History & Origins
SAFe was created by Dean Leffingwell – a successful entrepreneur and software development methodologist who has consulted to many companies, over years, including Rational Software, Rally Software, as well as many others. Dean’s LinkedIn profile displays “Chief Methodologist” in the title. LeSS was co-found by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde – both of whom are hands-on software developers, with many years (up until today) of experience, in large-scale, multi-site product development environments, including product companies, large telecom and investment banking. Both co-founders have a lot of experience with organizational design and system modelling (a big part of LeSS). Interestingly, Craig’s LinkedIn profile states “public safety, junior programmer” and Bas’s – “team member“. The irony is in the modesty of their titles, since both co-founders have made a monumental investment in the industry, in the area of agile product development during the last few decades.
The initial release of SAFe program was in 2011, with five major release that followed.
Although, as an *official* framework, LeSS was announced only in 2015, its history goes back decades. The three Large Scale Scrum product development books were written in 2008, 2010 and 2016 years, respectively, with many field experiments collected over of the years, prior to 2008. Essentially, LeSS has been a huge body of knowledge, collected over many years, before it became known as the framework.
Market Share, Framework Versioning and Certifications
SAFe is very widely known. Its market share in the world of scaling is by far, the highest of all known frameworks. Consultancy market is dominated by Certified SAFe Product Consultants (SPC) that hold, at least one, of many SAFe badges. Because there are so many versions of SAFe (2.0, 4.0, 4.5, 4.6, 5.0), naturally, certification holders are driven to come back, for an upgrade training, to remain ‘up-to-date’. Since SAFe supports a number roles that are aligned to traditional organizational roles, many SAFe courses are role-specific. The number of instructors that can deliver SAFe courses is also high, with many course-reselling companies being actively involved in marketing, promotion and re-selling.
LeSS is not as widely known. Its market share, relatively to SAFe, is low. There are only three main types of LeSS certifications (Basics, Practitioner and Executives), with other few types, mainly, being on-line versions of the main ones. LeSS training/certification is not ‘role-specific’. LeSS adoptions are deep and narrow (as oppose to being broad & shallow). According to field experts, there is no expectation that LeSS will become a mainstream in a foreseeable future. This is because LeSS has high expectations for organizational design improvements (see below) that many companies are not yet ready for. Today, there are very few LeSS trained/certified people because the number of accredited LeSS instructors is also relatively low (slightly over 20 people, globally). LeSS, just like Scrum, does not have any versions. There are two LeSS frameworks: [simple] LeSS framework (up to 8 teams) and LeSS Huge (stacks of LeSS, totaling hundreds or more people, if required).
Influence by Large Consultancies
Many large consultancies recommend SAFe to its clients, as a framework of choice (Note: As a corollary, many companies-clients, to officially remain framework-agnostic, adopt their own flavor of SAFe, essentially, using their own internal terminology, while mimicking/mapping to SAFe terminology, structure, etc). For large consultancies, this ensures a more profitable and prolonged engagement, since SAFe implementation involves many people, processes and tools (see below). Dave Snowden refers this type of engagement as an ‘industrial model’, since it ensures a “massive roll out, with lots of people, over a long period of time” (also, see this “Triple Taxation” illustration to understand a financial impact on companies-clients). Another reason why SAFe happens to be a framework of choice by large consulting companies, is that the framework itself does not require any major changes to a traditional organization design and as such, does not put large consultancy representatives, in an uncomfortable position of purists-radicals that have to challenge their clients’ ways of working (not too much status quo challenging ensures a longer and more profitable engagement).
LeSS does not have much recognition by large consultancies for the following three suspected reasons: (1) organizational design of large consultancies [themselves] is inconsistent with LeSS teaching and therefore, there are no internal success stories to share with clients; 2) consultants don’t have enough LeSS adoption knowledge to comfortably support their clients with LeSS adoptions; 3) risk aversion, as stated above (fear to challenge radically, and therefore lose business), makes LeSS a bad choice.
Business Partnership with Tooling Companies
Today, almost any workflow management or bug tracking tool (e.g. VersionOne, Rally, VSTS/TFS, Jira, etc) is very closely aligned (some, also are strategically partnered) with SAFe. This makes SAFe adoption especially convenient, since practically any large company today has one (sometimes, multiple) of the above mentioned tools in its arsenal, and considers them as a big part of agile transformation journey. Practically, every tool that has the word *agile* in its name, also has a module/layer(s) that could be easily mapped (configured) to a multi-layered structure of SAFe. This gives a sense of comfort to a company, about its own ‘agility fitness’, since now a company can conveniently fit its workload and organizational structure into a tool and framework. This also creates great opportunities for SAFe and tooling companies to cross-sell and cross-promote each other.
