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LeSS and SAFe – An Unfair Agile Comparison

Twice the Work In Half the Time?

Many organisations’ decision to use Scrum is based upon the incorrect value proposition of “doing twice the work in half the time“.

Undoubtedly, this is an attractive proposition for most companies. It may bear fruit for those with one or two teams using Scrum.

For those who have worked at any scale beyond this, we know that this sales pitch for Scrum is just that, a sales pitch because the way that people have interpreted Scrum range from the brilliant to the idiotic.

This leads people to stop googling for things such as these

  • “how to make Scrum work.”
  • “agile training for Scrum Teams.”
  • “how to facilitate a great retrospective.”
  • “best agile certification”
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Can Scaling and Scrum Work?

The chances of using Scrum alone and generating the insights and opportunities necessary for organisations to meet or exceed their potential are slim.

Whats the result of this?

Well what we google changes

  • “how to scale agile”
  • “best agile scaling framework”
  • scaling agile case studies”
  • “scaled agile transformation consulting”

You are now presented with a narrow set of options and numerous sponsored links. 

Not very inspiring. 

What many get within all this noise is a ton of SAFe information, which is understandable. It is the approach that is the most sold, most spoken about, and most trained. Why? Because so many have chosen to go down the SAFe route. We could be forgiven for thinking that it was the only option.

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If I Had a Wish

Now a caveat. I wish we lived in a world where organisations had a purpose and goal shared by and believed in by all. With this, they would all make the most dazzling decisions regarding having multiple agile teams all working together. But this is not our reality, and I don’t believe it ever will be.

Today, I will share my top-level thoughts on SAFe to make you think differently and allow you to have more interesting conversations about it. 

I will also share some more profound thoughts on an alternative option that has been around for just as long and has steadily built up a loyal and discerning following, LeSS (Large Scale Scrum).

What is SAFe?

SAFe, or the “Scaled Agile Framework”, states it is designed to help organisations achieve business agility using a set of “proven” integrated principles, practices and competencies. Some people say the main aim behind SAFe is to implement agile methods across an organisation, and by doing this, business agility is achieved. 

SAFe’s unique selling point is its ability to tune into the needs of those in organisations who want a bit of “agile” in their organisation (for whatever underlying motivations). The way it has done this has been quite brilliant

Throughout the years, they have presented to people, primarily senior, something which doesn’t scare them with abstract concepts and simplicity but rather something which is much, much closer to what they have known for years. 

By keeping things similar but with a liberal sprinkling of words such as agile, Lean, and DevOps, the cognitive leap they have had to make has been much smaller, and as a result, they have been much more willing to take it. 

When you couple this with a vast number of experts in the field, many case studies and, very importantly, many respected consultancies exulting the virtues of SAFe, it seems like a no-brainer. 

SAFe is huge, successful (from a business perspective), and so well-known for many organisations being agile means using SAFe. It has created opportunities for people to make a living from it (through their trainer and part programme). It has provided agile practitioners with clear development paths (through all the training and certifications on offer). They have listened to their users & stakeholders and evolved, and if you spend any time on LinkedIn, really got people talking (aka arguing).

Large Scale Scrum Overview

What is LeSS?

LeSS (Large Scale Scrum) is a school of thought; many enthusiasts would say, an “organisational design” that shares many commonalities with Scrum but does differ in some impactful and fundamental aspects. 

First of all, LeSS doesn’t actually recommend scaling.  

We all know that software development is at its best when a few dedicated and aligned people create something they care about. But we humans are greedy (other motivations for scaling are available), and we want to generate more revenue, so we have to get bigger to create more and better features for our Product. 

LeSS differs significantly from SAFe in that it tries to keep that small organisation feeling as you grow or try to rekindle that feeling when you have already scaled up. 

It doe’s this by presenting a very stripped down, the bare minimum organisational design which is “purposefully incomplete”, perhaps for many just too incomplete to make sense for their organisation. Please look at LeSS.works to see the framework, and let me know your thoughts. 

Is it too incomplete?

This is very different from SAFe’s seemingly complete big picture and perhaps why many people fail to consider it an alternative. 

This really grinds my gears because once you learn about LeSS, you discover that it invites its users to add what they think is needed when there is data to suggest adding something would be an improvement to what they have now. 

In truth, LeSS, if done sensibly, slowly and with determination, has been proven to achieve large-scale coordination, high degrees of synchronisation and increasingly valuable product increments through the combined efforts of 10’s to 100’s teams, all through using Scrum as the foundation. I know. I have coached, facilitated and taught many organisations to be successful on this journey (the Royal Bank of Scotland and Deutsche Bank, for example.)

So what effect can it have? 

What I have witnessed is best described as harmonised collaboration resulting in alignment on product purpose, outcome and technical practices resulting in improved and enhanced product innovation. LeSS is specifically designed to enable stakeholders, with the support of expert Feature Teams, to collaboratively address complex problems by moving from the short-term, traditional project-based mindset and structures to a whole product, long-term focused, product-led organisation. LeSS is the only approach that provides guidance on defining your Product for maximum adaptability and value. This is its secret sauce (or a least the main ingredient).

One of the most exciting effects of LeSS usage I have seen is how it accelerates the career development of Scrum Masters. LeSS Scrum Masters are elevated to way beyond the team and are asked to take a more systemic view. This leads to unique opportunities for ingenious and inventive agile team facilitation and coaching that bring together those doing the work with those responsible for the more significant organisational decisions. In my experience, most LeSS Scrum Masters, with the proper educational and mentoring support, have gone on very quickly to be shining examples of Agile Coaches.

Of course, if done badly then you may well up hitting the FIP, but that’s another story.

In Conclusion

Many see SAFe as a complete system with a logical, hierarchical structure. At the outset, enterprises don’t have to add anything. However, this doesn’t leave room for real-time situational learning or genuine agility in achieving objectives.

With LeSS, the system needs to be completed, a Jigsaw designed to have pieces missing and an ecosystem that skills you up to build the remaining pieces based on your objectives. It is purposefully incomplete. There are gaps that enrich the process, so that true creativity takes place, adding measurable value. The impact on team collaboration is also notable. This is particularly evident with teams optimising self-management to gain highly aligned autonomy to secure ambitious goals. 

There’s no doubt that what LeSS offers to organisations is transformative in terms of scaling business agility and maximising digital dexterity to secure desired outcomes. Doing this through stakeholders and teams capitalising on critical thinking to constantly adapt to new conditions is indeed what agile was all about.

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Ben Maynard, Product Agility, Agile and LeSS Expert

Sheev Founder – Ben Maynard

Since 2009 Ben, has been passionate about organisational culture and design that enables the creation of value both for an organisation’s customers and its’s people I always want to know are we building the right Product and are we building it in the right way.

In recent years he has experimented with ways to balance an organisations desire for control, collaboration and innovation through educating, coaching and leading organisational transformations to get more with Large Scale Scrum (LeSS).

The catalyst to all of this has been his obsessional focus on the growth of people at all levels of an organisation so that they can be effective and successful in achieving the organisations and their own personal goals.