A few years ago I wrote about the popular agile scaling frameworks. In Beyond SAFe, Trends in Agile Scaling, I drew upon the following sources of information:
- 2017 Status Quo Agile Survey
- 2017 cPrime Scaling Agile Report
- 2019 cPrime Scaling Agile Report
- 2019 KPMG Survey of Agile
- 2020 Status Quo Agile
- 2018, 2019, and 2020 digital.ai State of Agile Reports
Since writing that article, I’ve been unable to find any updates, with the exception of the last one. The digital.ai State of Agile Reports is conducted on an annual basis with the most recent being the 16th Annual Report published in 2022.
Though consistent, I have begun to question the reliability and accuracy of the digital.ai Annual State of Agile Report as you will see below. Still, that report provides some insights we would not otherwise have so I decided to use it for this updated report on the most popular agile frameworks.
Agile Frameworks and Approaches
For our analysis, I thought it might be helpful to break the list of Agile frameworks and approaches into the following three groups:
- Popular Team Level Frameworks
- Popular Scaling Frameworks (multiple teams)
- Unpopular agile frameworks that are pretty much dead
Before we dive into the details of these three groups, it is important to note that while frameworks do help people to get their work done, there is also a significant financial incentive to have a popular framework. I am not suggesting that frameworks are not helpful, it is just that training and certification have become big business with billions of dollars at stake. (See my related article on the circus of agile certifications here.) Use your best judgment when deciding on the best approach for you and your team.
So let’s dive in, starting with the popular team-level agile frameworks.
Popular Team-Level Agile Frameworks
This first group of frameworks gets the most attention because frankly, they are the ones most people use. Not everyone that uses agile needs a scaling framework but they all use a team-level framework. And most of the popular scaling frameworks are built upon Scrum.
- Other Scrum Hybrids
- Lean Startup
- Extreme Programming (XP)
The chart below shows the popularity of each of these approaches based on the 2022 Digital.ai Annual State of Agile Report. Note that the numbers don’t add up to 100% because participants are able to make more than one selection for this question. Which also makes the reliability questionable.
Let’s take a quick look at each of these.
Scrum is the Macdaddy of team-level agile frameworks. Most organizations choose to use Scrum at the team level, whether it is Scrum alone or Scrum as a hybrid with say Extreme Programming.
Scrum is a simple, lightweight framework created by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland. The inspiration for Scrum came from the game of Rugby where teams work together with a common objective. [See my related post – Scrum Teams Today are Nothing Like Rugby Teams.]
The Scrum framework is intentionally lightweight. It consists of three main
roles accountabilities: the Scrum Master, who facilitates the process; the Product Owner, who sets priorities; and the Development Team, responsible for doing the work. Scrum Teams work in short development cycles called Sprints, that are 30 days or less, punctuated by team activities or events such as Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective. The framework aims to promote adaptability, predictability and empiricism.
The Scrum founders declare that Scrum is immutable. By this they mean that you should not change the scrum accountabilities, events or artifacts. If you do, you have something other than Scrum.
Unfortunately for the founders, almost everyone that uses Scrum does change the framework and they still call it Scrum. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.
Kanban is the second most popular agile framework for teams. Though properly we should call it the Kanban Method as that is the application of Kanban to knowledge work.
Kanban was originally created over 70 years ago as part of Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production system. It was a card-based inventory management approach. Kanban was adapted by J. David Anderson and others to apply to knowledge workers including but not limited to software development.
Kanban is extremely lightweight, more so even than Scrum. It focuses on flow and continuous improvement by making work visible and identifying and removing bottlenecks in the process.
As its name implies, ScrumBan is a combination of Scrum and Kanban. Frequently ScrumBan is Kanban with the timeboxed sprints added though it could include other things.
ScrumBan (and Kanban teams for that matter) often adopt the Scrum accountabilities including the Product Owner and Scrum Master.
The main attraction of ScrumBan is that it reduces time spent on planning and allows for important, emergent work to be taken on immediately rather than waiting for the next sprint.
I won’t spend any time describing this because frankly, we have no idea what iterative means in this context. Scrum is iterative. Extreme Programming and Scrumban can be iterative as can all other Scrum Hybrids.
The difficulty is with the question itself. It is like asking people to choose which vegetables they like to eat:
- Green beans
- Things that are green
Scrum XP Hybrid (13%)
Next most popular on the list is the Scrum / XP hybrid. Note that ScrumBan is also a Scrum hybrid which makes the use of Scrum the dominant approach.
I don’t trust the accuracy of the 13% in the chart above for Scrum and XP. Why? I think the number is understated.
Today many teams have internalized the technical practices from Extreme Programming. They may be using pair programming, automated tests and continuous integration because they are solid software development practices. They may not recognize this as XP.
