Scaling agile safe and sound

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“Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference” – Mark Twain

Back in the day as researchers we pushed Agilefant forward with a versatile-model-first approach. While it lacked bells and whistles such as attachments or detailed user access rights, it had the concepts needed to support large scale agile already in 2007.

Fast forward to today, its latest incarnation is known as Nektion (the proliferation of the A-word tends to repel executives whose organizations might need it the most), and its entire ontology can be configured to fit the convoluted structures of large complex organizations you might run across.

Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I nowadays find myself rather agnostic with respect to whether agile should be scaled using frameworks such as SAFe, LeSS or DAD – or if it should (or even could) be scaled at all. Anyway, the result is usually better – if only slightly – than the darkness which existed before trying “agile” out.

Still, many of the lean/agile thought leaders out there do have clear opinions on the matter. If you’re in the process of “scaling agile” or considering it, my advice is that you should explore these opinions, and consider how the views expressed may or may not apply to your context.

To help you get started, I put together a table of some of the writings around the topic from the better known writers of the field I’ve run into. They are ordered starting from the most recent.

Many of the posts I’ve raised are critical of frameworks for scaling agile. Some are even critical about the notion of scaling agile in the first place. I made this choice because the organizations and people who are in the business of providing frameworks, tools and consultancy for scaling agile already cover the upside quite well.

There are also other posts, but I’ve tried to condense this list to the most popular and/or such that they have some depth to them.

By exploring the material below, you’ll hopefully become aware of the tensions around the topic – and thus are better able to steer clear of the potential pitfalls in your own transformation efforts.

While some comments are nowadays outdated (for example the notion that “SAFe allows to release at the PI cadence”), all of the authors there are surely worth following, and to dig deeper, check out also the commentaries of the posts linked below. I’m updating (last updated 2022-09-15) the list as I find new noteworthy articles.

