Difference Between Agile and Scaled Agile

Project management is a field that seeks to create value and solutions through projects. And as more complex problems emerge, there’s an increased demand for innovative development methods that can provide solutions to these complex problems.

Over the last 2 decades, Agile has become arguably the most popular methodology particularly for software development due to its iterative and adaptive development lifecycle. And while seeking ways to scale Agile beyond small teams up to the enterprise level, that’s where Scaled Agile comes in.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take a look at Scaled Agile vs Agile, break down the differences between them, and which of these methodologies is suited for different projects, teams, and organizations.

Scaled Agile vs Agile: Overview

Agile Overview

Before going into the differences between Agile and Scaled Agile, let’s take a moment to understand what Agile is all about.

Agile is a project management methodology that is built around flexibility, collaboration, and delivering functional products in small, rapid, iterations. When it comes to software development, Agile is the most popular choice.

This approach breaks away the traditional Waterfall method of project management, which emphasizes detailed upfront planning and linear execution.

Agile Principles and Values

The Agile methodology is based on a set of principles and values enshrined in the Agile Manifesto which was created in 2001 by a group of software developers.

These principles emphasize individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan.

Agile in Action

In Agile, the work required to execute the project is broken down into small, manageable chunks known as user stories.

These user stories are tackled in short cycles of work called Sprints, which typically last from one to four weeks.

At the end of each Sprint, a piece of working software is delivered, and feedback is collected. This feedback is then used to improve the next Sprint, making Agile a continuous cycle of development and improvement.

Scaled Agile Overview

While Agile works remarkably well for small teams, problems can arise when trying to apply the same principles to larger organizations or more complex projects. This is where Scaled Agile comes in.

What is Scaled Agile?

Scaled Agile is, as the name suggests, a way of applying the Agile methodology to larger projects that require multiple teams to work together. It takes the principles and values of Agile and modifies them to work at a larger scale.

One of the most popular ways of implementing Scaled Agile is through the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), which provides a structured approach to scaling Agile across an organization introducing additional roles and processes to ensure that multiple teams can work together effectively and align towards a common goal.

Scaled Agile vs Agile: Differences

Now that we have a clear understanding of Agile and Scaled Agile let’s dive into the differences between these two methodologies.

1. Scope and Size

The first and most obvious difference between Agile and Scaled Agile lies in their scope and size. Agile is ideal for small teams working on a single product. Communication is straightforward, and there’s little need for extensive coordination between team members.

On the other hand, Scaled Agile is designed for larger organizations where multiple teams must work in unison on different aspects of a larger product, or multiple products. This scenario requires a higher level of coordination and alignment to ensure everyone is moving towards the same objective.

2. Dealing with Complexity

Scaling Agile introduces a new level of complexity. Implementing Agile principles with a small team is relatively straightforward, but when you scale up to multiple teams or even across departments, the complexity increases significantly.

Scaled Agile frameworks, such as SAFe, introduce additional processes and roles to manage this complexity. These include integration points for coordinating multiple Agile teams, roles for overseeing the portfolio of projects, and additional layers of planning and governance.

3. Balancing Flexibility and Structure

Agile is all about flexibility and adaptability. Teams are encouraged to self-organize, adapt their plans as they learn more, and quickly pivot in response to customer feedback.

While Scaled Agile maintains the spirit of adaptability, it has to introduce more structure to manage the larger scale. This structure is necessary to coordinate work across multiple teams, align on shared goals, and ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction.

Scaled Agile vs Agile

Feature Comparison: Difference Between Agile and Scaled Agile

Now that you have an overview of the differences between these Agile and scaled Agile, let’s look into a head-to-head comparison between both of them for further clarity.