Lean Startup (10%)
This one is a head scratcher frankly. I don’t think of Lean Startup as a team level agile framework. I am also convinced that few of the people who selected this response in the survey actually know what Lean Startup is or that they use it. I have only included it here because there were 10% of respondents that made this choice.
Lean Startup is based on the NY Times best selling book by the same name, authored by Eric Reis. Reis and Steve Blank popularized this approach to product development. I like the approach; I am just not convinced it is comparable to Scrum and Kanban.
Extreme Programming (XP)
Finally we have Extreme Programming. XP is not a methodology; it is a set of technical or engineering practices that are used to develop solutions. XP has its roots in the Rapid Application Development approaches that were popular in the 1990s.
Kent Beck created XP while working on the Chrysler Comprehensive Compensation (C3) Project at Chrysler in the late 1990’s. He crystalized the approaches he used in his Extreme Programming Explained.
Many of the technical practices that XP leverages have become common practices even for teams that are not formally adopting XP. They are part and parcel to DevOps and as I noted above, they are just considered good software development practices.
My Takeaway – Popular Team Level Frameworks
It is pretty clear that Scrum and Kanban dominate. I don’t think you can draw many conclusions about the popularity of the other approaches.
Frankly I wish digital.ai would revise their questions in this area to provide better data. Though they have used this question for 16 years in a row and in previous years I’ve seen worse data. So I doubt things will change.
Popular Agile Scaling Frameworks
Single-team agile works great. But what happens when you want to deliver a really large solution? Or when you want to align the entire organization and force them to work in the same standard way? That is where scaling frameworks come into play.
I should preface this exploration by saying there is a lot of controversy here. In addition to debating the merits of various scaling frameworks, there are some that feel that trying to scale can by itself indicate some problems.
Most of the scaling frameworks mentioned below are based on Scrum. That is, the teams being scaled are assumed to be using Scrum in most cases (SAFe also supports teams using Kanban). In any case, let’s look at the most popular scaling frameworks.
Popular Scaling Frameworks:
- Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)
- Scrum@Scale/Scrum of Scrums
- Lean Management
- Spotify Model
- Agile Portfolio Management (APM)
- Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)
- Enterprise Scrum
The chart below shows the relative popularity of these approaches based on that 2022 Digital.ai survey referenced above.
Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) – (53%)
Just as Scrum dominates the team-level agile frameworks, SAFe dominates in scaling. Perhaps that is because it is all-inclusive and highly prescriptive.
SAFe was the brainchild of Dean Leffingwell who was inspired by the Rational Unified Process among other things. Though unique, SAFe shares some similarities with RUP in terms of structuring development processes and aligning various levels of an organization. Both methodologies emphasize a systematic approach to development and the importance of roles, responsibilities, and process guidelines.
SAFe is designed to help organizations implement Agile practices across the enterprise. It focuses on alignment, collaboration, and delivery at scale, aiming to address the challenges of coordinating multiple Agile teams working on interconnected components.
The current version of SAFe provides a structured framework that offers guidance on roles, responsibilities, processes, and practices at four different levels:
- team level
- program level
- portfolio level
- large solution level
SAFe reinforces existing roles like program managers and also introduces new roles such as the Release Train Engineer (RTE). The RTE is similar to a Scrum Master though an RTE oversees multiple teams delivering together.
There are a few things that I like about SAFe including the use of what used to be called big room planning which is now called Program Increment (PI) planning. It is a great technique to facilitate synchronization and planning across related teams. I also like the idea of aligning related teams on the same sprint schedule to better synchronize their delivery.
There is plenty to not like about SAFe. Google it and find out. SAFe has faced criticisms for being overly complex and heavy, potentially leading to excessive overhead and rigidity. Critics argue that the sheer number of roles, ceremonies, and artifacts prescribed by SAFe might stifle team autonomy and Agile values. Additionally, some Agile purists contend that SAFe’s approach could lead to a top-down management style and undermine the self-organizing nature of Agile teams.
Like it or hate it, it is still the top dog when it comes to scaling.
Scrum@Scale / Scrum of Scrums (28%)
Let’s start out by pointing out that Scrum@Scale and Scrum of Scrums are two different things. This goes back again to my point about the reliability of this data source.
Scrum of Scrums is a lightweight technique to coordinate the efforts of multiple Scrum Teams. Representatives from each Scrum team meet periodically in a “Scrum of Scrums” to discuss progress, dependencies, and impediments. The Scrum of Scrums technique is using by itself and with other scaling approaches.
Scrum@Scale was first introduced in 2016 by Jeff Sutherland. Sutherland is one of the co-creators of the Scrum Framework and one of the 17 authors of the Agile Manifesto. The Scrum@Scale framework was formalized and trademarked around 2019-2020 as a scalable version of Scrum supported by The Scrum Alliance. You can download the free Scrum@Scale Guide here.
