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Beyond SAFe – Trends in Agile Scaling Approaches 2020

SAFE adoption trends

Anthony Mersino

June 30, 2020

8:50 AM

There has been considerable buzz in the agile community about scaling approaches for a while now. I first noticed it at the 2014 Agile Alliance conference where the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) was all the rage. Every vendor booth at the conference seemed to reference SAFe or touted compatibility with SAFe.

Since 2014, even more consultants and vendors saw dollar signs related to SAFe and jumped on board. It is clearly a money maker and as such, it has become the recommended framework of choice for large consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG and Accenture. And most ALM tool providers such as VersionOne, Atlassian and even Microsoft have built in SAFe support to keep on selling tools.

In 2020, SAFe continues to be the most popular framework for scaling agile. And while you could debate the effectiveness and user satisfaction of SAFe, continued market domination seems likely.

What about alternative agile scaling approaches? If people don’t use SAFe, what are they using to scale? While precise numbers about adoption of scaling frameworks are difficult, I’ve scoured the interweb to get as accurate a picture as possible of the state of agile scaling approaches in 2020.

I’ve included the popular Annual State of Agile Report from CollabNet/VersionOne (now Digital.ai). But I wanted to expand beyond there by incorporating other survey data to avoid relying too much on one source. Thankfully I found a few other sources Not surprisingly, these surveys frequently don’t always align.

What follows is a summary of the findings organized by specific scaling approach. Later I will share some details about the various surveys that I used in my research.

Agile Scaling Approaches Used (beyond SAFe)

As mentioned, SAFe is the most popular scaling approach. There are other options. Let’s take a look at the following agile scaling frameworks based on popularity and show trends over time for each.

  1. Disciplined Agile Delivery
  2. Spotify Model
  3. Scrum of Scrums
  4. Enterprise Scrum
  5. Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)
  6. Nexus
  7. Scrum at Scale
  8. Roll Your Own
  9. Others – Lean Management, Agile Portfolio Management, Team of Teams and RAGE

Let’s start by looking at a few techniques that are not scaling approaches at all.

Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD)

DAD is an interesting one. Developed by Scott Ambler and Mark Lines at IBM, it was launched in 2012 as a framework. Since then, Ambler and Lines have redefined it as a “toolkit” to help teams make context appropriate decisions. [See my related posts Get Your Disciplined Agile Certifications and PMIs Acquisition of DAD]

The DAD toolkit could be considered a superset of all available frameworks including Lean, Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe. Techniques like agile modeling and test driven development are included. I’m telling you, everything is in there including the kitchen sink.

So it is not Really fair to include Disciplined Agile in a list of scaling approaches – it is not. Still, many have done that. Here are the % of respondents that have responded to using Disciplined Agile Or Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) in the various surveys:


The Spotify Model

I’ve written extensively about why Spotify is not a scaling approach, even though many claim to use it that way. Please stop. Congratulations if you renamed your teams to Squads but please stop calling that an agile scaling framework. If you really want to be like Spotify, tackle your organization’s culture. Read more in A Checklist for Using the Spotify Model.

As you can see in the chart below, there are a lot of people that didn’t read my blog and still think Spotify is an agile scaling approach.


Scrum of Scrums

Scrum of Scrums as a technique has been around since 2001. The creators of Scrum, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, are credited with creating the Scrum of Scrums as a technique for organizing multiple teams. As a technique, it is simply a meeting of representatives of the various Scrum teams used to coordinate work and clear dependencies.

I have found the Scrum of Scrums approach to be common and frequently misused. It is often just a glorified status meeting attended by project managers to report the status of various Scrum Teams. Which is ironic because the Scrum Framework has no role for project managers.

I suspect the reason that the reported numbers are so high for Scrum of Scrums usage is that they are actually using the technique. It may be a good technique for coordinating multiple teams, but it doesn’t give you anywhere near the scaling guidance provided by SAFe. I’ve yet to see much guidance for Scrum of Scrums and I would be surprised if most agile practitioners consider it a viable scaling approach.

It is also possible that people confuse Scrum of Scrums with Scrum at Scale, created by Jeff Sutherland. I noticed that rarely are results for both of these featured on the same report.

So I think when it is given as a choice on a survey of scaling methods, respondents think “yeah, we do that” and say yes when the reality is they do NOT use Scrum of Scrums for scaling.

Nonetheless, let’s take a look at survey responses over time from our 8 sources.


Enterprise Scrum

Enterprise Scrum was founded in 2001 by the late Mike Beedle, one of the 17 authors of the Agile Manifesto. It has a small but loyal following though the outlook for growth has been stymied by Beedle’s tragic death in March 2018.