AspectAgileScaled Agile
ScopeBest for small projects with a single team.Ideal for large projects with multiple teams or entire organizations.
SizeWorks well with small to medium teams (5-9 members).Suitable for larger teams and can handle hundreds of team members.
ComplexityHandles less complex projects effectively.Designed to manage high complexity due to multiple teams and dependencies.
Flexibility vs StructureHighly flexible with less formal structure.Maintains flexibility, but introduces more structure for alignment and coordination.
CommunicationDirect communication between team members is easy.Requires structured communication channels and integration points.
ImplementationStraightforward implementation with Agile principles.Implementation requires a structured framework like SAFe.
CoordinationLess emphasis on coordination outside the team.High level of coordination required between different teams.
DeliveryFrequent delivery of small, usable parts of the product.Coordinated delivery of larger, integrated pieces of the product.
GovernanceMinimal, focuses on empowering individual teams.More formal with roles for overseeing portfolio and coordinating efforts.
RolesTraditional Agile roles (Product Owner, Scrum Master, Team).Additional SAFe roles for coordination, integration, and portfolio management.
Customer CollaborationHigh level of customer involvement in all stages.Customer collaboration at the level of individual teams and strategic input at the portfolio level.
Change ManagementChanges are managed within the team.Changes need to be coordinated across multiple teams.
Knowledge SharingFocused knowledge exchange within a single team.Knowledge sharing across multiple teams in an organization.

Scaled Agile vs Agile: Similarities

Despite these differences between Scaled Agile and Agile, they’re not totally disparate as the key difference between the two lies in the scale of their application.

While Agile is designed for single teams, Scaled Agile is designed to bring the benefits of Agile to larger teams and more complex projects that involve multiple teams or departments.

  1. Iterative Development: Both Agile and Scaled Agile advocate for iterative and incremental development. Work is divided into small user stories, each of which is developed, tested, and delivered in short cycles or sprints.
  2. Adaptability: Agile and Scaled Agile both value adaptability and responsiveness to change over rigid adherence to plans. This flexibility allows the project team to adjust the course of the project as new information emerges or as conditions change.
  3. Customer Collaboration: Both methodologies place a high value on customer collaboration. In Agile, the customer is closely involved at every stage of the project, from requirement gathering to feedback on delivered pieces. In Scaled Agile, while the individual teams collaborate with the customer, there’s also customer collaboration at the portfolio level where strategic directions and large-scale requirements are discussed.
  4. Principles and Values: Scaled Agile is an extension of Agile, so the fundamental principles and values remain the same. These include prioritizing individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change.
  5. Continuous Improvement: Both Agile and Scaled Agile promote a culture of continuous improvement. Teams are encouraged to reflect on their performance at the end of each sprint or iteration, identify areas for improvement, and then implement changes in the next cycle.

Scaled Agile vs Agile: When to Use Scaled Which

So, when should you use Agile, and when should you opt for Scaled Agile? The answer depends largely on the size of your team and the complexity of your project.

When to Use Agile

Agile is best suited for:

  • Small teams (usually 5-9 members)
  • Simple and well-defined projects
  • Development of a single product or a stand-alone project
  • High level of customer involvement

When to Use Scaled Agile

Scaled Agile, on the other hand, is a better fit when:

  • You have multiple teams or a large organization
  • Your projects are complex with multiple interdependencies
  • You are developing a large product, a product suite, or working on several projects
  • There’s a need for an extra layer of coordination and governance to keep everyone aligned

SAFe Agile Criticism

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a popular framework for scaling Agile principles and practices to large organizations. While it has been widely adopted and found success in many organizations, it’s not without its critics.

Here are some of the major criticisms:

  1. Too Prescriptive: SAFe has a very structured approach, which can often feel like a shift back to traditional project management models. Agile purists argue that it’s too prescriptive and rigid, moving away from the flexibility and adaptability that is the hallmark of Agile.
  2. Too Complex: Critics argue that SAFe is overly complex, with its many roles, layers, processes, and artifacts. It can be challenging to implement and maintain, especially for organizations new to Agile practices.
  3. Focus on Processes over Individuals: The Agile Manifesto values “individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” but critics argue that SAFe focuses too much on processes and tools, which can stifle creativity and innovation.
  4. Difficult to Implement: Implementing SAFe can be a significant undertaking that requires substantial organizational changes. This can be disruptive and meet resistance, especially in organizations with deeply ingrained traditional practices.
  5. Role of Management: Agile methodologies often emphasize self-organizing teams with distributed authority, but SAFe involves more layers of management, which can lead to a perception of a return to a top-down approach.
  6. Not Truly Agile: Some critics argue that SAFe isn’t truly Agile because it doesn’t fully embrace the principles of the Agile Manifesto. For example, they claim that it doesn’t emphasize customer collaboration as much as contract negotiation, or responding to change over following a plan.

