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SAFe Agile Vs Agile: The Differences

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Last updated on
12th Jul, 2022
26th May, 2021
SAFe Agile Vs Agile: The Differences

It was only a relatively few years ago that traditional waterfall project management was pretty much the only way to go. And while it worked well for many projects – especially ones considered ‘predictive’ – it didn’t work so well for ones we will call adaptive. And so, over the past 20 years and especially the last 10 or so, agile has been increasingly used in projects, primarily software-based ones.  To know more about SAFe agile certification, click here.    

Know more about safe core values 

To define our terms, according to the Project Management Body of Knowledge Sixth Edition, “in a predictive or waterfall life cycle, the project scope, time, and cost are determined in the early phases of the life cycle. In an adaptive or agile life cycle, the “deliverables are developed over multiple iterations where a detailed scope is defined and approved for each iteration as it begins. 

In this post, we’ll look at Agile vs scaled Agile, specifically the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) developed by Dean Leffingwell. Also, check out the difference between Agile vs Scrum.

Difference between Agile and SAFe®  Agile

The Scrum Guide states that, the “essence of Scrum is a small team of people.” Which would be fine if all our projects were small and didn’t need to scale beyond that small team. We can handle scaling between functions or teams by using native Scrum of Scrums. But once we scale much beyond that then it is necessary to begin considering a scalable framework. 

So, the main difference between Agile and Scaled Agile is that Agile was designed for small teams with specific roles, whereas Scaled Agile is designed to scale all the way up to the enterprise.  

Get to know more about agile vs traditional project management.

Comparison of Scrum and Scaled Agile Framework

Has defined roles – (Kanban does not)Has several defined roles
Small core team sizeSmall core team size
Planning is done prior to the first sprint and at the beginning of each sprintPlanning is done at a timebox called a Program Increment.
Scales between teamsScales to the enterprise
Framework has no defined levelsFramework has four defined levels
Has core values – Agile Manifesto and twelve principlesHas core values – Built-in quality, transparency, program execution and alignment
Is focused on customer and business valueIs focused on customer and business value
Does not describe value streamValue stream is a key element
Strives to achieve continuous deliveryStrives to achieve continuous delivery

What exactly is Agile?

According to the Agile Alliance, Agile is “the ability to create and respond to change. It is a way of dealing with, and ultimately succeeding in, an uncertain and turbulent environment.”  

It is set of values and principles as expressed in the Agile Manifesto. While it can be used for a variety of projects it typically refers to a group of approaches to software development using iterative (repeated processes) and incremental (successively added functionality) development. 

The Agile Manifesto states that: 

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools 
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation 
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation 
  • Responding to change over following a plan 

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more. 

There is also an underlying set of 12 principles. The first two principles state that “our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software” and that we “welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage. 

Some of the more common Agile methods include Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP), Kanban, and Feature-Driven Development (FDD.) Of these, Scrum is by all accounts the most popular, so we’ll focus there.  

For the most part, all Agile methodologies have certain things in common – they use timeboxes, which Agile Alliance describes as “a previously agreed period of time during which a person or a team works steadily towards completion of some goal. 

They employ iterations to “develop the product through a series of repeated cycles and increments to successively add to the functionality of the product. The graphic below displays the Agile Scrum process. 

The Agile Scrum Framework at a Glance

At the end of a timebox – or sprint - the entire Scrum Team is accountable for creating a valuable, useful increment. Regular interactions with stakeholders, small batches of work, regular reviews and retrospectives improve the process and therefore, the product.

Read about 5 whys root cause analysis in agile teams, along with its approaches and success factors, in our blog posts.

The Scrum variant of Agile defines three important roles: 

  • A Product Owner orders the work for a complex problem into a Product BacklogHe or she is also responsible for developing and explicitly communicating the Product Goal, ordering Product Backlog itemsand ensuring that the Product Backlog is transparent, visible, and understood. 
  • The Scrum (or Development) Team turns a selection of the work into an increment of value during a Sprint. The Scrum Team and its stakeholders inspect the results and adjust for the next Sprint. They are cross functional, self-organizing and decide how to do the work.  
  • The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework and by removing impediments.  