Author Post Quote
Pawel Huryn (2022) Watch out, waterfall ahead! The truth about SAFe “It’s not a coincidence that SAFe was created by the same person who made the Rational Unified Process (RUP). In my opinion, no buzzword (Agile, Scrum, Lean, Enterprise, etc.) can cover its true nature.”
Jeff Gothelf (2020) SAFe is not agile Large organizations seeking agility […] cling to the faorganizations seeking agility […] cling to the familiarity of waterfall processes. SAFe gives the illusion of adopting agile while allowing familiar management processes to remain intact.
Bob Galen (2019)
SAFe no longer – my final farewell “[…] I’ve struggled with it for a long time. […] Believe me, I’ve tried to understand, support, and apply it. […] But it’s too big, far from the principles of simplicity at the heart of agility [and] focused on pursuing revenue. […] Just because it’s popular, doesn’t make it right. Nor does it mean that I have to support it.
Dan North (2018)
In praise of SWARMing Scaling methods are not unhelpful per se, rather that they are neither necessary nor sufficient for successful transformation.”
Duncan Nisbet (2018)
SAFe systems thinking? “The cultural aspects […] are the overriding blocker to systems thinking. Merely talking about it briefly in a 2 day workshop is not going to overcome that challenge.”
Renee Throughton (2018)
Why SAFe is not the scaled approach you need “It encourages massive batching […], old world thinking on estimation […], doesn’t change leadership behaviours [ …], doesn’t force a change in organizational structure”
Marty Cagan (2018)
Revenge of the PMO “If you were an old-school PMO missing your classic portfolio, program and project management, you would probably love it.”
John Cutler (2017)
Have you heard the one about SAFe? There are very few people voicing the perspective of non-consultant full-timers. The narrative is primarily driven by consultants and “thought leaders”… all with […] vested interest in guiding the perception of the market, closing deals, and getting their foot in the enterprise door. […] Thoughtful comparisons of approaches would benefit everyone.”
Steve Denning (2017)
What is Agile? The four essential elements “The emphasis […] is more on descaling big complex problems into small pieces than on scaling up the organization to match the complexity of the problems it is dealing with.”
Mike Cottmyer (2015)
Let’s acknowledge SAFe for what it is…and move on “You either create the conditions to do Agile well—Agile as it was defined 14 years ago—or you do something else. That something else is called SAFe.”
Jacob Creech (2015) @JacobCreech SAFe: How I learned to stop worrying and try the Scaled Agile Framework “Suffice to say, I have a reasonable perspective on SAFe in real life, which I prefer to the typical theological debates that arise when SAFe is discussed.”
Ari Tikka & Ran Nyman (2015) @aritikka, @ran_nyman Scaling Agility or Bureaucracy “Good consultation often helps to get results, also with SAFe. However, there is the risk that the systemic conditions are not changing, and the change remains superficial.”
Kristian Haugaard (2015) @haugaards Interview with Dean Leffingwell about SAFe “Many of [reviews of SAFe] have been written by authors who never spoke with anybody who had been involved in a SAFe implementation…”
Ari Tikka & Ran Nyman (2015) @aritikka, @ran_nyman LeSS-SAFe comparison “[Both LESS and SAFe use Nokia as a reference, but] LeSS was and is mostly used at Nokia Networks […] while SAFe was mostly used at Nokia Mobile Phones”
Jeff Sutherland (2015) @jeffsutherland Q&A with Jeff Sutherland on Agile Leadership “scaling frameworks are often used to provide scaffolding for the legacy organization until they can evolve”
Ron Jeffries (2015) @ronjeffries Dependencies, Scrum of Scrums, and SAFe “[…] a huge fraction of the dependencies between teams are artificial. They are due to poor allocation of work from above, and to the existence of unnecessary silos of responsibility.”
Mike Cohn (2015) @mikewcohn You Don’t Need a Complicated Story Hierarchy “When teams are forced to use complicated taxonomies for their stories, they spend time worrying about whether a particular story is an epic, a saga or merely a headline.”
Sami Lilja (2014) @samililja The case against scaling “The problem is NOT that we lack ways to scale agile. The problem is NOT that we fail with agile in large organizations. The problem is that we are large. […] The frameworks take “large scale” as given, and do very little to reduce that.”
Lyssa Adkins (2014)
The Agile Coaches’ Coach Shares Her View on SAFe “Rumi urges us not to become too attached to one “grain”; one teacher or one way, or, in our world, one agile framework or one perspective. I urge the same. Rather, let us look out wider and farther.”
Mike Cohn (2014) @mikewcohn Introducing the LAFABLE Process for Scaling Agile “some of [scaling approaches have been] even tested on real teams before the marketing machinery spun up to promote them”
Ron Jeffries (2014) @ronjeffries SAFe – Good But Not Good Enough “SAFe is good. It’s just not good enough. It provides some benefit, but endangers an organization’s progress toward really high functioning”
Ron Jeffries (2014) @ronjeffries Issues with SAFe “Release Train is an example of a remedial practice presented as an ultimate solution. […] SAFe does not push hard to eliminate the problem: it just gives a way to accommodate it.”
Peter Saddington (2014) @agilescout The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) – A Review “thoughtful and well-intentioned [but] takes it a bit too far and defines […] almost too much”
Charles Bradley (2014) @ScrumCrazy Is SAFe(tm) Bad? Is it unsafe? Is it Agile? Are there alternatives? “To date, no Agile Manifesto author has endorsed it. That should tell you something right there.”
David J. Anderson (2013) @f4p_dja Kanban – the anti-SAFe for almost a decade already “in 2003 I decided to focus on […] reducing or eliminating resistance to change. A process-centric focus wasn’t working without a lot of money, positional power and fear to motivate individuals to fall into line.”
Amr Elssamadisy (2013) @samadisy Is it safe? “The question is not whether SAFe should be used as the strategic basis for large Agile adoptions. The question is this: What will make those adoptions most successful?”
Ken Schwaber (2013) @kschwaber unSAFe at any speed “The boys from RUP are back, […] partnering with tool vendors. […] Consultants are available to customize [SAFe] for you, just like RUP”
Neil Killick (2012) @neil_killick The Horror Of The Scaled Agile Framework …” a horrible, money-making bastardisation […] of Scrum, Agile and Waterfall…”

P.S. Curiously enough, I was not able to find posts of sufficient depth, quality or otherwise of interest (subjectively, of course) from 2016. But surely there are some lying around! Can you point me to any?