Is Scaled Agile Really Agile

SAFe is not Agile: My Opinion

When it comes to scaling Agile across teams and at enterprise level, the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is the popular choice. However, there’s a constantly raging debate especially by purist Agilists that SAFe is not Agile.

While SAFe uses many aspects of traditional Agile methodologies, does it adhere strictly to the Agile Manifesto? To answer if Scaled Agile (SAFe) is truly Agile, we have to understand what we mean by Agile and Agility.

Agile, as defined by the signatories of the Agile Manifesto and implemented via methodologies like Scrum, XP, or Kanban, is best suited for small teams working closely with a customer, delivering frequently, and adapting quickly to change.

SAFe emerges when the value stream cannot be contained within a single team, i.e., when there are dependencies between teams or when teams have to align with corporate governance and priorities.

In this context, SAFe maintains the base of Scrum teams but introduces additional coordination and planning layers to manage dependencies and align efforts.

So, is SAFe Agile in the sense of the Agile Manifesto? Not exactly. While SAFe incorporates Agile principles and can lead to greater Agility, it isn’t Agile as originally intended because it has additional layers to manage complexity at scale.

But does that make SAFe bad or not useful? No. SAFe provides structured guidance for organizations that need to scale Agile beyond the scope of single teams. It’s a way to start the Agile journey in complex environments, with the understanding that as the organization matures in its Agile practice, it may evolve beyond SAFe.

In essence, the question of whether SAFe is Agile may not be as important as whether it helps an organization improve Agility, deliver value faster, and better serve its customers. And in many cases, SAFe does just that.


In conclusion, Agile and Scaled Agile both have their place in the world of project management. Agile’s strength lies in its flexibility, customer-centric approach, and the ability to deliver quick, tangible results, making it ideal for small teams and simple projects.

Scaled Agile takes these principles and scales them for larger, more complex settings, introducing necessary structure and coordination mechanisms.

There is no one-size-fits-all methodology in project management. Agile offers a flexible and efficient approach for small teams and simple projects. Still, as the size of your team or the complexity of your project increases, you may need to scale Agile to ensure effective collaboration and alignment.

It’s important to remember that Agile and Scaled Agile are not competitors – they are partners. Scaled Agile is simply Agile adapted to a larger scale. If you’re already using Agile and finding it challenging to manage multiple teams or complex projects, Scaled Agile could be the solution you’re looking for.

At the end of the day, the goal of both Agile and Scaled Agile is to deliver value to the customer quickly and efficiently. Whether you choose Agile or Scaled Agile, the key is to stay true to the core Agile values of individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change.


What are the Roles in SAFe?

SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) includes roles at four levels: Team, Program, Large Solution, and Portfolio. Key roles include Team Members, Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Release Train Engineers (RTEs), Solution Architects/Engineers, Epic Owners, Enterprise Architects, and Lean Portfolio Management. Each role contributes to project management, execution, and strategic alignment.

Is Scaled Agile same as Scrum?

No, Scaled Agile (SAFe) and Scrum are not the same. Scrum is a framework for Agile project management on small-scale teams. SAFe, on the other hand, is a framework for scaling Agile principles and Scrum practices to larger organizations and complex, multi-team projects.

David Usifo (PSM, MBCS, PMP®)
David Usifo (PSM, MBCS, PMP®)

David Usifo is a certified project manager professional, professional Scrum Master, and a BCS certified Business Analyst with a background in product development and database management.

He enjoys using his knowledge and skills to share with aspiring and experienced project managers and product developers the core concept of value-creation through adaptive solutions.

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