Sunday, 1 September 2013

A Perspective on the Scaled Agile Framework

I have watched with interest and disappointment over the past month or so as Agile thought leaders have taken to publicly passing judgement on the new kid on the block, the Scaled Agile Framework aka SAFe. In the interests of full disclosure, I am a certified SAFe Program Consultant, I use SAFe with my team and my teams approach to implementing SAFe is featured in the case studies section on

Over two and half years ago, I went on two days of Agile Fundamentals training lead by +Mark Richards. Mark's approach to introducing Agile was to provide us with a tool kit we could use to apply Agile in our work place. I remember talking about aspects of Scrum, XP, Kanban and other methodologies. We talked about various agile values, principles and practises, and we participated in a number of learning activities. After the two days in the classroom and a heap of new ideas to think about, the message I walked away with was - "Agile is a term for a range of methodologies that have in common the principles embodied in the Agile Manifesto. We should embrace the full range of tools available to us and chose which to apply in any given context."

Following the training, we commenced our first agile "pilot" project. The transparency introduced by agile, quickly led to all new projects using agile. It was only a number of months before we had 6 agile teams, across 4 projects, working in parallel with a large outsourced offshore team, on a single code base. As if this was not already a recipe for disaster, we also had no clues as to how to effectively co-ordinate the teams and the work. Agile Fundamentals had not prepared us for this at all!

By this time Mark had joined my team as a coach. In search of ideas on how to address some of our challenges he decided to read +Dean Leffingwell's Scaling Software Agility. Mark obviously thought the book contained some interesting ideas as he sent me off on my Christmas break with homework to read Scaling Software Agility. As I am sure Mark anticipated, I was intrigued by the Agile Release Train concept and it was not long before we were plotting how we might implement one.

While we did leverage many of the ideas from Dean's book, Agile Software Requirements we did not by any stretch of the imagination, implement SAFe "by the book". The message I gave my team was "Dean's book contains a lot of great ideas, but Dean does not work in Data Warehousing and he does not work in this organisation. We need to look at the concepts and principles and work out which of these are applicable to our situation". And that is exactly what we did. Among other concepts, SAFe gave us: cadence, a single program backlog, the system team and a way to be agile inside a largely waterfall organisation.

Today we still leverage SAFe, it a significant component of our Agile toolkit, but it is by no means our only source of inspiration. When I reflect on our world, Dean's words come to mind, "we stand on the shoulders of giants". We use Scrum, XP, Kanban and Lean (in the ways recommended by SAFe), however we have also been heavily influenced others, including: +Jean Tabaka's Collaboration Explained, +Henrik Kniberg's Lean from the Trenches, Scaling Agile at SpotifyToyota Kata and +Ken Collier's Agile Analytics.

My philosophy, when it comes to the various schools of thought, methodologies and frameworks in the Agile domain, is possibly best articulated by Bruce Lee: "Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own." 

For a more extensive list of books that have inspired me and my team check out our bookshelf:


  1. Nice one Em - love the Bruce Lee quote.

    Did you see Al Shalloways "Defending SAFe" blog post? - great piece in my opinion, covering the fact the most all of the attacks on SAFe have practically no substance.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Em :) The energy challenging SAFe reminds me of the early years of people worried about agile being a silver bullet. Like you mention Dean's work is something for all of us to draw from and adapt as an organisation's situation really determines the what they can leverage.

    Nice work :)

  3. Thanks for this Em. It's always great to be reminded that everything isn't a recipe to be followed to the letter. I'm all an SPC and getting ready to work with a large program moving them from waterfall to agile. It's always scary and fun. Why fun, um, refer back to scary. :)

    1. Thanks, Marty. I think scary and fun sums it up nicely. :-)

  4. "Dean's words" are, in fact, adapted from the original words in the letters of Isaac Newton: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."


  5. Good one .. pretty balanced article. There have been quite a few posts recently for and against SAFE. But as you rightly mentioned, it is for us to take the best of the various methodologies which suit our needs. Bruce Lee's quote really summed it up !!

  6. Everyone needs to take a pragmatic view on this. I dare say there will be further refinement, understanding and new techniques to bring to bear. Essentially everyone agrees with Ken Schwaber about using you head. Agile aint easy. Likewise thinking in terms of prescriptions which is a real danger with the SAFe approach is actually anti-agile!

  7. As you turned your organization Agile did you start with small pieces and slowly build up, or with a strict implementation of one particular flavor which you then broke down? How about when you went to SAFe for the enterprise?

  8. Rightly said with Bruce Lee's Quote.

  9. Em, you obviously have it working pretty well at Telstra, really is a good case study to see how it has been implemented and the learnings that continuously come to the fore

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