SAFe is a marketing framework, not an Agile scaling framework

SAFe sells the illusion you can radically change without leaving your comfort zone

Let’s try to make a list of all the reputable names who support Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Think about it. Does anyone come to mind?

I read hundreds of articles per year, and there’s literally not a single thought leader I can recall who champions SAFe as something great. I’m sure these advocates do exist, but if they do, they are few, and far outnumbered by those who oppose SAFe.

Now let’s make a list of all the respectable names I am aware of who have expressed their doubts and dissatisfaction about SAFe in writing:

I’m sure I could easily add ten more people to this list. These are the ones I could recall and write down within a few minutes. It’s far from exhaustive.

I want to stress I do realize some of the people on this list are involved in other competing scaling frameworks, but they never expressed the same dissatisfaction about any of the others. This could also be because the available alternatives seem to be far less popular than SAFe.

SAFe is unique because of the universal criticism it receives from many different perspectives — thought leaders in Agile, UX, and Product Management.

From personal experience, I’m unable to count how often I’ve been at meet-ups and heard people voicing frustration about being forced to work with SAFe by their leaders.

In short, my conclusion is there are far more experts in the world of Agile, Scrum, or Product Management who take don't take SAFe seriously, than those who do.

Yet despite this lack of support from thought leaders, SAFe unfortunately remains extremely popular. It actually is the most popular scaling framework for Scrum around the world (State of Agile 2020 report).

How does this make sense? How can it be so popular yet so universally criticized? The majority of the crème de la crème in tech doesn’t believe it works, yet many organizations still readily decide to adopt SAFe every day?

SAFe tells a story the management of traditional, bloated companies want to hear

By viewing SAFe as a marketing framework, and not a Scrum scaling framework, it becomes easy to understand what is going on. SAFe tells a story the CEOs of large companies like to hear: risk-free results without requiring significant changes. Where do we sign up already?

SAFe promises to get you sixpack abs in just 5 minutes per day without breaking a sweat.

That’s a way better sell than the dieting and hard work that is normally necessary to get sixpack abs — as it is presented by other frameworks. There are way more people who want a sixpack, than those who want to do the grueling hard work necessary to get there.

SAFe tells a story the C-level wants to believe. You can remain a couch potato and get rock hard abs too! I’d sign up for that too if it worked.

We all know that’s a total lie, but you can’t argue that it doesn’t pay off— we all know how big the dieting market is. There are enough people who will ‘buy it’, even if it doesn’t work. The hope of it working is a good enough sell to try it out.

SAFe tells a story that resonates with the existing worldview of numerous corporations. The SAFe narrative fits snugly with the existing command & control paradigm of many large companies.

You can keep on doing what you did before, shuffle some teams, we’ll throw in some fancy new labels and POOF! now you’re Agile.

Doesn’t that sound amazing? No hard work necessary, yet you’ll still have the same magnificent results?

That’s the promise and appeal of SAFe.

The SAFe acronym was carefully picked to seem risk-free. SAFe sells the illusion you can radically change while staying in your comfort zone. As nice as it sounds, deep down we all know it isn’t true.

Radical change is never easy.  Agile is a new paradigm that requires you to fundamentally change how you work. Most corporations are not up for those kind of drastic changes and that’s perfectly understandable. For them SAFe offers an alluring but ultimately inconsequential alternative.

SAFe offers what  corporations are familiar with and are able to recognize. That’s exactly why it’s bound to fail. Working in a new paradigm should feel uncomfortable and uncertain until the moment it doesn’t.

Unfortunately no shortcuts exist. The success of the SAFe framework shows there are many people who are gullible enough to pay for fake shortcuts, and enough people who are okay with profiting from illusory change.

If you’re still in doubt, then think about the following: did you ever hear the story of the self-organizing Scrum Team who decided to adopt SAFe?

Me neither.

No self-organizing team in their right mind would ever cripple themselves by adopting SAFe.

I want to stress: I do believe there is a place for SAFe in the world. But it isn’t a sensible path if you want to be Agile. And that’s cool, Agile isn’t for everyone, nor is it the best approach in every context.

Waterfall doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. SAFe is faux-agile, that some believe can act as a stepping stone towards agility.

In the words of Wayne Dyer:

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. — Wayne Dyer

SAFe doesn’t require you to change the way you look at things. You can keep doing what you did before with a twist.

Don't be fooled by SAFe. The marketing is great, but you're not scaling up what you currently have. If you want to scale something that is working, beware. You are throwing away your current success and going down a completely different road.

The introduction of SAFe when you already use Scrum can be best described as putting the car in reverse and losing all the progress you've made.

If that’s what you want, go for it!