SAFe vs LeSS Shootout – Sequel

Scaling Agile quarrels are as entertaining as sumo

Welcome to the sequel of SAFe versus LeSS adventure! The first SAFe vs LeSS blog gained attention and we were able to pick more emphasized questions.

Q1: Any over-arching framework is wrong a priori, isn’t it?

Jari: Some may state that you can’t define a framework suitable for any Enterprise. This can be seen a priori being a false assumption, while no rigid process fits to all the enterprises. One may continue by saying that you can’t have a combination of “Agile” and “Framework”. Agile means freedom of choice, while Framework is a process. Framework stifles the change needed in the organization. Agile Manifesto states “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. So one may say that any predefined process is anti-Agile. 

Q2: How to deal with the “Weaponized Agile”?

Jari: “Weaponized something” is where the management uses agile sounding words to get ahead of the change and stop it.

  • The program management structure of SAFe might create a construction for abuse. A multi-level management structure provides a fruitful platform for narcissist powerplay associated often with heavy hierarchies.
  • LeSS provides less possibilities for hierarchical powerplay. LeSS HUGE has roles of PO and Area POs. However, LeSS provides plenty of freedom. Freedom for each PO to selfishly develop what matters most for themselves.

In my opinion frameworks don’t hurt people. People hurt people. Corrupted people find their ways of working in any form of organization. Do not operate with bad people.

Q3: LeSS is difficult to sell toward higher management (who will get sacked).

Juhana: It’s true that the LeSS approach is more radical than the SAFe approach. While SAFe focuses on monetising the agile transformation process, LeSS reveals the real agile principles and values. There are a few patterns that help to reduce managers’ resistance towards LeSS:

  • Highlight the ‘job safety, but not role safety’ rule of LeSS. Even in LeSS managers are critical for to the system to operate. The management turns themselves into system thinkers, learners, and teachers.
  • Focus on teaching the principles. Show how the LeSS principles effect organisation policies, procedures, and structures. Show how the LeSS approach solves existing problems. Keep the Scrum and LeSS jargon to a minimum until the agile adaptation is thoroughly implemented. Point out the learning opportunities. Many former developers are excited by the opportunity to return to hands-on development.
  • Is a surgeon more recognised than a hospital manager? The same mind-set should be applied in product development organisations. Hold unofficial mini training sessions for managers. Be open and explain the principles and values behind LeSS. Remember to include managers in the new organisation structure.

Q4: SAFe is program centric and doesn’t force the change. Adopting SAFe is a way of avoiding coming to terms with the inherent problems in the organization, isn’t it?

Stefan: SAFe has a clear implementation roadmap. The  implementation roadmap starts with training the change agents and then addresses the executives and managers. Leaders will be involved in the change. Their role will be to provide sponsorship or to directly contribute to the implementation of SAFe. The adoption of SAFe requires that leaders embrace lean-agile mindset. SAFe will expose the impediments of the organisation sooner or later – also the impediments at management layers.

Q5: LeSS is more about Principles and less about Tutorials. This means that you need a highly skilled practitioner to be able to apply it into practice, doesn’t it?

Juhana: A change management requires the implementation, and the agile transformation is not an exception. You need an agile coach who has a strong knowledge of agile approach, coaching, and product development. The coach mentors and teaches core personnel of the organisation. Anyhow, motivated people learn agile rapidly. It is not rocket science. LeSS is anyhow easier to adopt compared to process-oriented SAFe, which even has its own glossary. The external agile coach role is also temporary. Scrum Masters and ex-managers will take charge fast.


Q6: SAFe is easy to sell. Executives like everything that comes in a box. SAFe comes in the box and hence is attractive. The reason SAFe is easier to sell, is that it doesn’t really require people to become Agile. Or does it?

Stefan: SAFe is a collection of battle-tested practices and operational models. It’s true that it’s attractive and easy to sell. But it also requires changes in how organisation works. The team level results will be visible after the first sprint. On program level the results are obvious after an increment. Thus, it should be fairly straightforward to judge based on the results. SAFe requires agility not just from developers and teams, but from the whole organization.

Q7: What is the business case for agile transformation? What is the cost structure? When would ROI reaches the tipping point?

Juhana: Shipping speaks louder than words. LeSS brings benefits of dramatically dropped cycle time, simpler organisation structure, and higher job satisfaction. SAFe might give you the same result, but much more slowly and painfully. What is the cost when the organisation won’t adapt faster feedback loops or benefits of the cross-functional teams? Go and ask from the competitors of Tinder, Airbnb and Amazon. Organisations don’t fail when they take risks. Organisations fail when they stop taking risks. LeSS takes effect from the first day. The adaption process is straightforward, as you can see from the previous post. The agile transformation is an investment which has a short payback time!
Stefan: Companies must find ways to tackle and conquer the ever accelerating market and technology changes. The goal of agile transformation is to accelerate the organization. To enable the organization to deliver more value in less time. With happier employees, increased productivity and improved quality. LeSS might seem like an easier and simpler solution, but actually it requires much more from the organisation that will adopt it when compared to SAFe. SAFe allows you to configure and scale it according to your needs. SAFe also provides proven implementation instructions, which help you to get started faster.
Jari: Both systems have been developed while using them in the real life business. The systems evolve all the time when more is learned about scaling Agile. According numerous case studies the impact of Agile transformation is visible from the day one and ROI is considerable. You can read the real life war stories from and

Q8: Finally, as a summary. We can now clearly see that LeSS and SAFe aims to different markets and different kind of organizations. Where do you see that your frameworks would suit the best?

