Wednesday, August 24, 2016

SAFe: The structure of an Agile Release Train

I have heard many different views of what an Agile Release Train (ART) actually is, ranging from a predetermined release schedule all the way down to nothing other than a renamed line organization. None of these are appropriate. Let us clarify it's basic intention. As Dean Leffingwell puts it, an ART is no more or less than a "team of teams". But what does that look like?

One Team Scrum

Basically everyone is familiar with the constellation of a Scrum team, but for brevity's sake, let me include a small summary: Every Scrum team has a Product Owner, a Scrum Master - and the developers. This same constellation is more or less applicable for other agile teams - even if they don't actually use Scrum.

A Scrum tean

Multi Team Scrum

But since a Scrum team is limited to 3-9 developers, how does that look like when your organization is, say, 50, or 80, or 150 developers? Do you put the PO outside the team? Yes and no. The Scrum Master? Maybe, maybe not. How do developers interact?
In fact, Scrum does not answer any of these questions, as the scope of Scrum is a single team. Consequently, larger organizations adopting agility struggle to find their answers. Their Scrum organization sooner lor later looks like this:

A Multi-Team Scrum adoption

This model actually works, but it leaves some questions un-answered, such as: "How do we make sure we're all working on the most valuable stuff?" - "How do we make sure we're not impeding each other?", or, for business: "Whom do I talk to with my request?" - "Who could take this feature?" - "What's Priority 1?" - "Is there a way to get this out of the door earlier?" - "When will the next major release be ready?"

The need for coordination

While this may still be resolved for 3-4 teams, this scenario might become a nightmare for business when there are 10 or more teams: Transparency, the key to any decent agile development, is lost in the mud. The more focus development teams have, the more likely they will not work on the highest priority.

The first obvious level of coordination is: The Product Owners need to be aware of what other PO's are working on and what the overall Backlog looks like and where their own priorities are within the bigger system.

Typically, in large organizations, impediments are endemic to the overall organization. As such, even independent Scrum teams will all be struggling with the same or similar problems caused by the bigger system. Likewise, each team itself will be powerless to change the entire system.

As such, the second obvious level of coordination is: The Scrum Masters should be aware of what's going on in the other teams around them, and how their team affects other teams.

Another problem arising in this scenario is that teams may suggest or implement local optimizations which may be fine for their own team, but detrimental for the other teams! For example, think of one team deciding to switch to an exotic programming language like Whitespace, because they're all Whitespace geeks: How can other teams still work on that code?

As such, the third level of coordination is: The Developers should be aware of what's going on in the other teams around them, and how their team affects other teams and the product.

The SAFe approach

What SAFe® does here, is basically nothing more and nothing less than consider a "Scrum team" like a developer in a larger organization and create the same structure on a higher level:

An ART - a team of agile teams

Looks an awful lot like a Scrum team - and that's intentional.

New Roles

Before we get into "Whoa, three new roles - more overhead!", let us clarify a few things: First, huge organizations do require more overhead. Don't go huge unless inevitable. Second, while SAFe® suggests these roles, it does not mandate them to be full time roles. It's entirely possible that these are merely additional responsibilities of existing people. However, experience indicates that in huge organizations - these things tend to become full time jobs.

The Product Manager (PM)
The PM relieves each invidivual PO of aligning the overall big picture with the different stakeholders.
The big differences between a PM and a PO is basically that while the PO is working with teams and individual customers, the PM is working with PO's and the strategic organization. Their main responsibility is making sure that there is only one overall "Product Backlog" from which all the teams pull work - so that at any given time, there is only one Priority 1 in the entire organization.

The Release Train Engineer (RTE)
You could say that the RTE is a "super Scrum Master", but that's not quite the point. While their responsibility is definitely similar, they don't work as much with a team as they work with the organization and management: For the teams, we already have Scrum Masters. 
The RTE, on the other hand, paves the way to corporate agility. The main concern of the RTE will be the legacy structure around the teams, to create a positive learning and innovation environment to nurture the agile teams.

The System Architect (SA)
That's the only really new thing on the ART is the System Architect. To clear up the common misconception about agile architecture right from the start, their responsibility is not to draw funny diagrams of cloud castles and force the teams to implement them. Much rather, their role is to guide and coach architecture, so that we don't end up with uncontrollable wild growth. Likewise, when individual team members have questions about the architecture, this SA would be the first person to come to. 

Changes to existing roles

The Product Owner (PO)
A Product Owner may be in charge of more than one team. Practice indicates that 1-4 teams tend to work out, otherwise the risk of losing focus increases. 
At scale PO's tend to become specialized in areas of the product (such as: Product Catalog or Customer Services) and need to synchronize the overall big picture with each other. Most of all, they need to synchronize with the PM, who feeds back into corporate strategy.

The Scrum Master (SM)
A Scrum Master may also be working with more than one team. Practice indicates that 2 is already the limit.
Facing the team, the main difference for the SM is that they need to point the team to interact with people from different teams, rather than being a bubble for themselves. 
Facing the organization, the SM has to have a much deeper understanding of "Spheres of control", and communicate the impact of outbound impediments. They may need to hand over large blockers to the RTE, and may likewise receive input from the RTE when their team needs to budge in order to move a larger block out of the way.


I hope that this article explains how SAFe®'s structure of the ART is not "relabelling the same old thing", but simply putting Scrum on a bigger level.
To repeat again, "don't go into scaling unless inevitable". But when you need to, the ART model minimizes the deviation from good Scrum practices.

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