The simplest way to run SAFe with JIRA

Ship in a Bottle Seute Deern 1

“Going agile with JIRA often looks like learning to sail with a ship you’ve built yourself – in a bottle” – Dr. Agilefant, 2016

Somewhere in your large, complex organization there are people who think you should strive for a more agile way of working. Some of those people may think that the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe™) could be a good blueprint to follow.

While there are alternatives, let’s suppose you want or have to use your existing JIRA to support also the new way of working.

Mismatch of models

SAFe is less complicated than it may seem at a first glance. The difficulties stem from JIRA’s conceptual model, which does not match what is suggested by SAFe. On top of that your organizational design and/or constraints posed by your suppliers or customers probably do not match the set-up suggested by SAFe either, but that is the subject of another post.

JIRA natively has a three level requirements abstraction model (Epics, Stories and Sub-Tasks), but the terms are not configurable. Sure, you could define new issue types with the proper naming, but the terms in the UI will remain the same. This means that at least some mental mapping is required from the users. And of course, a three-level work item breakdown does not scale to a four-level SAFe.

In addition, JIRA’s single level non-nested work containers (Projects) means that at least some workarounds will be needed to express SAFe’s levels of planning.

Typical pitfalls

JIRA originated as an in-house bug tracker. It’s first commercial release was in 2002, and while plenty of features have since been added, little has been taken out. While this makes JIRA highly configurable, it is easy to go overboard in terms of the workarounds.

A common pitfall we’ve seen is that prevailing impediments to agile such as a function or system based organization are replicated into JIRA as some key concept – typically as Projects. This further cements the existing structures – which in most cases should be dismantled and rebuilt around customer value delivery.

Another common challenge stems from attempting to overcome the limits of JIRA with plug-ins. While this is possible – to a degree – it leads to a more complicated set-up. And even with a willing, SAFe-trained organization and detailed instructions, the supposed way to use JIRA can prove too complex to grasp.

The result is a constant demand for training to grasp the complicated JIRA-with-plugins set-up. People also simply go around the complicatedness and make up their own special ways of using the tools, which makes progress roll-ups difficult and improving the ways of working via measurements impossible.

Resorting to ‘shadow accounting with MS Excel’ is also fairly common solution even in cases where JIRA is seemingly being used.

The simplest way

In matching SAFe and JIRA, you have to make some compromises. You should strive to avoid design decisions that directly get in the way of the transformation. You don’t want to simultaneously deal with both the resistance to the new way of working and the complicatedness of the desired JIRA usage model.

Having observed JIRA usage in a number of organizations striving toward large-scale agile we have devised a blueprint for how to implement ‘three-level’ SAFe (known as ‘Portfolio SAFe’ in the 4.5.1 version) using JIRA.

We’ve deliberately aimed at the simplest possible model doable with plain vanilla JIRA. While it is by no means perfect, it presents a sane starting point. The mapping of the key concepts is described in the table below.


