Agile at Scale: Comparing the Popular Scaling Frameworks

scaled agile methods

Are your teams already enjoying the benefits of agile? Then, you’re probably wondering how to take it to the next level. How do you scale agile across your teams to accelerate innovation and delivery, while still leaving them the freedom to do their best work?

As you’ll learn below, scaling agile entails more than just deploying agile tools across all business units. You need a well-designed model to avoid pitfalls and achieve enterprise agility.

We have worked with multiple clients on their journey to adopt lean and agile practices at scale. Often, the biggest impediment to change is a lack of clarity around the organization’s needs before scaling agile.

For a better understanding of agile at scale – what it is and how it works – we recommend that you read The Complete Guide to Scaling Agile.

In this blog post, we will cover the most important considerations when choosing a framework for scaled agile. You will learn the key differences between the following scaling frameworks and when to apply them:

But first, let’s take a look at some agile transformation initiatives to understand how these frameworks compare.

Agile Organizational Structure: Managing from the Outside-In

Being agile requires a mindset shift from maximizing stakeholder value to delighting customers. Which means an agile organizational structure that is neither top-down nor bottom-up. Instead, it must orient product owners, engineers, and others into the customer’s position when developing products or services.

In this context, managers are responsible for maintaining the product backlog based on customer demands, while eliminating impediments that may affect solution delivery. At the team level, everyone works independently to deliver the required features.

To ensure transparency and alignment, companies need a central source of information and guiding principles to coordinate work across teams efficiently. That’s why having a scaled framework in place is crucial to enjoying the full benefits of agile.

The first step to evaluating any scaling method is understanding how it can fit into your existing structure and processes. Whether you are managing multiple scrums or a cross-department portfolio, look for a framework that helps you connect teams around a value stream to anchor all developmental work.

The best-suited frameworks:

  • Portfolio Scaled Agile Framework (Portfolio SAFe)
  • Disciplined Agile Delivery (DaD)

Agile Pilot Project: Starting Small, Scaling Fast

Having early adopters to pilot agile across the company allows you to scale on the right foot, and that’s half the battle.

A pilot project also introduces various agile practices to your team, which reduces the learning curve when taking it to scale. Ideally, you should start with scrum as the underpinning method, since it is the fundamental agile framework that can be deployed in any function.

For example, traditional marketing is all about large-scale proposal to leverage on the client’s maximum budget. With scrum, the marketing team can go ahead with a light-weight project for experimentation and continuous improvement. So for a 2-week sprint, their goal can be “send research findings to the client,” then “send variations of product design” for the next sprint goal, and so on.

You can roll out scrum vertically or horizontally as part of the piloting roadmap:

  • Vertical scaling: Instead of making agile transformation exclusive to a single scrum team, every business unit executes their own agile initiatives (simultaneously or sequentially). They take ownership of a particular product line, then integrate the work of multiple teams into a single product.
  • Horizontal scaling: One or multiple functions are selected to adopt a specific agile framework. As they exhibit the agile principles, other business units learn from the experience of the pioneering team and start to replicate their success.

Related: 6 Years in The Making: Our Sprint Plan Agenda

As every framework is designed for specific requirements (e.g., the need for strict regulation or a low learning curve), you need to tap into different domains of the business to uncover areas in which agile can thrive. Look for a simple and scalable framework.

The best-suited frameworks:

  • Scrum of Scrums (SoS)
  • Essential Scaled Agile Framework (Essential SAFe)

Agile Practices: Flexibility vs Regulation

Agile does not provide a singular guideline for every process, product, or project in every environment, especially in regulated industries like banking or oil and gas. Delivering agile projects is a high-stakes proposition for leaders in these industries. They demand traceability and audit trails that are not supported by scrum ceremonies.

You need to look into the regulatory compliance aspect of a scaling model. As previously mentioned, a pilot agile project is essential to exemplify the benefits of different agile practices. 

 The best-suited frameworks:

  • Full Scaled Agile Framework (Full SAFe)
  • Disciplined Agile Delivery (DaD)

Agile in Non-Development: Mapping the Value Chain

To successfully scale agile across the enterprise, you need to ensure that every function is agile-ready. This includes getting buy-in from executive leadership.

Taken beyond the software development context, it might be hard for other departments to adhere to agile principles. Hence, the importance of having a value-driven agile transformation model. In SAFe, this is also referred to as the value stream.

For instance, HR and finance functions are traditionally considered as supporting roles, since they deal with internal demands. They are expected to coordinate their activities around the value stream, either as a driver or supporter of other agile functions. 

These non-development teams are part of the value chain creation that facilitates enterprise agility. You can’t expect to deliver frequently when other colleagues, say, in finance, are still following the traditional command-control approach to budget approvals. At the very least, simplify the decision-making process while encouraging autonomy at the team level. This will help you accelerate the launch of your product or service.

It’s not easy to let go of control, but it’s possible to connect agile teams to organizational hierarchy with the right framework.

The best-suited frameworks:

  • Scrum of Scrums
  • Disciplined Agile Delivery
  • Scaled Agile Framework

How Do These Frameworks Compare?

Based on the core components of agility specified above, here is a comparative guide to the three most popular scaling methods: Scrum of Scrums, Scaled Agile Framework, and Disciplined Delivery.

Aspects Scrum of Scrums (SoS) Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)Disciplined Agile Delivery (DaD)
Summary A scaling method, ideally suited for software development, that enables fluid communication across multiple scrum teams via SoS meetings. These scrum teams collaborate to integrate and ship a product. The most comprehensive scaling method, SAFe takes a blended approach to Agile, DevOps, and Lean principles to address the full product development cycle. Its principles revolve around the concept of continuous value creation.     A hybrid between scrum and other methods, including Agile Modelling, Kanban, Lean, and SAFe. Under this framework, teams can focus on all aspects of solution delivery, including the process gaps that scrum leaves out.
Organizational structure – levels of scaled agile Team level, Inter-team level Team level, Program level, Portfolio level Team level, DevOps, IT, Enterprise (including stakeholders)
Flexibility High Low Medium
Technical complexity Low High Medium
Team-level agile frameworks Scrum Scrum / Kanban / XP Hybrid Scrum and Kanban / Agile modelling / Lean startup
Supporting hierarchical practices? Low High Medium
Central or decentralized control Distributed teams with light moderation Top-down control (the “what”) with bottom-up execution strategy (the “how”) Mix of central and distributed decision making
Target size Small organization Large enterprise Medium to large enterprise
Supporting geographically distributed teams? Low High High
Anchored principles Inter-team dependency coordination Prescriptive framework for scalable agility Address the technical process gaps in agile development at scale
Suitable for- Anywhere with Scrum Large enterprises Variety of project types and enterprises
Core benefits Simple and effective, especially for pilot agile projects with focus on dependencies Having the big picture view to deploy agile at large, with the flexibility to descale / upscale as required Strong foundation for regulated environment, with focus on architecture, design, and devops
Cons Undefined documentation, limited scaling capacity Too prescriptive for a truly agile environment, complex for non-IT adoption Vague descriptions in the execution strategy

There are still many more scaling frameworks that have evolved from, or been inspired by, these foundational principles. You may have also heard of Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS), Nexus, or the Spotify model. Again, depending on your organization’s agility goals and purposes, you will need a tailored approach to scale.

Let us help you soar higher with agile at scale. Contact us today for a free assessment and recommendations to deploy the right framework for your team.

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