LeSS is completely silent on what tools should be used to visualize work. There are no strategic partnerships with tooling companies. The only recommendation LeSS gives that whatever tooling is used, it should be very flat (simple) and easy to operate (e.g. no more than three levels of work decomposition; no commingling product and spring backlogs, etc).
Framework ‘Size’ and Traditional Organizational Design
SAFe involves many people, teams and departments. One of the main reasons why so many organizations are comfortable to adopt SAFe is that it does not really challenge, a status quo of first-, mid-level management and traditional organizational design. In one of his early-days webinars, recorded with VersionOne, Dean Leffingwell clearly stated: “…We don’t typically mess with your organizational structure because that is a pretty big deal…”. In SAFe, many traditional organizational layers (programs, portfolios) and roles (solutions architects, enterprise architects, various types of managers (project, program, portfolio, release, solutions, etc) have a place to exist. SAFe provides a very safe environment for traditional managers: everyone has a role and some responsibilities. Notably, on a SAFe diagram, agile teams illustrated at the very the bottom of SAFe overall picture, with many management layers coming over the top.
LeSS product group consists of 2-8 teams (maximum 70 developers, assuming a maximum recommended number of developers in Scrum is nine), with a minimal number of additional roles involved (Product Owner, Scrum Masters, users, stakeholders). LeSS Huge adoptions, with hundreds to thousands of people involved (they are gradual and take years) have a very minimal add-on to organizational complexity, in the form of [product] Requirement Areas, prioritized by Area Product Owners.
LeSS explicitly challenges traditional organizational design and calls for organization DE-scaling (flattening), as means of scaling agility and Scrum. In LeSS, a Team of developers is the key organizational building block. In LeSS, middle and first-line managers are not required. Managers in LeSS, if remain, radically change their focus from individuals and work-assignment management to capability-building and teams’ enablement. In LeSS, programs and portfolios cease to exist. LeSS is Scrum, applied to many teams, working together on one large product, and therefore, LeSS is best to use for product centric development, where a product centricity is really important (note: in LeSS a product could be a combination of software and hardware).
Team Structure and Coordination
SAFe includes various types of teams: agile teams, Kanban teams, XP teams and System teams, DevOps teams, architecture teams, etc. In practice, these are single-functional specialty teams and component teams that are inherited from traditional organizational design and, therefore, still require a lot of additional coordination, integration of work and dependency management. As such, there is a need for release managers (e.g. Release Train Engineers), Solutions Architects and other types of coordination managers – people that are responsible for bringing everything together.
In LeSS, all coordination between teams (each team is a cross-functional feature team) is done by teams, themselves (not even Scrum Masters). Each team in LeSS is fully capable to deliver a product-centric backlog item (feature), from start to finish. In LeSS, teams are responsible for coordination and integration. Dependencies in LeSS are viewed, as something highly undesirable (hard, asynchronous dependencies are viewed as a sign of organizational weakness), internal contracts (“us vs. you”) and unwillingness to work closely together – something that must be minimized, in favor of close collaboration among teams. In LeSS, a lot of emphasis is made on communication through code, mentorship, community learning and other lateral (horizontal) knowledge-sharing techniques.
Backlogs and Product Centricity
In SAFe, there are many different types of backlogs: team (private) backlogs, program backlogs, solution backlogs, portfolio backlogs etc. – each representing a respective organizational structure (people that are compartmentalized/departmentalized in their reporting verticals, ways of working and communication) and aligned with a specific team type, at various layers of the framework (e.g. , essential, program, solution, portfolio). In order to keep all backlogs in sync and relevant, there is a lot of coordination and management required.
In LeSS, there is only one backlog: Product Backlog – shared by all (2-8) teams that work on the same, product, while servicing the same Product Owner. As stated above, there are no programs or portfolios in LeSS – these traditional layers of WBS management are discontinued, in favor of a widened product definition. There is a lot of direct coordination between teams in LeSS (intra- and cross-teams), by team members.
SAFe Product Owner is a team member, who is responsible for defining/detailing and prioritizing team backlog items (frequently, component items). SAFe PO can support, at most, 1 to 2 teams because focusing too much on details and tactical implementation requires a lot of time. In practice, SAFe PO is often an ex-business analyst, ex-project manager or a tech-lead – something that works well, because majority of teams in SAFe are [technical] component teams.
LeSS Product Owner is conceptually the same as in one-team Scrum. However, in LeSS, PO focuses on an overall strategy and ensures maximum return on investment (ROI) in the product. LeSS PO puts all of his/her focus on prioritization, whereas clarification, as much as possible, flows through users/stakeholders (see below). In practice, LeSS PO is usually a product manager or a head of business operations (e.g. head of marketing, sales) – for external product development OR an experienced, hands-on individual from one of the major user departments, who is interested in taking on the role and is political savvy – for internal product development.
