SAFe agile vs Agile : What are the differences?

It was only a relatively few years ago that traditional waterfall project management was pretty much the only way to go. And while it worked well for many projects – especially ones considered ‘predictive’ – it didn’t work so well for ones we will call adaptive. And so, over the past 20 years and especially the last 10 or so, agile has been increasingly used in projects, primarily software-based ones.  

To define our terms, according to the Project Management Body of Knowledge Sixth Edition, “in a predictive or waterfall life cycle, the project scope, time, and cost are determined in the early phases of the life cycle. In an adaptive or agile life cycle, the “deliverables are developed over multiple iterations where a detailed scope is defined and approved for each iteration as it begins. 

In this post, we’ll look at Agile vs scaled Agile, specifically the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) developed by Dean Leffingwell. 

Difference between Agile and SAFe®  Agile

The Scrum Guide states that, the “essence of Scrum is a small team of people.” Which would be fine if all our projects were small and didn’t need to scale beyond that small team. We can handle scaling between functions or teams by using native Scrum of Scrums. But once we scale much beyond that then it is necessary to begin considering a scalable framework. 

So, the main difference between Agile and Scaled Agile is that Agile was designed for small teams with specific roles, whereas Scaled Agile is designed to scale all the way up to the enterprise.  

Comparison of Scrum and Scaled Agile Framework

Agile SAFe®
Has defined roles – (Kanban does not) Has several defined roles
Small core team size Small core team size
Planning is done prior to the first sprint and at the beginning of each sprint Planning is done at a timebox called a Program Increment.
Scales between teams Scales to the enterprise
Framework has no defined levels Framework has four defined levels
Has core values – Agile Manifesto and twelve principles Has core values – Built-in quality, transparency, program execution and alignment
Is focused on customer and business value Is focused on customer and business value
Does not describe value stream Value stream is a key element
Strives to achieve continuous delivery Strives to achieve continuous delivery

What exactly is Agile?

According to the Agile Alliance, Agile is “the ability to create and respond to change. It is a way of dealing with, and ultimately succeeding in, an uncertain and turbulent environment.”  

It is set of values and principles as expressed in the Agile Manifesto. While it can be used for a variety of projects it typically refers to a group of approaches to software development using iterative (repeated processes) and incremental (successively added functionality) development. 

The Agile Manifesto states that: 

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools 
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation 
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation 
  • Responding to change over following a plan 

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more. 

There is also an underlying set of 12 principles. The first two principles state that “our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software” and that we “welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage. 

Some of the more common Agile methods include Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP), Kanban, and Feature-Driven Development (FDD.) Of these, Scrum is by all accounts the most popular, so we’ll focus there.  

For the most part, all Agile methodologies have certain things in common – they use timeboxes, which Agile Alliance describes as “a previously agreed period of time during which a person or a team works steadily towards completion of some goal. 

They employ iterations to “develop the product through a series of repeated cycles and increments to successively add to the functionality of the product. The graphic below displays the Agile Scrum process. The Agile Scrum Framework at a Glance

At the end of a timebox – or sprint – the entire Scrum Team is accountable for creating a valuable, useful increment. Regular interactions with stakeholders, small batches of work, regular reviews and retrospectives improve process and therefore, product.  

The Scrum variant of Agile defines three important roles: 

  • A Product Owner orders the work for a complex problem into a Product BacklogHe or she is also responsible for developing and explicitly communicating the Product Goal, ordering Product Backlog itemsand ensuring that the Product Backlog is transparent, visible, and understood. 
  • The Scrum (or Development) Team turns a selection of the work into an increment of value during a Sprint. The Scrum Team and its stakeholders inspect the results and adjust for the next Sprint. They are cross functional, self-organizing and decide how to do the work.  
  • The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework and by removing impediments.  

Scrum uses several events or “ceremonies” to inspect progress toward the sprint goal and adapt the sprint backlog (items to be worked on) as needed: 

  • Daily Scrum – The purpose of the 15-minute Daily Scrum is to inspect progress toward the Sprint Goal and adapt the Sprint Backlog as necessary, adjusting the upcoming planned work. 
  • Sprint Review – The purpose of the Sprint Review is to inspect the outcome of the Sprint and determine future adaptations. The Scrum Team presents the results of their work to key stakeholders and progress toward the Product Goal is discussed. 
  • Retrospective – The purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to plan ways to increase quality and effectiveness. The Scrum Team inspects how the last Sprint went with regards to individuals, interactions, processes, tools, and their Definition of Done. 

Instead of command and control as practiced in traditional waterfall, agile employs servant leadership which is a philosophy and practice of leadership based on listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment, and community building.  

What exactly is SAFe® Agile?

As mentioned above, Agile was designed for small teams and SAFe® was designed to scale to various levels, from essential to full SAFE®. It rests on the Agile foundation and expands on it.  

Cprime recently published a report called Agile at Scale 2020. The report was based on a survey of companies who are scaling Agile beyond small teams and often to the enterprise. The size of development teams ranged from <50 (32%) to an astonishing 1001+ (18.4%).  

According to the same study, the leading framework at 34% is SAFe® while “Scrum only” is at 24%. The study doesn’t dig deeper into those numbers but it’s realistic to think that as companies scale to the enterprise, they require something more than Scrum only.  

SAFe® for Lean Enterprises is a knowledge base of proven, integrated principles, practices, and competencies for achieving business agility using Lean, Agile, and DevOps. It has several levels to which one can scale: 

Essential SAFE®  contains the minimal set of roles, events, and artifacts required to continuously deliver business solutions via an Agile Release Train (ART) as a Team of Agile Teams. 

