in recent years. However, the question of whether SAFe is truly an agile approach has sparked much debate within the tech industry. In this blog post, we will take a closer look at what SAFe is, and whether it aligns with the principles of agility.

What SAFe is

SAFe, an acronym for Scaled Agile Framework is based on Agile principles; It also incorporates elements of Lean and DevOps. The methodology is designed to provide a framework for large organisations to implement agile principles and practices at scale. It was formulated and released in 2011 by founder Dean Leffingwell, an entrepreneur and software development methodologist, and Drew Jemilo, an Agilist with over 20 years of Agile delivery experience.

SAFe incorporates many Agile principles such as iterative and incremental development, continuous integration, and continuous delivery. However, it also includes additional practices that lend weight to charges of non-agility, such as the approach to planning and a more hierarchical structure that despite appearances maintains the traditional command and control mindset.

SAFe is not Agile

Critics vehemently argue that SAFe is not Agile because it sacrifices some of the values and principles set out in The Agile Manifesto, such as: ‘Individuals and interactions over processes and tools’, ‘Responding to change over following a plan’ and ‘Build projects around motivated individuals… and trust them to get the job done’.

SAFe is said to be too prescriptive and more difficult to implement as it incorporates elements and practices from different frameworks and delivery approaches. It encourages a more top-down approach to planning and process definition, with decisions about the ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ taken away from those at the delivery level who are closest to the work and probably best placed to provide solutions to facilitate delivery of the Product Goal and to make decisions about them. There is also less emphasis on self-management and cross-functionality with delivery-level teams simply reduced to ‘worker’ status. The framework's strict adherence to processes and practices seems to run counter to the flexible and adaptive approach of true Agile delivery.

Conversely, proponents of the framework argue that it provides the necessary level of structure and consistency required for large-scale projects and that SAFe helps organisations to scale their practices and maintain the benefits of Agile methods as their teams grow and projects become more complex. Whilst SAFe does limit Agile’s potential by requiring more planning and rigidity, it can be argued rightly or wrongly that it does so for the right reasons.

Whether SAFe is considered Agile or not depends on one's interpretation of what it means to be Agile. Whilst some in the Agile community may view SAFe as a departure from true Agile values and principles, others see it as a necessary adaptation to meet the needs of larger organisations.

Should You Use the Scaled Agile Framework?

SAFe is, and will most likely remain popular especially amongst enterprise-level organisations, as many of its facets focus on eliminating the common challenges teams face when scaling. If you are contemplating transitioning your organisation to agile ways of working, then SAFe might very well be a viable option. If the criticisms discussed in this post are true and to be considered, then it is worth noting that SAFe’s complex, prescriptive and top-down approach can potentially undermine some of the core principles of agility, the very same principles that may have acted as a catalyst for the change to agile ways of working in the first place.

Ultimately, the most appropriate framework for your business operating model whether that is SAFe, Scrum or another delivery framework depends on a variety of factors unique to your organisation. It is important to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each and to choose the one that best aligns with your business goals, culture, and team structure.

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