There is used to be an Enterprise Scrum website and a list of certified Enterprise Scrum coaches. I have heard that some of the other Enterprise Scrum enthusiasts may be working to finish the book Beedle was working on and hoped to publish before his death.

As you can see from the chart below, about half the surveys show Enterprise Scrum at 0% while the remaining average about 4% adoption.


Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)

Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) was co-founded by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde sometime around 2006. Together they foster the LeSS community, support the Less.works website and they published 3 books related to scaling:

LeSS is based on single team Scrum, similar to Nexus and Scrum at Scale. One interesting thing about LeSS is the encouragement to actually de-scale rather than scale.

Oddly, the survey results for LeSS are skewed. While most surveys put adoption at about 5% of all approaches, the Status Quo surveys show them significantly higher as you can see below. I don’t know how to account for this though it could be related to sample size, or sample locations.



Nexus was created in 2015 by Ken Schwaber and Scrum.org. Schwaber was one of the co-creators of Scrum and one of the 17 authors of the Agile Manifesto. The Nexus guide was published in 2015, and a book was published in 2017: The Nexus Framework for Scaling Scrum, The: Continuously Delivering an Integrated Product with Multiple Scrum Teams.

Nexus is based on the Scrum Framework.

As you can see, the surveys Say adoptions vary from 0% to 15% of respondents saying they use Nexus.


Scrum @ Scale

Scrum @ Scale was introduced in 2017 by Jeff Sutherland and Scrum Alliance. Sutherland is the co-creator of Scrum and one of the 17 authors of the Agile Manifesto. I consider Scrum @ Scale a late-comer to the agile scaling party.

In fact, the only surveys that mention Scrum @ Scale are the Status Quo surveys. Which seems a little odd, especially since it was just introduced in 2017 and the 2017 Status Quo survey showed 8% of respondents using it.

My theory is that people confused Scrum of Scrums and Scrum @ Scale and didn’t know what they were answering. Consider the following page that was included in the KPMG Survey report from 2019:

2019 KPMG Survey - Popular Agile Scaling Frameworks

On the left side there is a table showing the “most common scaled frameworks” based on the survey including SAFe, Scrum of Scrums, Spotify, LeSS and Other. On the right KPMG provided an overview of the “common Agile Scaling Frameworks” that include SAFe, LeSS, Disciplined Agile, Scrum @ Scale, and Nexus. Is it possible that the KPMG authors didn’t know the difference between the two? How else do you explain the lists of common frameworks?


Roll Your Own

I am not sure what to make of this category of roll your own. It has various names in the different surveys including “Individually Created”, “Custom”, and “Own Development”. Results vary quite a bit but directionally I think we can conclude that 10-15% of people scaling are using some of their own approaches to do it.


Honorable Mention – Team of Teams, Lean Management, Agile Portfolio Management,  and RAGE

This last category of approaches got very few responses. I am not personally familiar with any of them nor have I heard of organizations using them to scale, outside of the surveys we have included.

The highest usage for any of these was for Team of Teams at 9% on the 2020 Status Quo (Scaled) Agile survey. My theory is that whoever answered the survey with Team of Teams had recently read retired US General Stanley McChrystal’s book of the same name. Alternatively, the respondent could have confused Scrum of Scrums with Team of Teams.

Behind Team of Teams would be Lean Management and Agile Portfolio Management which each had 3% of respondents on the CollabNet/VersionOne surveys.

I don’t know what to make of RAGE (Recipes for Agile Governance) which is owned by cPrime and has been around since 2013. From the cPrime site:

RAGE is Cprime’s framework for Agile Governance, or, the formalization and exercise of repeatable decision-making practices. It enables rapid decision making, based on lightweight artifacts, developed with minimum effort. Is applicable to any process at the Project, Program, and Portfolio level of any enterprise.

— cPrime website: https://www.cprime.com/rage/

Surveys Used as Source Data for Agile Scaling Approaches

Now that we’ve looked at the survey results by scaling approach, let’s take a look at the various surveys used. Here are the various published surveys used in this analysis, starting with the oldest.

  1. 2017 Status Quo Agile Survey
  2. 2017 cPrime Scaling Agile Report
  3. 2018 Collabnet/VersionOne 12th Annual State of Agile Report
  4. 2019 cPrime Scaling Agile Report
  5. 2019 KPMG Survey of Agile
  6. 2019 Collabnet/VersionOne 13th Annual State of Agile Report
  7. 2020 Status Quo Agile
  8. 2020 Digital.ai Collabnet/VersionOne 14th Annual State of Agile Report

2017 Status Quo (Scaled) Agile Survey

Before doing this research, I’d never heard of this Status Quo (Scaled) Agile Survey. It is conducted by a professor at Koblenz University in collaboration with the GPM – German Association for project management, IPMA – International Project Management Association and Scrum.org. The study published in 2017 was the 3rd; previous studies were in 2012 and 2014.