Juhana: LeSS is a product development framework for creating products with a high degree of variability. LeSS fits every organisation, whose core values are transparency, continuous improvement, and customer centricity. And unlike SAFe, LeSS follows these values!
Stefan: SAFe addresses the needs of small, medium and large companies. It does that by allowing organisation to select and configure the parts needed. SAFe allows jump start even for big companies, and you can start from top, botton and middle at the same time. With LeSS you would need to start from the botton and work you way up, which will take time.
While the comparison often tend to narrow down the vision, I would like to end the blog with a quote from the book Leadership and Self-Deception By The Arbinger Institute:
“Success (as a leader) depends on being free of self-betrayal and creating an environment of openness, trust and teamwork, where people work hard for the collective good, not individual accomplishments”
Thanks for reading!

Jari Hietaniemi

Jari Hietaniemi


Jari Hietaniemi is an enthusiastic digitalization consultant. He specialises in complex and vast software projects. His philosophy is based on thinking that a consultant must know technology, architecture, project management, quality assurance, human resources, coaching and sales. His versatile experience and constant quest for improvement help to finish projects successfully and to bring new drive into client organizations.

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SAFe vs LeSS Shootout

First of all. Ahoy, all you “Why agile” and “I don’t need scaling, I already have Scrum” people. Please start here.
I’ve followed the growing interest towards methods of scaling agile for the last decade. Personally I faced the idea of scaling Agile, whilst working as a subcontractor for Nokia. Back then two very different kind of frameworks were born. Ari and Ran explains the history of these scaling frameworks, so I won’t go there. I’ll just want to find out, which approach is better. The fastest and most entertaining way is to take our two of the most experienced scaling agile gun men Stefan and Juhana and start shooting. Whilst the gun men are warming up, let’s make a quick generic comparison of the frameworks.

Juhana, Jari and Stefan warming up

We’ve blogged earlier about SAFe (in Finnish) and LeSS in rather positive tone – now it’s time to get some friction between them. Like in all the unforgettable shootouts, the tension must be built gradually from introduction and rising action towards climax.

Guide to drama


I must say, if I created a scaling framework, I wouldn’t name it either “Safe” or “Less”. The “Less HUGE” makes things even more paradoxal.

There is a clear winner on the field of naming the Scaling Agile framework. The Recipes for Agile Governance in the Enterprise aka “RAGE” wins the fight between names.


Never, ever design usability restricting cr*p on any media in the name of copyrights. It is a lose-lose deal.
Both systems provide similar web interface: A big picture on the front page, where you can click into details.
  • The hippie drawing style of LeSS will make all the wave riding, new age developers feel warm and fuzzy.
  • The engineering style, mind-blowing-in-details drawings of SAFe will make all the managers feel super important. However, the copy-paste restriction of SAFe portal sucks, while it also disables for example text search of browser.

LeSS wins the fight between the portals.

Comparison of web portals. LeSS on left and SAFe on right


We live in a colorful world. Use them.
Both systems are provided as books
  • Both books are the same diameter and around 330 pages.
  • Both books come from Addison-Wesley.
  • SAFe book has more pictures and colors, otherwise they are rather similar.

SAFe wins the fight between books with flying colors.

Comparison of books. SAFe on left and LeSS on right

Introduction of The Gun Men

Question #1: Tell us a little bit about yourself and when you became a fan of SaFE / LeSS?

I’m a business manager and consultant at Gofore. Currently I’m focusing on our customers in health technology, healthcare, social care and wellbeing businesses. Throughout my professional career I’ve been interested in all development methods – from SW development to business & customer development. I was first exposed to SAFe whilst working at Nokia a decade ago, but the real revelation of SAFe to me happened at GE Healthcare in 2014. We had 16 teams, nearly 200 professionals scattered across globe with a goal to create multiple new products together. We applied SAFe to align the goals, sync on delivery and to optimize flows.
I’m a lead consultant of software development at Gofore. I have a background in software engineering and have been in the IT field for more than decade. I’ve taken part for some of the biggest public sector digitalization endeavours in Finland. For some reason, I’ve always been the guy who’s removing obstacles and trying to improve everything. So, the Scrum Master’s duty was a natural choice for me. Lately, I’ve focussed on transforming entire organisations to Agile mode. In the latest project, I was consulting a large software program that required Agile transformation. I needed a powerful and straightforward solution for the transformation. The LeSS approach caught my attention very quickly; the LeSS principles and rules were understandable and simple. The challenges confronted in the target organization were tackled intelligently with the LeSS method. This  would not have been possible if using a one-size-fits-all format such as the SaFE.
SAFe interest people in management type of roles and LeSS fascinates adventurous problem solvers.