Scrum@Scale is broader than the Scrum of Scrums. It encompasses not just multiple Scrum teams but the entire enterprise. Scrum@Scale integrates more closely with business objectives and strategy, something that is ignored by Scrum of Scrums.
Lean Management (8%)
Lean Management comes in at a distant 3rd. What is it? No one can say for sure.
This is another area where the results of this survey are suspect and unreliable. Lean Management could include a variety of different approaches. I don’t consider any of them an agile scaling technique:
- Lean Manufacturing
- Lean 6 Sigma
- Lean Software Development
- Lean Startup
- Lean Enterprise
- Something else
I recently posted a LinkedIn question about this and no one else seems to know what it is.
Agile Portfolio Management (7%)
Another item that seems out of place on this list is Agile Portfolio Management. What is it? We cannot be sure.
It might be approaches of managing portfolios, based on the 2008 book of that name by Jochen Krebs.
It is hard to say and to be fair, I have not read the book. But I really doubt that it could be considered a scaling approach.
Spotify Model (7%)
I have similar issues with Spotify being on this list. Spotify is not a scaling approach. It was a set of experiments conducted over 10 years ago when Spotify was a young startup. Spotify experimented heavily with agile ways of working and published many of their experiments from that time. Sadly, many people thought that they could get benefits by copy-pasting the ideas from Spotify into their organization. So we wound up with labels like tribes and guilds that were slapped on existing organization structures.
It is not a scaling framework.
But like a dog with a bone or a two-year-old with a new toy, many people have latched on to it and refuse to let go.
Never mind that startup approaches won’t work for old and established companies. Or that most organizations still want to command and control people which is very different than the culture at Spotify that former coaches have described.
Many people still think Spotify is an agile scaling approach and I am not going to be the one to take their new toy away.
Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) (6%)
Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) was co-founded by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde in 2006. Together they foster the LeSS community and support the Less.works website. Larman and Vodde have also published 3 books related to scaling Scrum and LeSS. The most recently published book is Large Scale Scrum (2016)
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. That is the first step.
Enterprise Scrum (6%)
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.
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 were working to finish the book Beedle was working on and hoped to publish before his death. That book was never finished.
I seriously doubt that 6% of respondents to this survey are using Enterprise Scrum. And I suspect that in the next few years, Enterprise Scrum will be in the RIP category.
Disciplined Agile (3%)
Disciplined Agile is a decision-making toolkit developed by Scott Ambler and Mark Lines at IBM. When it was launched in 2012 it was called a framework but later, Ambler and Lines began to refer to it as a context-dependent, “decision-making toolkit”.
Like SAFe, the DA toolkit has pulled in techniques from other frameworks like Lean, Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe. Techniques like agile modeling and test-driven development are also included.
I don’t think that Disciplined Agile is the same as other scaling approaches. Nor is it a scaling framework for that matter. That is just me – the people that answered the survey think that it is a scaling framework.
And sadly, PMI seems to be killing Disciplined Agile. So I expect it to be in the RIP category soon.
Nexus is a scaling framework based on Scrum Framework. Nexus was created in 2015 by Scrum co-creator Ken Schwaber. 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.
Unlike SAFe and even Scrum@Scale, Nexus has not really taken off. It has not been promoted well even though it is the official scaling approach of Scrum.org.
With a name like RAGE, do I even need to explain this approach? RAGE (Recipes for Agile Governance) has been around since 2013 and is now owned by cPrime. 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/
RIP – The Less Popular or Unpopular Agile Frameworks
It is important to note that there are agile frameworks that were developed even before 2001 when the term agile was attached to the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Many of these frameworks were modeled after existing methodologies popular in the 1990s such as James Martin. Most large systems integrators in the 1990s had one or more approaches to project management and software development.
Take Unisys as an example. I was working for Unisys in the 1990s as a Program Manager in the Unisys Worldwide Project Quality Office, an early PMO. Unisys had an in-house approach called TeamMethod that included project and program management approaches as well as software development approaches.
Many or most of the in-house and public methodologies have fallen by the wayside. A few of these survived or morphed into other frameworks. For example, the Rational Unified Process (RUP) was popular in the 1990s and is pretty obscure today. It was purchased by IBM in 2003 and rebranded several times. However, many aspects of RUP found their way into the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD).
The following list is roughly ordered by date. It is not complete:
- Crystal Methods
- Lean Development
- Rapid Application Development (RAD)
- Rational Unified Process
- Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)
- Feature Driven Development
- Lean SW Development
- Team of Teams
Wrapping it Up
Agility frameworks have come a long way in the last 30 years. After years of experimentation, most organizations seem to have found that Scrum and Kanban work best for their Teams, and SAFe is most popular for scaling across the organization.