Scrum uses several events or “ceremonies” to inspect progress toward the sprint goal and adapt the sprint backlog (items to be worked on) as needed: 

  • Daily Scrum - The purpose of the 15-minute Daily Scrum is to inspect progress toward the Sprint Goal and adapt the Sprint Backlog as necessary, adjusting the upcoming planned work. 
  • Sprint Review - The purpose of the Sprint Review is to inspect the outcome of the Sprint and determine future adaptations. The Scrum Team presents the results of their work to key stakeholders and progress toward the Product Goal is discussed. 
  • Retrospective - The purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to plan ways to increase quality and effectiveness. The Scrum Team inspects how the last Sprint went with regards to individuals, interactions, processes, tools, and their Definition of Done. 

Instead of command and control as practiced in a traditional waterfall, agile employs servant leadership which is a philosophy and practice of leadership based on listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment, and community building.  

What exactly is SAFe® Agile?

As mentioned above, Agile was designed for small teams and SAFe® was designed to scale to various levels, from essential to full SAFE®. It rests on the Agile Foundation and expands on it.  

Cprime recently published a report called Agile at Scale 2020. The report was based on a survey of companies who are scaling Agile beyond small teams and often to the enterprise. The size of development teams ranged from <50 (32%) to an astonishing 1001+ (18.4%).  

According to the same study, the leading framework at 34% is SAFe® while “Scrum only” is at 24%. The study doesn’t dig deeper into those numbers but it’s realistic to think that as companies scale to the enterprise, they require something more than Scrum only.  

SAFe® for Lean Enterprises is a knowledge base of proven, integrated principles, practices, and competencies for achieving business agility using Lean, Agile, and DevOps. It has several levels to which one can scale: 

Essential SAFE® - contains the minimal set of roles, events, and artifacts required to continuously deliver business solutions via an Agile Release Train (ART) as a Team of Agile Teams. 

Large Solution SAFe® describes additional roles, practices, and guidance to build and evolve the world’s largest applications, networks, and cyber-physical systems. It incorporates an additional competency called Enterprise Solution Delivery. 

Portfolio SAFe® aligns strategy with execution and organizes solution development around the flow of value through one or more value streams. It is the smallest configuration that can be used to achieve Business Agility and adds the core competencies of Lean Portfolio Management, Continuous Learning Culture, and Organizational Agility. 

Full SAFe® represents the most comprehensive configuration. It supports building large, integrated solutions that typically require hundreds of people to develop and maintain.  

Like Agile, the SAFe® framework has several defined roles, some of which are dependent on the level to which one aspires.

Key SAFe® roles at the Essential level   

The key SAFe® roles and main responsibilities at the Essential level are: 

  • Business Owners – key stakeholders who are ultimately responsible for the business outcome. 
  • System Architect/Engineer – responsible for designing and sharing the architectural vision across the agile release train, which means the work delivered will be fit for purpose. 
  • Product Manager – responsible for prioritizing features and ensuring they are well described and understood 
  • Release Train Engineer – responsible for ensuring the agile release train (the team of agile teams) work well together and follow the processes 
  • Agile Teams – responsible for delivery and quality of the work undertaken. 
  • Scrum Master – responsible for ensuring the team works well and follows the processes. 
  • Product Owner – responsible for prioritizing stories and ensuring they are well described and understood. 

Key SAFe® roles at Large Solution level  

The key 


Jim Stewart

Blog author

Since 2003, as a principal of JP Stewart Associates, Jim has been engaged in multiple endeavors including consulting, training and mentoring. A PMP since 2001 and Certified Scrum Master since 2013, he provides PMP Prep training both in public and private in-house sessions. In consulting, he frequently contributes by helping organizations increase their project maturity. He recently consulted to a financial services firm to help them set up a project management office. Jim is on the PM advisory board of MindEdge, Inc. and is co-author of the upcoming book, “Facilitating Project Planning Meetings: A Practical Guide to Ensuring Project Success.”