4 Myths About Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe)

By: Mike Hall | Feb 06, 2020 |  Agile Transformation,  Article

Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe® is the most popular and far-reaching of the Agile scaling frameworks out there. But before you make the decision to go all-in with this popular framework, it’s important to know the facts. Here are 4 busted myths about SAFe.

1. Scaled Agile Framework is prescriptive!

The myth that “SAFe is prescriptive!” is the one I hear the most often. Let’s examine this a bit closer by starting with the meaning of the word “prescriptive”. A common definition for this word is “enforcement of a rule or method”. Even more telling are the listed synonyms: dictatorial, narrow, rigid, authoritarian, repressive, dogmatic. Yikes!

SAFe is a framework. It is not a set of rigid rules. Like any good framework, it requires thoughtful customization to your specific situation. The documentation available at Scaled Agile clearly highlights this dynamic. 

There is one “rigid” aspect to SAFe, and rightfully so. The 10 SAFe Principles are considered immutable. As mentioned above, the principles are considered best practices from the Lean and Agile worlds. These guiding statements are principles, not practices. SAFe clearly allows for customized practices as long as the principles are not encumbered.

2. Scaled Agile Framework is heavyweight

At first glance, SAFe looks overly complicated, thus the cries of “heavyweight”. I would instead call it “complete” or “comprehensive”. But let’s be honest here – typical Agile enterprise transformations are complicated! It stands to reason that most enterprises will need a reasonably comprehensive framework to leverage when pursuing full enterprise agility.

Designed specifically for large enterprise, SAFe addresses the important enterprise-level challenges such as:

  •     How business strategy is translated into executable actions at the development team level
  •     How to ensure seamless collaboration between IT and business
  •     Lean economics
  •     Funding
  •     Pull-based model of bringing the work to persistent teams
  •     Consistent estimation approaches across all teams

3. Scaled Agile Framework is RUP

As a software developer back in the day, I familiarized myself with the Rational Unified Process (RUP) and experienced some reasonable success using it on several projects. RUP has 4 project lifecycle phases – Inception, Elaboration, Construction, and Transition. While it sounds a bit waterfall-ish, these phases do overlap significantly, which allowed for some level of inspection and adaptation between the phases. RUP also points out that iterative development should be used during the Construction phase.

I like to think of RUP as a “bridge” from Waterfall development to Agile development. Personally, at the time I did not think RUP went far enough from an agility perspective. But it was significantly better than standard Waterfall, and for that, we owe the inventors a debt of gratitude.

There is nothing in SAFe that even remotely resembles RUP. SAFe is Agile on steroids, scaled for the enterprise. RUP is a bridge between Waterfall and Agile. In SAFe, there are no old-fashioned phases or gate reviews. Frankly, the only thing in common between SAFe and RUP is that they are both product development frameworks that help teams be successful. And that’s a good thing. 

SAFe represents advanced, evolved, mature Agile thinking – for the whole enterprise.     

4. Scaled Agile Framework is an all-or-nothing approach

Another popular myth is that SAFe must be used in its entirety regardless of the situation. This is false.

As described above, Full SAFe has 3 levels: Portfolio, Large Solution, and Essential. SAFe is configurable. If you don’t need a level, then don’t use it. For example, Essential SAFe consists of only the Team and Program levels. Many enterprise transformations use Essential SAFe only. Others start with Essential SAFe and then add a 3rd layer over time to handle even larger initiative (Large Solution layer) or portfolio management (Portfolio layer) to handle business definition and funding.

Within each layer is a set of roles, constructs, and events. If any of these do not make sense in your specific situation, then don’t use it. But always cross-check your decision against the 9 SAFe principles to make sure that you are still headed in the right direction from a Lean-Agile perspective.

I like to call SAFe a “subtractive framework” in that it covers all or most situations for a full-on enterprise Agile transformation. An Agile leader wanting to apply SAFe can pick and choose which levels to use. You can start with just the 2-level Essential SAFe which provides a straightforward scale up from team-based Agile. You can subtract aspects that do not fit your culture. You can also adjust the specific practices recommended to best fit your company’s culture and needs – as long as you don’t violate SAFe’s nine core principles. 


SAFe is here to stay. It satisfies the need for many organizations to scale Agile within their enterprise. While it does have its detractors, SAFe should be considered carefully by those leading an Agile transformation. Continue your reading on SAFe with Demystifying SAFe® : A beginner’s guide to Scaled Agile Framework.


Looking to scale Agile throughout your enterprise? 

Contact Agile Velocity to explore options and find the right solution for you.


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