"Should I Scrum or Stay SAFe®?"

By Dipanjan Munshi on September, 16 2020

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Dipanjan Munshi

As a leading Agile coaching organization who provides certification training for both Scrum and Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), one question we are often asked is: “Should we take the Scrum certification or SAFe certification?”

A Scenario to Consider:

Imagine the following scenario facing a CIO of a large organization: The IT department has predominantly used a standard waterfall model of delivery, except for a couple of product teams that have adopted Agile. These product teams have shown great value and progress compared to traditional projects.


To capitalize on the benefits of Agile execution, the CIO decides to scale up the Agile adoption to all levels using SAFe. Knowing that Scrum training provides a good base for Agile delivery, and understanding that SAFe aligns well with management’s goals, a number of important questions quickly rise to the surface:

Would the two teams that are already well-versed in Agile and benefit from SAFe certifications?

  • What certification is appropriate for the other twenty teams in the department?
  • What training would be the most beneficial for the team of middle managers, and the other executives at the company that have no previous experience with Agile.
  • What’s the best way to spend the training budget and who outside of IT needs to be trained?

If this situation looks familiar to you, you are not alone.

As Agile coaches for teams in organizations at various stages of Agile adoption, we have collected a starting set of guidelines to help our clients, or an individual, determine what the best Agile learning path would be. In this blog, I outline five guidelines that will help you get started:

1. If you are just starting with Agile, do not consider SAFe

SAFe implementation requires some amount of Agile maturity for the team. If you are starting your Agile journey with a small team, stick to the standard Scrum training and certifications. Certified Scrum Master (CSM®) and Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO®) are two of the most important certificates that you will need. CSM® is a valuable certification not only for would-be Scrum Masters but also for the general delivery team, as it will help instill the Agile cadence and value. CSPO® is the most recommended course for executives, business owners, product managers and analysts.

2. If you are a small organization with plenty of Agile experience, think before going SAFe

SAFe is most suitable for medium to large organizations. In our experience, an enterprise having an IT organization of fewer than twenty people should not consider using SAFe.

Adopting even the basic SAFe framework (essential SAFe) needs at least a program level view. If your organization conducts independent, standalone projects, SAFe is likely not be the right choice for you.

If you have decided to go with SAFe, you need to choose the right level and tailor your SAFe training accordingly to be relevant to your teams. You cannot tailor the SAFe certification training sessions as they are meant to be generic. In such scenarios, you may want to skip the certification and instead go with a tailored training session that will combine both Agile and SAFe elements.

3. If you do not envision scaling Agile from the very top to the root, do not try SAFe

Many organizations look at Agile only as a way to deliver software. When we have worked with these organizations, they often think about “scaling Agile” by wanting to ensure that all of their grass-root delivery teams adopt Agile. This approach allows them to have all their projects executed using an Agile cadence by teams formed with Agile roles.

As part of taking that next they do not anticipate any changes at the program, portfolio or executive team level and they do not anticipate changes to their budgeting, resourcing or reporting processes. For government organizations and companies that have strict policies and procedures on budgeting and resourcing that cannot be changed, this approach to scaling Agile makes sense. We recommend they leverage Scrum and scale the framework in a way that makes the most sense for them.

4. If you are a large organization with extensive Agile experience, SAFe is the one for you

In this case, we are talking about a large enterprise that has already had plenty of experience with Agile delivery. Most of the delivery organization, including the leadership, have a working knowledge of Agile and believe in Agile philosophies and value. When those factors are true, it is highly probable that you will select SAFe for scaling the Agile delivery.

  • In this case, your learning plan will most definitely follow the SAFe route. Prepare a learning plan for each individual of your organization. You would likely want everyone to undergo the Leading SAFe certification as that sets the foundation of SAFe, bringing everyone on the same page regarding SAFe concepts, roles and artifacts.

  • Following this session we recommend you focus on more role-specific certification, such as the SAFe POPM (Product Owner / Product Manager) certification or SAFe Architect certification. Given the experience of your team, they will be able to grasp and digest the framework with ease and also will be able to compare the similarities and differences of SAFe compared to the standard Scrum Agile. At team with this foundation will be able to adapt to the new practices while keeping the Agile values and principles intact.

5. If you are a large organization with mixed Agile experience, but still want to go SAFe

Let us consider a scenario similar to the one I shared at the beginning of this post, except that the Agile experience of your delivery organizations ranges from traditional waterfall to relatively Agile.

In these cases, , the Agile experience of these enterprises is usually quite limited, with most delivery teams working in a standard waterfall model with matrixed resources. This is the most complicated adoption of SAFe as you have to consider the various needs and experience of your entire team.

Train everyone on SAFE: Running SAFe training for everyone is helpful for those who already have a good understanding of Agile; for those that are not familiar with Agile, the additional complexity of SAFe can create confusion that is counterproductive.

Start with Scrum: Another approach is to start by focusing on those new to Agile and provide a path to Scrum certifications as a path to easing them into Agile. If you take this approach, you have to do so understanding that it is only a step along the continuum of training. Once they have achieved their CSM® and CSPO® certifications, they can continue with Leading SAFe and more role-specific SAFe certificates.

Traing the core on SAFe: One of the best options for dealing with a mixed enterprise, is it to focus on the key individuals that lead direction of your projects (e.g, Product Owners, Product Managers, Business Owners, etc.) and have them take SAFe certifications.

At the same time, the grass-root teams get trained in an overall Agile execution framework instead of getting Scrum certifications.

It is worthwhile to ponder on whether your grass-root teams, who will mostly be executing sprints, really need to get certified as Scrum Masters or Product Owners. In most cases, the chances are they don’t. All they will need is to understand and internalize the Agile way of working. The cost of running such non-certification but comprehensive Agile courses are substantially lesser than the price that these certifications.


Online had developed a predefined two-day training module that provides the users with a hands-on workshop covering end-to-end Agile execution framework. In addition to the basics of CSM® and CSPO® the course covers additional topics that provides a practical viewpoint without being limited to Scrum


Another way that we have successfully implemented is to conduct a short hands-on workshop (half-day to one-day) to get the team acquainted with the Agile principles, roles, cadence and artifacts before they sit for their SAFe certifications.

The workshop comes with a set of carefully chosen self-study material. This approach is incredibly practical for teams with minimal learning time. This workshop brings the entire team on the same page on Agile as well as create a seamless connection to SAFe.

Can you resonate with any of these scenarios? If not, that's ok, we can still help you customize a training path that makes sense for your organization.  Regardless of where you are at, it just takes some thoughtfulness to put the right pieces in place.

If you're interested in reading course outlines for both Agile and SAFe with Online,
click here to visit our course listings and registration.

View Agile & SAFe Courses



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