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  • Dan Gibson

Scaling Frameworks - A Balanced View



Why bother with an Agile scaling framework? The front runners seem to get a lot of bad press, and when I say front-runners, I use that term in the loosest possible sense. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is storming ahead in adoption rates while Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) and Scrum-at-Scale trail behind. It’s inevitable that the winners in this world will be the target of criticism, but is the criticism valid? Do the frameworks hold the key to adoption or should we go it alone with a custom solution?


To help answer that question I’ll enlist the help of Jorgen Hesselberg and his excellent book ’Unlocking Agility’. I’ve taken a keen interest in the section where he explores the advantages and disadvantages of adopting frameworks. He starts by identifying the two main benefits of taking the framework route, which in his opinion are:

  • ‘They can accelerate your transformation’ 

  • ‘They can help you acquire executive support’


The acceleration advantages resonate with me. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the team shaping a number of scaled agile adoptions and my journey started before the off-the-shelf solutions were available. Back in those days we had a trial and error approach to implementation. We had to design our custom methods from the ground up and make all our own training material. I can wholeheartedly tell you that life is easier when you can raid an established toolbox. If you don’t use a framework or if your custom approach doesn’t borrow heavily from one of the leading methods, then it’s likely your adoption speed will suffer.

Up until recently all Agilists, especially the ones who promoted Agile for delivering large programmes, were the freaks in the room. Widely used frameworks like SAFe have helped legitimise our cause.

Hasselberg’s mention of executive support is insightful. Up until recently all Agilists, especially the ones who promoted Agile for delivering large programmes, were the freaks in the room. Widely used frameworks like SAFe have helped legitimise our cause. Execs can now look at a myriad of case studies of large organisations that have achieved results with enterprise level Agile. This validates their chosen direction. Picture yourself in the shoes of the sponsor. It’s a bold and expensive decision to undertake an Agile transformation and anything that convinces the board you’re spending their cash wisely will help.


Hasselberg goes on to talk about the disadvantages. Again, he identifies his top two:

  • ’Scaling frameworks can prevent you being more agile’

  • ‘Scaling frameworks do not embrace disruptive change’


How can a framework make you less agile? It’s easy for adopters to become too framework focussed and blindly insist on a single destination for the design of your organisation. You can guarantee that when you transform, your enterprise isn’t going to be neatly re-shuffled into the compelling diagrams that came with the framework. That doesn’t mean the frameworks aren’t useful, but it does mean they have a tendency to distract an organisation from discovering its own adaptive path. Good consultants use framework concepts and principles to challenge your existing set-up. They will use framework constructs to fill the gaps where structures are missing, knowing full well that these could just be stepping stones to new, uncharted territory. Every organisation has a different set of challenges and its design has no final destination. There’s only a vision about what will work today and the learning that will follow when you attempt to realise it.


I’m less comfortable about highlighting the frameworks’ failure to embrace disruptive change. To get an insight into the workings of some truly disruptive organisations, I can recommend ‘An Everyone Culture’ by Robert Kegan et al. There are common threads in the principles that guide the innovative, high-growth organisations studied, but how they achieved this development is markedly different. I don’t think you can bottle up these concepts, re-package them and implement as part of a framework. I don’t even think you should. Should we even be labelling those ideas as Agile?

No one ever expected to get a high performing agile team by simply implementing Scrum, so why would anyone expect to get a high-performing enterprise by just adopting SAFe?

Maybe this is a problem of perception. I do feel the large frameworks have been overloaded with expectation. Maybe this is a result of some consultancies selling them as a panacea for all organisational ills. They are not. I think it strange that we have different expectations for frameworks when it comes to enterprise agility than we do for team agility. No one ever expected to get a high performing agile team by simply implementing Scrum, so why would anyone expect to get a high-performing enterprise by just adopting SAFe? Hasselberg suggests the frameworks could do more to embrace disruptive change, but maybe a more pragmatic viewpoint is for organisations to embrace more than just a framework.


I’d suggest that the scaling frameworks offer undeniable value. If you want your scaled adoption to be successful, you’re going to have to choose one or selectively borrow the core concepts of the most popular. It’s also key to note that you are going to have to look beyond frameworks to get a truly innovative, high-performing agile enterprise. As always, the key to this is good people. You'll need a diverse range of skills to successfully guide you through your journey, just make sure you have some framework specialists in the mix.


If you want to talk to us about scaling, with or without frameworks, then get in touch via our Contact page.

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