When Al Shalloway, CEO of Net Objectives, first decided to partner with Scaled Agile, Inc. on the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) back in 2012, he had high hopes of where the framework could go and how it could help enterprises with their scaling Agile initiatives.

Shalloway’s intuition was right. Since 2011, SAFe has provided a set of guidelines for helping enterprises scale Lean and Agile practices across their organizations. In CollabNet VersionOne’s 12th annual State of Agile report, it stated that SAFe was the leading approach to scaling Agile.

However, Shalloway still worried about weak spots in the framework, such as a lack of strong product management solution. So, after six years of wanting more from the framework and being disappointed by its releases, Shalloway decided to amicably part ways as a training partner late last year. According to Shalloway, while SAFe has done a great job of expanding the understanding of Agile at scale, the framework has become too rigid and complex.

For instance Shalloway explains the SAFe team is constantly redefining terms, causing a lot of confusion such as redefining the term value stream in an earlier version, then redefining it again in version 4 and using terms like Minimal Viable Products (MVP) incorrectly.

“I had hoped this would continue in terms of making people clearer on what they needed to do, and basically SAFe would go in a direction of product management that I wanted to see,” he said. “Every version gets more complex.”

“I am very disappointed with the fact that they have redefined and overloaded so many terms,” he added.


A diagram of “Full SAFe” for Lean Enterprises

“Two challenges when using SAFe are sequencing work to be done and correctly defining the ‘minimum’ increment to be realized. When it comes to sequencing work, SAFe recommends a version of the Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) which uses a single number for business value. The problem with this is that business stakeholders often need to express business value using several metrics. They have a more nuanced and realistic view of what creates business value. The next chapter offers a better approach for WSJF that accommodates these needs,” Shalloway explained.

Shalloway noted that parting ways wasn’t a decision he came to overnight. For years he had been feeling SAFe wasn’t focusing on the right areas or making the right improvements. It was the release of 4.6 that really solidified his need to move on.

“While taking ‘Implementing SAFe 4.6’ [course] a couple of weeks ago I realized that SAFe and Net Objectives are on divergent paths. We like to work with small to mid-scale companies that want to focus on their specific challenges and not a canned solution,” Shalloway explained.

During the SAFe 4.6 course, Shalloway noticed a majority of the people in the class were from small to mid-sized companies and if you are a small to mid-sized company he does not believe SAFe is the right approach. According to Shalloway, SAFe is really good for large companies where the culture is based off telling people what to do and having them do that, but if you are a small to mid-sized company all you really care about is a simple and easy approach to running your program.

“Everyone is looking for packaged solutions, but the reality is you have to attend to your culture. You have to attend to how people are going to adjust to it, and I don’t think SAFe does that,” he said.

Instead, Shalloway believes in an operating model approach that is based on principles. For instance, Net Objectives created FLEX: FLow for Enterprise Transformation. Rather than providing a framework, Shalloway explained FLEX provides a thought approach that incorporates frameworks so users can take some things from SAFe and mix it with portfolio project management.

But, even if users don’t adopt the FLEX approach, Shalloway still believes an effective Lean product management approach is necessary to realize business value, identify the most important work, create visibility, and provide clarity on who is involved.

“It is important to have a Lean Product Management model that works at all scales. This enables a growing company to readily make expansions in roles and the number of people involved but doesn’t require the organization to change how it is doing its work,” Shalloway wrote in his book. “The SAFe approach is often more complex than it needs to be. At each level, it has a set number of levels of backlogs. While the roles and even artifacts change based on the level used, all of the concepts in Full SAFe are required at all levels.”

Andrey Mihailenko, CEO of bronze framework partner Targetprocess, agrees there is a fear from some in the industry that SAFe may have gone into “overload mode,” but he thinks it is only a matter of perception. “In SAFe, the large solution level might be great for a large complex development environment but probably not a level I’d introduce to an early adopter of SAFe. But if you start small, maintain awareness of your underlying corporate culture, appreciate your organization’s appetite for change – you’ll find a safe balance for any implementation. Just remember: SAFe is Agile. Therefore, SAFe as a framework scales,” he explained. “SAFe offers transparency so that everyone connected to the framework can perceive and value the big picture.”

Shalloway does note that there are still a lot of good ideas and principles in SAFe, such as program increment planning and applying cadence, so if teams are already using SAFe, he doesn’t think they should transition away from it. Instead, he thinks adding a simpler product management system and portfolio management system can help make concepts clear and drive more business value.

“I don’t think people need to abandon their effort,” he said. “It is just that they need a better product management system and I don’t see SAFe getting that. Every release I have been hopeful, but every release has been more complicated. Take your effort. Look at what is working. Look at what isn’t working. And see if there is a better way.”

Net Objectives will still continue to offer consulting and training for those who are still using SAFe, but will no longer offer any SAFe certified training, Shalloway clarified.

SD Times reached out to Scaled Agile to comment on Net Objectives’ recent departure as a Scaled Agile Partner, but the company declined to comment.