The study is led by Ayelt Komus Phd, professor of organization and business informatics at Koblenz University of Applied Sciences. The survey was conducted online in both English and German from September 2016 to November 2016. The results were published in March 2017. Over 1,000 respondents from over 30 countries participated in the survey.

Learn more or download your own copy of the survey results here – 2016 Status Quo (Scaled) Agile Survey Results.

Scaling Frameworks Used

The entire survey results are interesting. My focus was on the popularity of scaling frameworks.

  • Not surprisingly, 50% of respondents chose SAFe as their scaling framework
  • What is very surprising though is that LeSS came in 2nd with 30% of the responses
  • Scrum at Scale and Nexus each got 8% of the responses

Scaling Frameworks Used - 2017 Status Quo Agile


2017 cPrime Scaling Agile Report

  • Link to published report: https://www.cprime.com/resource/white-papers/scaling-agile-survey-2017/
  • cPrime invited 5,000 people who expressed interest in agile practices
  • cPrime conducted “The State of Scaling Agile 2017” survey from May-August 2017
  • Ironic Finding: “Flexibility” the most important feature companies look for in a scaling Agile framework.”
  • Finding: Upper management thinks they understand agile transformation but they don’t
  • When asked “What might be the key item preventing you from adopting a formalized scaling framework/process (i.e. SAFe)?” the Top 3 survey responses to obstacles to scaling Agile: Lack of General Understanding, Other inflight strategic initiatives and “I’m not sure”
  • Popularity of various Scaling Approaches – Top 3 are SAFe (45%), Scrum of Scrums (22%) and Custom (13%).
  • Spotify was included with 2.4 % (see related article – there is no spotify model for scaling agile).

Agile Scaling Approaches from cPrime Agile Scaling Survey 2017


2018 Collabnet VersionOne 12th Annual State of Agile Report

The CollabNet/VersionOne Annual State of Agile Report is one of the longest-running and most popular surveys on agility.

Agile Scaling Approaches Reported by VersionOne in 2018

I don’t know why, but the Scaling results published by VersionOne doesn’t add up to 100%.

  • VersionOne has the same top 3 scaling approaches including SAFe (29%), Scrum of Scrums (19%) and Internally created (10%).
  • Also well known frameworks that were reported include DAD (5%), LeSS (5%), Enterprise Scrum (3%)
  • Less well-known scaling frameworks include Lean Management (3%), Agile Portfolio Management (3%), Nexus (1%) and RAGE which was oddly reported at 0%.


Agile Scaling Approaches from Collabnet VersionOne 2017 Annual State of Agile Report

2019 cPrime Scaling Agile Report

cPrime followed their 2017 Scaling Agile survey with another in 2019.

  • Link to report: https://www.cprime.com/resource/white-papers/2nd-annual-agile-at-scale-report-2018/
  • Cprime conducted “The State of Scaling Agile 2018” survey from May-October 2018
  • We surveyed more than 5,500 individuals with a professed interest in Agile practices.
  • Key Report Findings: 1) Disconnect between upper and middle management, 2) Disconnect between expectations and reality and 3) agile scaling tools are often misunderstood, underutilized, and even under-appreciated

Let’s take a look at scaling approaches which seem to have not changed much since the 2017 cPrime survey. The two biggest categories continued to dominate though both lost ground since 2017:

  • SAFe dropped from 45% in 2017 to 37% in 2019.
  • Scrum of Scrums also dropped from 22% in 2017 to 17% in 2019
  • Custom declined slightly from 13% in 2017 to 12% in 2019

Where did the growth occur?

  • A new category, “Not sure” captured 9% of responses
  • Another new category, “Enterprise Scrum” captured another 7%. Enterprise Scrum was created by the late Mike Beedle
  • None went from 10% to 11%
  • Less remained steady at 4%
  • Disciplined Agile Delivery, Spotify and Nexus were no longer mentioned in 2019. Strange!

Agile Scaling Approaches from cPrime Agile Scaling Survey 2019

2019 KPMG Survey of Agility

The KPMG 2019 Survey of Agility focused on a lot of things other than scaling. But it did include the question on scaling approaches used.


