All aboard the Release Train
Your organisation has finally decided to move away from Waterfall, and are ready to take the plunge on large-scale Agile adoption.
You have been appointed the Release Train Engineer / Tribe Leader / LeSS Coach, and have been tasked with setting up a Release Train for your program in three months. Regardless of the specific form of Scaled Agile being implemented, in our experience there are some key steps to follow to enable the successful launch of a Scaled Agile implementation. When you have multiple teams and individuals encompassing Developers, Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Architects, and formal functions such as Security and Compliance, it is important to set up formal structure, coordination, and transparency across the Train.
But what is a Release Train?
The Release Train is the primary mechanism of value delivery to the customer. It is in simple terms, a self-organising team of Agile teams from various parts of the organisation that plans and executes together within the same cadence, typically 10-12 weeks. The Train is the driving force to enable teams to align to a shared vision and prioritised roadmap and backlog [i].
What roles are important in a Release Train?
This is not an exhaustive list of each role, but some of the key participants that are critical for launch:
Teams – Each team should optimally consist of between 3-9 full time members as well as a dedicated a Scrum Master and Product Owner. The reasoning for this is that a smaller team will struggle to achieve enough each sprint; any larger and communication soon becomes complex and cumbersome [ii]. Agile Release Trains tend to comprise cross functional roles such as Compliance, DevOps and Release Management acting on behalf of the programme.
Release Train Engineer (RTE) or Equivalent – Servant leaders that serve the release train. The key purpose of the RTE is to ensure teams deliver as per commitment, remove blockers, manage risks and dependencies, and focus on continuous improvement.
Product Manager – An individual drives the Vision, the Roadmap, and the Product Feature Backlog of the team, liaising with business stakeholders to make sure the most valuable Features are prioritised for delivery by the Team.
Business Owners – Their job is to ensure that product deliverables meet business objectives, e.g., increased revenue or regulatory compliance. They help define the business case of the Epics or Features to be prioritised, and are considered as much a part of the train as the technical teams.
Ready to jump on the Train? Let’s walk through the key steps to get you started on your journey.
1. Obtain Leadership endorsement
From our experience working across complex organisations, the companies that have embraced Agile best have received strong and early support at senior management level on the move through securing medium to long term funding, aligning funding through delivery of key business outcomes (Epics) and resourcing the key roles both internally and externally as well as scheduling training.
2. Resource and train your key stakeholders
Scaling agile often means involving more of the organisation than just technical teams. Many stakeholders, especially in non-technical business functions will likely be unfamiliar with Agile, unclear on expectations and may not understand the need and benefits of their participation. It is crucial that they understand and support the model as well as the responsibilities of their role through taking part in formal training, to understand the methodology both in theory and practise, as well as interactions and key ceremonies that will take place, for example PI Planning if practising SAFe.
3. Identify value streams
Value stream identification is vital to make sure the Train can optimise the flow of value to the customer [iii]. Through our experience, we have observed many organisations struggle to identify their value streams, especially when the delivery is concentrated in siloed second line or non-customer facing functions. Value stream thinking means considering horizontal flows of value through the organisation and will typically cut across multiple different teams and stakeholders.
To map value streams successfully, it is important to take a step back and list out all the steps from the initial idea of your product to launch and post go live support, marking each activity as value add or non-value add. This will highlight areas of “waste” that can be removed and concentrate on the flow of what the customer needs as well as future state improvement.
4. Set up your Tooling
The final piece of the jigsaw is ensuring that your Train is onboarded onto effective Agile tooling to manage all required information, whether that be JIRA, Rally, or another platform. The Covid pandemic has highlighted the importance of collaborative software in aligning dislocated teams. It is important that the chosen tooling can seamlessly integrate with existing platforms, for example Confluence and HP ALM testing to avoid silos being created. This will also allow teams to work to the same cadence regardless of location, manage progress of all user stories and features as well as create personalised reports that can evidence key metrics, e.g., Sprint Velocity at a Program Level, and to external bodies such as Auditors and Regulators.
The pre-requisite four steps above can take many weeks if not months of workshops, interviews, and negotiations to have everything in place for your Release Train go-live. These steps can of course be adjusted and tweaked to meet the needs of your organisation and methodology of choice.
However, once complete – it is time to review calendars, agree a date for the launch event for the Release Train and formally set the wheels of the train in motion for delivery.