Are You Too Big (Or Small) For the Scaled Agile Framework?

If you’re looking to adopt the Scaled Agile Framework, consider the size of your business and project teams first.

If you enjoy this article or want to learn more about SAFe in practice, please do join us on the 23rd of June where we will be hosting a live webinar with Fredrik Carleson on his experience implementing SAFe within a large IT department. This one's not to be missed!

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In 2001, 17 software developers realized their project management behaviours strayed from the traditional Waterfall methodology. Together, they created the Agile Manifesto. It was an ambitious declaration of people over processes, customer collaboration over bureaucracy, and flexibility over rigidity.

Project management hasn’t looked the same since.

Generally, smaller project teams adopt the Agile method. Think of one or two teams with a handful of project leads, typically within the software development space. This is because they have that small, familial feel - they can easily maintain communication during sprints.

Does this mean larger organizations can’t benefit from Agile practices? Of course not. It’s all about what principles you adopt and how you maintain collaboration. Enterprise Agile frameworks, such as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), now exist to help you navigate those choices.

SAFe provides more guidance on team collaboration, quality, alignment, and leadership. In a nutshell, it follows the key concepts of Agile while offering more structure to support larger teams throughout their project lifecycle.
Of course, before you adopt any project management framework, you must do your due diligence. When determining whether SAFe is the best solution, identify your use cases, dependencies, team size and skillsets. Typically, organizations with larger teams and complex projects will benefit most from SAFe.

But how exactly do you know whether you’re the right size or fit?

What’s the Perfect Size for SAFe?

The truth is, there’s no ‘perfect’ size. The configuration you choose will depend on the size of your Agile Release Trains (ARTs). These teams consist of experts who are able to implement, test, and deploy a product or service.

SAFe was designed for organizations with multiple teams of 5-11 people. That said, larger businesses with several teams of 50-100+ individuals also make use of the framework.

Not all ‘perfectly sized’ organizations need to convert to SAFe, however. You should only apply SAFe to parts of your company that require Agile with a stronger governance.

If you do feel that this framework is right for your project, you can then narrow down which configuration you use. There are four to choose from:

  1. Essential SAFe. This is the base-level configuration. It includes the minimum viable set of roles, responsibilities, and team sizes. Largely, Essential SAFe focuses on the Lean-Agile principle and ARTs.
  2. Large Solution SAFe. This is for businesses that deliver more complex product solutions that require multiple ARTs. Think of businesses within the automotive industry that regularly build and test vehicles. With such large solutions, they require more roles, coordination, and supplier involvement.
  3. Portfolio SAFe. This is a light extension of Essential SAFe that aligns strategy with project execution via development value streams. Each stream focuses on solutions that will impact the overall business mission. This framework provides more guidance on Portfolio Strategy, Lean Governance, and Agile Portfolio management.
  4. Full SAFe. As the name suggests, this is the most complete level of SAFe, featuring all seven competencies. This is mostly used by big worldwide organizations with large, challenging portfolios.

Are You Too Big for the Scaled Agile Framework?

Large organizations may wish to adopt Full SAFe or Large Solution SAFe. But is there such a thing as being too big for Agile at scale?

Well, that is a risk. The bigger your program, the more ART teams you’ll need. A large-scale program may be anything from an office relocation to a new city to the development of energy efficient transport aircraft.

These programs require more hands on deck, more expertise, and more supplier involvement. This increases the overhead for administrating the SAFe implementation, and makes things more complex.

If you have strong project leads and efficient PI Planning meetings, this will ease the communication challenges of large-scaled SAFe.

Can Small and Mid-Size Teams Adopt SAFe?

The Scaled Agile Framework is too heavy for organizations that only have two or three teams. There’s no point in following such a demanding framework. This is because smaller teams don’t suffer from the challenges that SAFe solves.

But what if you struggle with long releases, miscommunication, or poor product quality? In this case, a more structured Agile framework could work for you. You could choose to adopt SAFe, but there are other solutions available.

It may be possible to adopt a SAFe framework that suits your small-to-medium size needs. We recommend adopting the Essential SAFe configuration and familiarizing yourself with the fundamentals. This configuration can contain 5-12 Agile Teams, consisting of 5-11 individuals. So, if you have a smaller project management team of 25 persons or more, this could work for you.

Is It Safe to Follow SAFe?

SAFe is a brilliant, scalable Agile framework for larger organizations. It offers structure to combat any potential miscommunication or misalignment during project sprints. This is essential when you’re managing many teams.

Its four differing configurations accommodate different businesses. Large, solution-focused organizations, such as bodies within the government, would better suit Large Solution SAFe. Worldwide powerhouses with large cross-functional teams would benefit from Full SAFe. And small-to-medium companies would be better off adopting the lighter Essential SAFe framework, or Portfolio SAFe.

It boils down to one simple thing; the bigger your project, the more structure you need.