Proximity of Customers, Users and Stakeholders
In SAFe, it is less likely that business people will interact directly with developers, because there are specific, dedicated roles for such interaction. For example, Epic Owners (Portfolio level business people) interact directly with ART (Agile Release Team) / RTE (Release Train Engineers) and Solution Train / STE (Solution Train Engineers). Similarly, Business Owners (Essential SAFe level) that are responsible for governance and compliance, also interact with ART.
In LeSS, users and stakeholders are brought in direct contact with teams, and this is clearly defined in LeSS organizational design and rules of engagement, defined during initial (preparatory) phase of LeSS adoption (up to 2 months, prior to sprinting). For the most part, all clarifications and details about product backlog items flow to teams directly from users and stakeholders. In LeSS, there are no individuals or teams that are responsible for architecture only, solutions only or releases only – all these responsibilities reside within teams of LeSS Product Group, where all teams work on features, in a customer centric way.
Integration and Release Management
In SAFe, the System Team is responsible for development and maintenance of the toolchain that supports the Continuous Delivery Pipeline. It is also responsible for integration of code, produced by delivery (agile) teams. ART (Agile Release Team), spearheaded by RTE (Release Train Engineer) – responsible for releases.
In LeSS, teams (2-8 teams in LeSS Product Group) share the same Definition of Done (DoD) and are responsible for their own integration and production deployment. Teams make take turns, from sprint to sprint, in leading these activities, while closely coordinating with other teams and cross-pollinating each other with knowledge on how to do it successfully. There are no full-time dedicated teams to handle these special activities only. If there is any work that teams are not able to complete by Sprint-end, it is qualified as ‘Undone’ department work (highly undesirable) and is considered as an organizational impediment.
Agile Leadership and Frameworks
Usually, SAFe is the framework of choice, when an organization is not ready to make any major significant changes and where the following organizational facets are considered “untouchable”: a status quo of mid-level management, traditional budgeting, traditional portfolio structures (projects, programs), traditional HR norms and policies. SAFe adoptions are typically spearheaded by traditional groups, such as PMO, CDO or a center of excellence. People that are in charge of action are best described by Larman’s Law or Organizational Behavior # 4 – individuals that have fast-tracked themselves into agile experts. Adoption of SAFe is a very effective way to provide role safety to many traditional roles, that by minor updates to their titles will remain involved with the effort.
LeSS adoptions have chance to succeed in environments, where there is a real urgency to change, and where there is a strong need to bring real, tangible business value to real customers and users soon. Usually, people that drive successful LeSS adoptions come from hands-on product development (technology) or from business operations (e.g. sales, marketing). The should be also supported by by seasoned organizational design consultants, with years of experience of serving multiple organizations. Prior to proceeding with LeSS, senior management needs to be educated on organizational design implications of LeSS and it must provide an informed consent (explicit agreement to provide support in action, not just in-spirit).
“All models are wrong, but some are useful“. – George Fox.
It is probably impractical to debate which framework is best to use. In order to decide on the best choice, we need to understand what strategic goals and objectives an organization wants to achieve:
SAFe can provide a top-down mandatory structure and control over an existing organizational disarray, without challenging significantly traditional roles, responsibilities, hierarchies (reporting and WBS) processes and tools. Most likely, organizational complexity, will not be simplified with SAFe, but it might be worth it if benefits of order out-weight expected complexity. If an organization wants to do a major, large-scale roll out, involving thousands of people at once, and prefers a well-structured, change management process, based on play books, templates, prescriptive execution and compliance, then SAFe could be a good choice.
LeSS, just like Scrum, is based on empirical process control and contentious inspection, adaptation and experimentation. If LeSS is adopted, with its minimal rules and guidelines, it can provide an array of deep systemic improvements but not every company might be ready to accept them. LeSS would also require a significant change to a sphere of control by traditional roles, responsibilities, hierarchies, processes and tools (LeSS adoption principle #1). LeSS will challenge a status quo of some people, and therefore, success of LeSS adoption is strongly dependent on support by senior management (LeSS adoption principle #2) that must ensure job safety and career opportunities for impacted people. LeSS adoptions will not be fruitful if they are mandatory and based on compliance. Instead, LeSS adoptions require a genuine commitment and are based on volunteering (LeSS adoption principle #3). For example, the oldest, biggest and most active global LeSS (NYC) Meetup is based on the principle of volunettering. One of the most powerful tools (also an effective coaching tool) that is used in LeSS, is System Thinking – something that helps understand various aspects of organizational design (e.g. local optimization) that may not be otherwise obvious.