  • Source
  • Originally European survey, we concluded the survey with responses from more than 120 participants from 17 countries (excluding the US).
  • Though not entirely focused on transformation, it provides a window

Scaling Approaches Used

Interesting, the KPMG survey in 2019 does not correspond well with either the cPrime or the VersionOne surveys. I suspect this is due to it being primarily European (55%) where Spotify may have more traction as a scaling approach. At 19%, SAFe is hardly dominating and just barely more than Scrum of Scrums at 17%. And Spotify was 9%. And the numbers don’t add up to 100%.

Agile Scaling Approaches from KPMG Survey of Agility 2019

2019 Collabnet/VersionOne 13th Annual State of Agile Report

Some background on the survey:

  • The 13th Annual State of Agile Report was based on surveys conducted from August to December 2018 and the results were published in May 2019.
  • 1,319 responses were collected
  • Get the report here: https://resources.collab.net/blogs/introducing-the-13th-annual-state-of-agile-report

Survey Results for Scaling Approaches 

SAFe was still the dominant scaling approach reported by survey respondents.

The Scaled Agile Framework® continues to be the most popular scaling method cited by respondents (30% this year compared to 29% last year).

— Collabnet/VersionOne 13th Annual State of Agile Report

Agile Scaling Approaches from Collabnet VersionOne 2019 Annual State of Agile Report


Let’s take a look Scaling Approaches reported in the 13th annual report compared to 12th annual report from CollabnetVersion report:

  • SAFe went from 29% t0 30%
  • A new category “don’t know” was added
  • Scrum of Scrums went from 19% to 16%
  • Internally created methods went from 10% to 8%
  • Disciplined Agile Delivery went from 7% to 5%
  • A new category of “Spotify” captured 5% of respondents
  • LeSS declined from 5% to 3%
  • Enterprise Scrum, Lean Management and Agile Portfolio Management all held steady at 3%
  • Nexus increased from 1% to 2%
  • RAGE went from 0% to 1%

Interestingly, the % for the 13th Annual report added up to 100%. In the 12th Annual Report they only added up to 88%.

2020 Status Quo (Scaled) Agile

The team that produced the 2017 Status Quo survey provided an update in 2020.

Scaling Frameworks Used

The most recent survey from Dr. Ayelt Komus and his team at Koblenz university show different numbers than the others. And because respondents could choose from multiple approaches, the numbers won’t add up to 100%.

  • 54% of respondents that used scaling said they used SAFe
  • 35% said own development
  • A whopping 23% said LeSS…this is down from 30% in the 2017 survey but still quite higher than anything others have reported
  • 16% said the Spotify-Model
  • 15% said Nexus
  • 15% said Scrum at Scale
  • 9% said Team of Teams – as noted, this may be confusion with Scrum of Scrums
  • 3% said Disciplined Agile

Scaling Frameworks Used - 2020 Status Quo Agile


2020 Digital.ai (formerly Collabnet/VersionOne) 14th Annual State of Agile Report

In April 2020, CollabNet VersionOne, XebiaLabs, and Arxan Technologies combined to form Digital.ai which is why the Annual State of Agile Report was rebranded. The actual report was produced by research firm Analysis.net Research (not clear if they produced all the reports or just this one. Digital.ai made no indication on whether they would discontinue the long-running annual survey.

Some background on the survey:

  • The 14th Annual State of Agile Report was based on surveys conduced from August to December 2019 and the results were published early in May 2020.
  • 1,121 responses were collected
  • Source: https://stateofagile.com/#

Survey Results for Scaling Approaches in the 14th Annual State of Agile Report

Not surprisingly, SAFe was still the dominant scaling approach reported by survey respondents.

The Scaled Agile Framework® continues to be the most popular scaling method cited by respondents (35% this year compared to 30% last year). As a percentage of all responses, SAFe® outdistances the next nearest response, Scrum of Scrums, by 19%.

–Digital.ai 14th Annual State of Agile Report

Let’s dig into the numbers and look at the change from the 13th to 14th Annual State of Agile Report:

Like the previous years report, the numbers seem to add up to 100% so respondents probably were not allowed to give multiple responses. Notable changes from the previous year include:

  • SAFe went from 30% to 35% in the 14th Annual Report
  • Don’t know went from 19% to 28%
  • Scrum of Scrums remained steady at 16%
  • Internally created methods was reported at 8% in the 13th annual report and was not recorded in the 14th
  • Spotify also went missing in the 14th annual report; it was 5% in the previous year’s survey
  • Disciplined Agile Delivery declined from 7% to 4%
  • Large Scale Scrum and Enterprise Scrum both reported a slight uptick from 3% to 4%
  • Agile Portfolio Management remained steady at 3%
  • Nexus increased to 3%
  • RAGE held steady at 1%

Agile Scaling Approaches from Collabnet VersionOne 14th Annual State of Agile Report


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