Large Solution SAFe® describes additional roles, practices, and guidance to build and evolve the world’s largest applications, networks, and cyber-physical systems. It incorporates an additional competency called Enterprise Solution Delivery. 

Portfolio SAFe® aligns strategy with execution and organizes solution development around the flow of value through one or more value streams. It is the smallest configuration that can be used to achieve Business Agility and adds the core competencies of Lean Portfolio Management, Continuous Learning Culture, and Organizational Agility. 

Full SAFe® represents the most comprehensive configuration. It supports building large, integrated solutions that typically require hundreds of people to develop and maintain.  

Like Agile, the SAFe® framework has several defined roles, some of which are dependent on the level to which one aspires.

Key SAFe® roles at Essential level   

The key SAFe® roles and main responsibilities at Essential level are: 

  • Business Owners – key stakeholders who are ultimately responsible for the business outcome. 
  • System Architect/Engineer – responsible for designing and sharing the architectural vision across the agile release train, which means the work delivered will be fit for purpose. 
  • Product Manager – responsible for prioritizing features and ensuring they are well described and understood 
  • Release Train Engineer – responsible for ensuring the agile release train (the team of agile teams) work well together and follow the processes 
  • Agile Teams – responsible for delivery and quality of the work undertaken. 
  • Scrum Master – responsible for ensuring the team works well and follows the processes. 
  • Product Owner – responsible for prioritizing stories and ensuring they are well described and understood. 

Key SAFe® roles at Large Solution level  

The key SAFe® roles and main responsibilities at large solution level include all of the above and: 

  • Solution Architect/Engineer – responsible for designing and sharing the architectural vision across multiple agile release trains, which means the solutions delivered will be fit for purpose. 
  • Solution Management is responsible for defining and supporting the building of desirable, feasible, viable and sustainable large-scale business solutions that meet customer needs over time. 
  • The Solution Train Engineer (STE) is a servant leader and coach for the Solution Train, facilitating and guiding the work of all ARTs and Suppliers in the Value Stream. 
  • Customer – consumes the output from the agile release train. Could be external customers or people within the organization. The customers are the people who will have the final view on whether the output was valuable. 

Key SAFe® roles at Portfolio level  

The key SAFe® roles at portfolio level are: 

  • Epic Owners – responsible for defining an epic, articulating its benefits, and facilitating its implementation. 
  • Enterprise Architect – drives architectural initiatives for the portfolio. 

Full SAFe® has no new defined roles.  

Planning 

While both Scrum and Agile plan their work at the beginning of each sprint, SAFe® has a unique event, called a Program Increment. Key to this is the Agile Release Train (ART) which is a long-lived team of Agile teams, which, along with other stakeholders, incrementally develops, delivers, and where applicable operates, one or more solutions in a value stream. 
 
A Program Increment (PI) is a timebox during which an Agile Release Train delivers incremental value in the form of working, tested software and systems. PIs are typically 8 – 12 weeks long.  

Typically, there are four development Iterations, followed by one Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration. A PI is to an Agile Release Train (ART) (or Solution Train), as an Iteration is to the Agile Team. It’s a fixed timebox for planning, building, and validating a full system increment, demonstrating value, and getting fast feedback. 

Each PI 

  • Plans the ART’s next increment of work 
  • Limitwork in process (WIP). Limiting work in process is from Kanban, and contributes to better focus, clearer communication, and more realistic analysis and projection.  
  • Summarizes newsworthy value for feedback 
  • Assures consistent, ARTwide retrospectives  

The Program Board is used when teams come together for two-day planning sessions 

program Board

 Image Source

It should be noted that SAFe® utilizes a concept called Value Streams. Value Streams represent the series of steps that an organization uses to implement Solutions that provide a continuous flow of value to a customer. 

SAFe® portfolio contains one or more value streams, each of which is dedicated to build and support a set of solutions, which are the products, services, or systems delivered to the Customer, whether internal or external to the Enterprise. 

How are Agile, Scrum and SAFe® similar? 

Scrum, like XP and Kanban is a type of Agile. So, all Agile types are similar in that they work in short bursts of work and stay in close contact with customers. So, the real comparison is between Scrum and SAFe®. 

Scrum/Agile and SAFe® are similar in that they use roles outlined in the Scrum Guide such as Product Owner, Scrum Master and Teams. The same rules apply about using sprints, sprint reviews and retrospectives.  

Benefits 

Some of the benefits of Agile include: 

  • Customer satisfaction- their regular involvement assures that they will get what they want 
  • The ability to quickly pivot away from suboptimal solutions 
  • Reduced risks due to shorter timeboxes and quality integrated into the team 
  • Allows for continuous improvement due to regular retrospectives 

SAFe® has all those benefits but also adds the ability to not only look at work in terms of value streams but also to take into consideration the portfolio that is connected to the strategy of the enterprise.  

Conclusion 

Agile has developed over time into a framework that provides business agility, allowing organizations to remain flexible in their approach to getting work done. Defined roles, small batches of work and regular cadence all contribute to a focus on product delivery while minimizing risk.  

However, Agile focuses on small teams and once work expands to the enterprise, a scaling methodology is required to enable teams to work while still focusing on the larger strategic picture. Scaled Agile Framework is one such methodology. It maintains the core ideas of Agile but adds roles and ceremonies that allow it serve at whatever level of the organization is required.  

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