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Large-scale agile frameworks compared: SAFe vs DAD

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Yvette Francino, Agile Consultant, Yvette Francino, LLC

Though everyone is going agile these days, a common complaint is that agile development doesn't scale well. Many of the concepts and recommendations, like using small, self-managing teams, work well for small projects. But guidance may be lacking when it comes to coordinating multiple teams working on a large-scale project, especially in early phases of the project, before coding begins.

A number of agile frameworks are now available for large-scale enterprise projects, but the first step in choosing one to fit your organization's needs is education. This article focuses on two popular large-scale agile frameworks: Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD). It provides a quick overview, describes the strengths and weaknesses of each, and looks at what's ahead for the frameworks.

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Start with the basics: Learn scrum and agile

Large-scale agile frameworks build upon many of the ideas, concepts, and techniques used in scrum and other lean and agile frameworks. Scrum is the most common agile framework. In fact, it is referred to so often in agile literature that many people use the terms scrum and agile interchangeably. For those new to agile, the first recommendation would be to get some basic agile and scrum training. You wouldn't want to start building a house without knowing how to use a hammer. As such, it's important to learn basic terminology, concepts, and techniques, providing you with the building blocks for understanding any other agile framework.

Those who have been working in an agile environment with small teams will have an easier time extending their current practices to a large-scale framework. Scrum provides the basic tools, and the large-scale frameworks will provide some additional tools.

Continuing with the construction analogy, scrum will give you what you need to install the electrical, plumbing, and drywall, and to build furniture for the house. However, if you want a blueprint in which there is some consistency in the way the rooms are laid out, you need a solid architecture and agreement on certain standards so there's a common look and feel throughout the house. Large-scale agile frameworks provide that kind of architecture. They give you the tools to help coordinate larger projects so that teams can build on a solid foundation, take advantage of reusability. and maintain consistency of agreed-upon standards.

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What is Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?

The Scaled Agile Framework, developed by methodologist Dean Leffingwell, uses a combination of existing lean and agile principles and combines them into a methodology for large-scale projects.

SAFe includes Team, Program, and Portfolio processes. At the Team level, the techniques outlined are those used in scrum, recommending two-week sprint cycles. At the Program level, SAFe extends scrum by using the same ideas but one level up. The Program level works on a Release Train, which is composed of five sprint cycles. There's also a sixth innovation planning sprint, which allows teams to innovate, inspect, and adapt. Roles and processes are defined at the Program level, which allows for consistency and collaboration across the project. SAFe also provides processes one level higher, at the Portfolio level, using lean principles, such as optimizing value streams to help executives and leaders identify and prioritize epics, and features that can be broken down at the Program level and scheduled on Release Trains.

What is Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD)?

Disciplined Agile Delivery, developed by Scott Ambler and Mark Lines, is similar to SAFe in that it recommends using existing lean and agile techniques. DAD, however, aims to address areas that aren't thoroughly covered in smaller-scale agile frameworks. This framework recommends three phases: Inception, Construction, and Transition. While many agile frameworks address what DAD labels the Construction phase, DAD gives recommendations on processes that come earlier in the project (inception) and as teams prepare for delivery (transition). For this reason, DAD's strengths are in providing more guidance in the areas of architecture and design (inception) and DevOps (transition).

DAD also provides flexibility in suggesting different process guidelines for four categories of lifecycles: agile/basic, lean/advanced, continuous delivery, and exploratory. The Construction phase of agile/basic is scrum, but DAD, as in each of the four lifecycles, adds recommendations for the Inception and Transition phases. The lean/advanced lifecycle uses processes similar to Kanban, maximizing flow and minimizing work in process. The continuous delivery lifecycle focuses on mature DevOps, continuous integration, and deployment processes for projects that require frequent delivery to stakeholders. The exploratory lifecycle minimizes early planning in favor of fast delivery, gaining feedback, and incorporating that feedback into the next delivery.

Pros and cons of each framework

SAFe has been criticized for being too prescriptive, not allowing teams as much flexibility in process decisions. Some critics feel that SAFe is not pure agile because there is more upfront planning and some top-down processes. Having too much process definition implies a lack of flexibility in approach, which goes against one of the primary agile characteristics of adaptability.

Though agile purists may feel this approach is too structured, that may be exactly what's needed for those who are transitioning from a more traditional environment, especially in the context of a larger project. A common failure for agile adoption is the difficulty in introducing such a major cultural change to an organization. SAFe provides the structure that may make for a smoother transition to an agile framework. SAFe also follows agile practices of inspecting and adapting, even providing an innovation sprint and stressing autonomy and decision-making for the knowledge workers.

With four lifecycle models, DAD provides more flexibility in project guidance and recommendations for best processes within each type of project. In the construction analogy, DAD provides a basic framework for building a cottage, a mansion, a townhouse, or a mobile home. Rather than providing a prescriptive blueprint, it provides guidance on the types of tools and processes you might want to use, depending on the type of house you are building.

Though this flexibility may be appreciated by those with a good understanding of agile, it might not provide enough guidance for those who are transitioning from traditional models. Marketplace adoption for DAD is slow compared with SAFe. And though DAD and SAFe are more complementary than competitive, due to the lack of specific guidance, experienced coaches and consultants are more likely needed to successfully implement DAD.

What's next?

Though the ever-growing number of frameworks and the various opinions about them can be confusing, they demonstrate the adaptability that agile is known for. Continuous evolution and debate, though frustrating for those who want definitive answers, lead to one thing that all agile methodologists agree on: the need to inspect and adapt. The experiences of those who use the frameworks, both positive and negative, help provide data for the next "version," whether that be improvement of a current framework or a new framework altogether.

When asked what's next for DAD, Scott Ambler answers: "The Disciplined Agile framework is constantly evolving. Right now we are in the process of releasing Disciplined Agile 2.0, which extends DAD into the IT space to explicitly address areas such as Enterprise Architecture, Portfolio Management, Reuse EngineeringDisciplined DevOps, and many other key activities."

Meanwhile, Dean Leffingwell recently released SAFe 4.0. He writes: "We've been extracting and refining the immutable Lean-Agile principles on which SAFe is based. In so doing, we'll be able to make the Principles and Practices clear and distinct, and further elaborate the principles (like "Limiting WIP") without worrying about elaborating the principle in the body of a particular article."

Regardless of whether you choose to work with SAFe, DAD, or another framework, the first step is to educate your organization and get a firm grasp on the lean and agile principles that make up the frameworks. In doing so, your team will have the tools to build a house of any size.

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