SAFe concept JIRA concept Notes
Portfolio Project JIRA’s projects have no beginning or end, and they are the highest level wrapper of content
Epic Epic Workflow: funnel, review, analysis, backlog, implementing, done
Feature Custom defined issuetype ‘Feature’ Use JIRA’s native ‘epic link’ to connect Features to Epics. Workflow: funnel, analysis, backlog, implementing, done
Story Story Use the child-parent issue link to connect to Features; workflow funnel, backlog, sprint, done
(Bug) Bug Use the child-parent issue link to connect to Features; workflow funnel, backlog, fixing, done
Strategic theme Label Manually add at least to Epics; and then to the depth deemed relevant
Key system being worked on Component Add components to the depth of the work breakdown you have sibling work items which concern different components
Team, Train, Solution, Portfolio A single JIRA user for each party Multiple people use the same login. Everyone should have access rights to ‘everything’ except admin functionality
Portfolio kanban Kanban board One for each portfolio
Program kanban Kanban board One for each train; program increments are not explicitly modeled; Features in the status ‘implementing’ are considered to be in the current program increment
Team board Scrum or kanban board One for each team, according to their preference
PI Objective Online shared spreadsheet Not because it’s are good but because it’s better than what you’ll hack to JIRA – especially from the business owners you’ll want to get engaged.

Also, spreadsheet works better than JIRA for the most important metric suggested by SAFe – program predictability based on PI Objectives’ achieved business values

Evaluating the design choices

The choices made above come with good, bad and an ugly side. The Good is what we see as the upside of the choices, and The Bad as the downsides which we see that can be overcome. The Ugly refers to those downsides which are inherent to plain vanilla JIRA and can’t easily be worked around.

The Good

  • Very little mental mapping required; JIRA concepts are not forced to represent other things than their name implies
  • User per party and no access restrictions support the notion of shared responsibility and promotes the importance of frequent communication
  • Can be moved to in an existing JIRA set-up; changes are restricted to a single project and new ‘party’ users
  • Possible with plain vanilla JIRA
  • Not necessary to use JIRA’s rather convoluted sprint functionality
  • Virtually non-existent licensing cost (only a handful of user seats required)
  • Frees the parties to organize as they wish as a team (do more detailed coordination on a physical board, work as a mob, and so on)
  • Changing the legacy organization structure based around systems is a key challenge in most organizations; including this reality via modeling systems explicitly as Components can be leveraged to spot and eliminate dependencies as well as problems with the current organizational design

The Bad

  • Unconventional design choices (compared to how JIRA is in my experience commonly used) may cause resistance in moving to the model
    • No user per a living person
      • However, the model does not fundamentally change if the team-user is replaced with a person-user; you can still model the teams and trains as groups and use these in queries
    • No detailed user access control; everything is shared;
  • To leverage strategic themes in querying lower level items, you’ll need to add them by hand all the way to the story level
  • JIRAs label editor (or rather, the lack of one) makes the usage of Strategic themes error-prone
  • One might argue that having ‘Bug’ as its own issue type is against the grain of ‘the simplest thing that might work’; however, our experience is that sooner or later you’ll want to be able to discern between fixing and enhancing based on work item type; this also frees using labels for other purposes

The Ugly

  • Plain vanilla JQL is not powerful enough to support many queries which can be seen as interesting to running a SAFe-like process; in a future blog post will show what exactly I mean by this
    • However, the most important metric of SAFe has to do with PI Objectives and those we suggest should not be in JIRA at all
    • Also, the plugins required to ease the needed queries and detailed filtering work around the most critical issues are relatively inexpensive; we will take a more detailed look of this in a future post
  • Hard typing of requirements and no support for N-level work item splitting and; why you would want to avoid the former and have the latter is the subject of another (rather long) post by itself; but it has to do with the heart of agile requirements management – iterative refinement and keeping the batch sizes manageable
  • Program boards with dependency visualization can’t be done with plain vanilla JIRA; I predict sooner or later someone will do a free plugin compatible with Cloud JIRA

Running the model

We are running a model very similar to the one described in a couple of customer cases. In the future we will be writing about for example how PI and sprint plannings work in this model, and also present a set of example queries to questions commonly asked by the key SAFe-org stakeholders (such as ‘show me all the work related to this epic’ or ‘show all the work related to this strategic theme).

To be among the first to get the link, follow @dragilefant on Twitter or LinkedIn or @NitorCreations 

To be among the first to get the link, follow Nitor on Twitter or me on LinkedIn.
And should you be running something similar – or even try this model out – we’d very much like to hear of your experiences.