Rising Action

Question #2: Imagine a 40 person project working in waterfall model. How would you deploy SAFe/LeSS?

Educate everyone into Agile mindset

SAFe provides the best practices from industry also for the deployment of SAFe. The things to conside in deployment are:

  • Train everyone: a) train the leaders, b) train the internal change agents, and c) train project personnel.
  • Split project to 2-pizzas-serves-them teams. Select team level development methodology, e.g. Scrum. Make sure that teams have the right set of competences to work as feature teams.
  • Define the way of working for the organization. For a 40 person program the two lowest level of SAFe framework serve the purpose: 1) Team level and 2) Program level.
  • Then it’s about start your Agile Release Train to develop in common cadence according to commonly agreed increment plan. The increment planning and demo sessions are where the magic happens – the whole program planning, resolving and agreeing together in the same room and at the same time.

The LeSS creator Craig Larman’s advice for large, multi-site, and/or offshore programs is just ‘don’t do that’. Instead pick the ten best developers. If you must scale, here are the adaption principles:

  • You should educate everybody. The easiest way is to sign people to the Scrum and LeSS trainings. The formal coaching is followed up by a team, organisational and technical coaching.
  • Define the product as broadly as possible. A broader definition tends to be more customer centric and creates simpler organisations.
  • Define the ‘DoD (Definition of Done)’. A better and stronger DoD eliminates groups, roles, and positions.
  • Have appropriately-structured teams. One team member belongs to only one team, and the teams are stable, long-lived, cross-functional, and co-located. Only the Product Owner provides work for the teams. Keep managers away from the teams.

Both approaches aim to educate and engage everyone.


Question #3: Our current organisation has 3 team leaders, 1 architect, 1 project manager, 1 product manager and 1 UX/AD specialist. What would these persons do in SAFe/LeSS?

When using Scrum on team level then there are roles of the Scrum Master, Product Owner and SW developers. On program level you’ll find Product Management and Business Owners. Note, that the role of leaders in SAFe is different from traditional management – the roles are Lean-Agile leadership type of roles.

  • The old team leaders from the legacy organization could become developers, Scrum Masters or Product Owners depending on their capabilities and desires.
  • Architect and UX/AD specialist could continue working across the teams in program level roles.
  • Project manager could be promoted to the role of Release Train Engineer.
  • Product Manager could continue with same title, but in a modified role at product management.

Specialised roles are forbidden in LeSS.

  • The team leaders can become Scrum Masters. They should follow the servant-leadership-mindset such as putting people first, coaching, removing obstacles, and creating the community. One Scrum Master can serve one to three teams.
  • The Architect and UX Designer will each join a team. In addition, the architect can lead or be part of the architect community, and the UX Designer can lead or be part of the user experience community. The communities ensure the cross-cutting quality and are run by the team members.
  • the product Manager can take the Product Owner’s role and responsibilities.
  • The project Manager could focus on increasing the capability of the organisation’s value delivery with using techniques such as ‘Go and See’ and ‘See the Whole’. The Product Manager role is also temporarily needed if there is a weak Definition of Done.

Tune-down way of SAFe makes it easy to sell towards legacy management.  SAFe has built-in program management process and roles. Build-up way of LeSS asks “How to simplify the organization, and be agile?”.

Question #4: Okay, now the program is working according to SAFe/LeSS framework. How does the model scale when you add two more teams?

SAFe’s program level guidelines make this rather easy. Assuming the teams are feature teams then it’s rather easy to add new teams – just invite them to the common Release Train Planning event and share the prioritized increment backlog across the teams. SAFe can scale up to multiple release trains and multiple value streams, but at that extreme we would be then talking about thousands of developers, and that’s a bit scary anyway.
LeSS scales easily – you just add two more teams to the structure. Avoid creating component-based teams such as front-end, integration, or operation teams. If the number of teams exceeds eight, use the LeSS Huge framework. It’s based on the same principles and rules, but adds a few extra practices.
After reaching Lean Agile organization scaling is easy.


Both models require the Enterprise to change. Agile is about mind-set, not about roles or processes.

It seems that the path for agile scaling is rather similar, no matter what framework you are using. After the first hour of shooting, there is yet no clear winner.
Thanks for reading! Please, throw in any additional questions!
We will tackle those in the Shootout Sequel, where we will finally find out, which one of these two frameworks is the best.

Jari Hietaniemi

Jari Hietaniemi


Jari Hietaniemi is an enthusiastic digitalization consultant. He specialises in complex and vast software projects. His philosophy is based on thinking that a consultant must know technology, architecture, project management, quality assurance, human resources, coaching and sales. His versatile experience and constant quest for improvement help to finish projects successfully and to bring new drive into client organizations.

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