Thursday, 30 October 2014

Is it SAFe to Scrum?

While I was hanging out on the West Coast of the U.S. earlier this month, I decided to take +Mike Cohn's Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) class. I have been using Scrum for a number of years, however my early agile education was from a more generic agile fundamentals angle and for no apparent reason I had never bothered to take a CSM class. When the opportunity to take Mike's class happened to match my travel schedule, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I really enjoyed the two-day class, and, if you ever get the opportunity to learn Scrum from Mike, you should jump at it.

So what did I learn? Firstly, I learnt that I already knew a lot about Scrum. While I suspected this was the case, it was still nice to know it for sure. Secondly, after two days of talking Scrum, I am now completely convinced that Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is congruent with Scrum.

I had the opportunity to ask Mike about SAFe. Having read his blog post on LAFABLE, I didn't expect his views to be positive. Mike indicated that he felt SAFe was for enterprises that didn't really want to be agile. He highlighted SAFe practice of a two day planning event involving hundreds of people as particularly disconcerting. I can understand this. I think it is very hard to get your head around the Release Planning event until you have witnessed one. Concerns about this event are often raised in my Leading SAFe classes. My advice to students is always the same - get yourself invited to a Release Planning event. See it for yourself, then decide if you think it is valuable. (A student who recently took this advice, was blown away by the experience and echoed my view that you have to see it to believe it.)

Anyway, back to Scrum and SAFe. Clearly there are some differences. Scrum is silent on development practices. SAFe advocates leveraging XP. Scrum doesn't specify longer term planning be done on a cadence, although release planning appears to be a commonly accepted practice. However, on the whole, Scrum as it is outlined in SAFe seems to be the same Scrum one can learn in a CSM class. Both have a ScrumMaster, Product Owner and a development team. Both have daily scrums, sprint planning, sprint goals, sprint reviews and retrospectives.

While “Core Scrum” as articulated in the Scrum Guide doesn’t talk to scaling, Mike did provide some guidance on how to scale Scrum. This included a scrum of scrums, aligning sprint start and end dates, a shared product backlog , and scaling the product owner to include Product Line Owners and Chief Product Owners. All theses concepts are also included in SAFe, albeit in some cases with different names.

Accepting that there are some differences in terminology and that Scrum doesn't have a two-day release planning event, I left Mike's class bewildered at why so many members of the Scrum community are so opposed to SAFe. Perhaps it is the introduction of the portfolio level? It seems to me that the type of strategic planning enabled by the Portfolio level in SAFe in no way contradicts Scrum. I would simply observe that Scrum is focused on enabling software development teams and does not concern itself with how the organisation aligns its technology investments to business strategies and the consequential allocation of funds. I don't find this to be contradictory just different.

Perhaps my business lenses allows me to see things differently than those who grew up in IT. Whatever the reason, having now been through SAFe training with +Dean Leffingwell and Scrum training with +Mike Cohn, I just can’t see what all the fuss is about. After all, isn’t our highest priority “to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software”?


  1. I spent 6 years doing pure agile/scrum and the last 12 months in SAFe and I agree with your assessment, I don't see the rub.

    1. Thanks, Derek. I appreciate you taking the time to share your point of view.

  2. It's because Scaling anything is a beat up. That is not to say that it's not difficult either. SAFe like practices will work in some contexts and not in others. Personally I don't see what the hoopla about Scaling is all about - yes I know it's difficult, only concerned about myopic views. There are valid concerns raised by Snowden, Anderson, Schwaber, Cohn and others. I'm not sure if this article addresses those. But perhaps we could have reached the desired state without SAFe because a decent agilist is across it all. For me, the SAFe infographic scares the hell out of me. What happened to simplicity.

    1. Hi Nick.
      Thanks for your comments. It was not my intent to address the range of SAFe critiques. (I posted my 2 cents worth last year: Nor was the intent to "defend" SAFe. I simply wanted to share my take aways after spending the 2 days with Mike, where I reached the conclusion that SAFe and Scrum are not incompatible. This is a point of view I have heard others express off the record and I wanted to put my view on the record - so to speak.
      Cheers, Em.

  3. Scrum is terrific but "out of the box" it really doesn't scale to meet the needs of large organizations that do large programs and portfolios. So what? Screwdrivers are terrific but only with screws, not nails.

    I'm not convinced that SAFe is all that agile, but it's a good iterative framework at the program and portfolio levels, in which one can do Scrum at the team level. Agile is nice but getting the job done and meeting the customer's needs is mandatory, and SAFe does that in some circumstances. I'm completely unconcerned about offending the purists if I can deliver for the people who issue my paycheck.

  4. Here is a post that had some thoughts on the subject:

    I think the risk is that organisations do not change, but simply find new names on the concepts for their processes - is very real looking at SAFe. "We're Agile, check that box!" Of course, that can happen with any complex toolbox. I do think that in turning to large organizations, the advise is less simple and thus more prone to interpretation, but that goes for any advice with some complexity. I think one could describe SAFe as an aid to or a way of transitioning to becoming agile, training wheels for an organisation that may want to learn to ride a bike later. Or it may not, everyone cannot be agile.