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SAFe vs. Scrum: which is right for you? 9 min read
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“The world is Agile.”

It’s a cliche by now, but that doesn’t make it less of a movement.

Any company not using Agile processes in 2020 is liable to come off as a bit of a dinosaur (and not the fun dinosaurs chasing Jeff Goldblum, but the old ones covered in dust).

The paradox of Agile is that the longer you wait to adopt it, the harder it gets. A software development company working at a large scale will find the transition a lot more difficult than a startup.

Cruise ships are harder to steer than dinghies.

If you want to adopt Agile software development practices but your company is too big and interconnected to convert to Scrum, you’ve got options. You could develop your own product flow entirely from scratch to operate at scale.

Or (and this is what we recommend) you could use the SAFe approach — Scaled Agile Framework.

This article will explain the difference between SAFe and Scrum, and help you decide which is the better approach for your team.

SAFe vs. Scrum: What’s the difference?

Scrum is a simple, flexible approach to adopting Agile that’s great for small teams. SAFe is an enterprise-wide Agile framework designed to help bring Agile beyond the team and into the company as a whole.

To boil it down to a couple sentences, Scrum is a way to tackle a project using Agile, and SAFe is a way to make your entire end-to-end business Agile — Including non-project work and non-project employees.

Why are there two different approaches? Why can’t you just scale up Scrum?

To answer these questions, we need to take a look at Agile as a whole and how each framework fits into the picture.

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A brief Agile refresher

Before Agile, every software project had to be planned out in full before anybody could start work.

Project timelines could last months or years. Often, by the time a team finished building something, nobody wanted it anymore.

The Agile Manifesto argued that software couldn’t go on like this. Development kept evolving, but project management didn’t. The engineers might as well have still been writing their code on punch cards.

People like us have written a lot of words defining Agile, but the core idea is simple: Build faster, release faster, and let the customer decide what works.

What does Scrum have to do with Agile?

Scrum is among the most popular Agile methodologies — so popular that many people mistake them for synonyms. In reality, the ideas behind Scrum originated decades before the Agile Manifesto, but nowadays they’re partners in crime.

Short timeframes and regular releases of working products are the heart of Scrum.

Projects are broken down into 1-4 week Sprints and at the end of each Sprint, there should be a product ready to ship.

To learn more about how Scrum works, check out our complete guide to the Scrum methodology.

Agile Scrum is more popular than coffee. In a 2018 survey, 85% of Scrum adherents said it made their work life better, while 97% said they planned to keep using it.

Yet Scrum has its limits. By emphasizing autonomy, self-organization, and working in parallel, it’s best suited for small teams.

But what if you’re building a huge product that requires dozens of teams working at once?

Or you want more than just your projects to reap the rewards of being Agile?

That’s where the SAFe framework comes in.

What is SAFe?

Let’s go back to our cake metaphor (and not just because we skipped lunch).

If the Agile principle is the idea for the cake, and Scrum is the recipe, then SAFe is a bakery. It’s a process for baking dozens of cakes a day.

The best way to do that is an assembly line. You’ll need a batter team, an oven team, a frosting team, and so on.

Each team needs to be creative and adaptable, but if they’re all given too much freedom, you’ll never get your delicious Agile development to work.

In SAFe, the assembly line is called an Agile Release Train (ART).

It’s basically a team of teams, with a middle-management layer (called the program level) to direct their workflow toward disciplined Agile delivery. A few big-picture visionaries called the portfolio level work above the program level.

By coordinating per Sprint, an ART can get a lot more done than a decentralized constellation of Scrum teams.

SAFe is wildly popular. There are about 600,000 people worldwide with some kind of SAFe or agile project management certification — almost one for every certified scrum trainer. But it, too, can have a dark side.

So, which one is right for you?

Only you can decide. But we can give you the tools you need to choose.

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Is SAFe or Scrum right for me?

How can you decide between two fundamental approaches to Agile — with the future of your company on the line if you fail to adapt?

Let’s break it down.

Scrum pros

  • Scrum is a fantastic approach for small, nimble companies, especially startups with only one or two teams.
  • Because Scrum focuses on freedom and autonomy for employees, it leads to huge increases in job satisfaction. A manager (Scrum Master) becomes an unblocker, rather than a dictator.
  • Scrum keeps teams close to their customers, enabling a rapid back-and-forth that benefits everybody.

Scrum cons

  • Scrum is difficult to pull off at scale, especially if you have many teams working on the same product.
  • Scrum relies heavily on the experience and commitment of every Scrum team member. One weak link can throw an entire project off.
  • It doesn’t work well for tackling business processes outside of projects.

SAFe pros

  • SAFe helps larger organizations work smoothly together by placing individual Scrum teams in a productive sequence.
  • If you have a big company that’s been around for a while, SAFe might be easier to evolve toward than a pure Scrum implementation at scale.
  • SAFe applies the Agile method to the whole company, not just to one team at a time.

SAFe cons

  • Adding middle managers can compromise the freedom of Scrum teams to be creative and act autonomously. If you implement it wrong, SAFe can turn out just as problematic as an old-school Waterfall approach.
  • A SAFe product vision is less adaptable. Decisions are no longer being made by the people closest to the problem.
  • More than one Agile coach thinks SAFe doesn’t count as an Agile approach at all, since it doesn’t fully commit to the principles in the Agile Manifesto.

3 easy steps to get started with Agile

Whether you’ve chosen SAFe or Scrum adoption, here are some simple steps you can take to implement your new Agile framework.

#1: Get familiar with the ‘why”

We know it’s tempting to jump right into SAFe or Scrum — you’re eager to see the benefits. But before you get into the ‘what’ it’s essential you know the ‘why’.

If your team doesn’t understand Agile principles and values, it’ll be harder to get them on board with some of the new processes and workflows coming their way.

Keep in mind that Scrum and SAFe also have their own values and principles to embrace. (If you’re leaning toward Scrum, check out our plain English version of the Scrum Guide.)

This step isn’t about reading and memorizing a boring manifesto. And you don’t have to get a Scrum Master certification to run an Agile team.

But, you do need to get everyone on the same page with why it’s time for a change and how your Agile transformation is going to make everything better.

Achieving team buy-in early will make all the rest of this a walk in the park.

#2: Don’t reinvent the wheel

This might be your first time adopting SAFe or Scrum, but if you think you’ve got to start from scratch we’ve got good news.

Remember how popular we said each framework was?

Thousands of people have been through this process — Learn from us.

We have tons of free templates you can use to get you started. Some of them have been developed by our team here at Others were created by customers, like this action board template from Kyle Ford from Ford Lab Media.

A screenshot of the action board template from

Whatever framework you choose, we have templates that can get you off to a running start.

#3: Adapt as you go

You’re not going to get it right the first time. That’s just a rule of life.

Agile is all about continuous improvement. So, don’t expect perfection.

In Scrum, each Sprint ends with a retrospective. This is your chance to gather the team together to discuss what went well, what didn’t, and how you can improve things going forward.

You can incorporate this approach whether you choose Scrum, SAFe, or another framework altogether.

Use our Sprint retrospective template to capture feedback and actions for the future. Then work on getting progressively better.

A screenshot of a Sprint retrospective template from


You don’t have to choose if you’re not sure whether SAFe or Scrum would best suit your organization.

You can always follow the lead of Toyota, and build a unique Agile process from the ground up for your own company.

Agile principles are universal. To understand that, look no further than its tools. The Process Management Template is a great example of how an Agile tool can be helpful no matter which Agile framework you use.

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