Saturday, January 23, 2016

The case for the SAFe QuickStart

In May 2012 I was struck speechless as I listened to +Dean Leffingwell describe the “1-week QuickStart” model for launching an Agile Release Train on Day 3 of the inaugural (beta) SAFe Program Consultant course.   The coach and trainer in me couldn’t reconcile my visceral reaction to the scale of the event with the confidence with which Dean described the many occasions on which he had employed it.  I drank the kool-aid on much of SAFe, but not that!

Fast forward to September 2013.  With a few more trains and lots of training under the belt I was back in Boulder – this time to spend a week at the new SAI headquarters to participate in the alpha SPCT program.  A very heated discussion took place regarding the pre-requisites for becoming an SPCT.  The proposal to require the SPCT candidate to have completed two QuickStarts caused me to passionately argue that there are many SAFe coaches out there (myself included) who would never buy into running them, and the requirement needed to specify successful launches rather than prescribed launch techniques. 

Fast forward once more to October 2015.  On day 1 of the inaugural SAFe summit in Westminster Colorado, I found myself on-stage describing the fact that the QuickStart is now my strongly preferred model for launching a train. 

So what is the QuickStart and what changed my mind?

One common misconception that needs to be dispelled is the belief that the launch actually begins with the QuickStart (Notice the "Prepare" arrow).  Like any other large-scale event, a great deal of preparation goes into making it a success.  The preparation typically commences with a Leading SAFe course for the leaders of the “train-to-be” followed by a workshop to create a launch plan.   I’ve previously described my preferred approach to this here.

With that cleared up, let’s return to the QuickStart itself.  Whilst PI planning has been strongly advocated by many in the Scaled Agile community, the particular value of starting with the full event rather than employing a “soft-launch” was covered by my colleague +Em Campbell-Pretty in a recent blog post.

That leaves us with the training.  One of the key tenets of SAFe is “train everyone”, but why do we have to do it all at once?  This was the piece that took me years to wrap my head around.  I’ve been training for over 20 years, and throughout that time have loved the intimacy of small classes.  Somewhere between 12 and 20, and you can make a unique experience and form a real connection with every member of the class.  How on earth do you get a high impact training experience with 100 people in the room?

This led to me feeling I knew better than Dean for my first few launches.  I worked with my clients to schedule 4 or 5 team-level courses over the period leading up to the first PI planning.  I’d request that they send entire teams to the same course so they could sit and learn together, and they would promise to do their best.  Then the pain would start.  Firstly, the teams would often be in flux up until the last moment.  Then they would be too busy on current commitments to all come together so they would dribble through 2 or 3 at a time.  And of course distributed team members would go to different courses.  The training was still hugely valuable, but I came to understand the motivation and some of the benefits of the big room – and eventually got convicted enough to try it. 

After the first “big room training”, I was blown away and spent some time sorting through how on earth it could be so powerful.  Following are some of the key insights it yielded:
  • The teams will be fully formed. The whole team can sit at the same table. Not only do they get to learn together and share their insights as they learn, but it’s actually a very powerful team formation event. We give teams some time to choose their names on Day 1, and watch team identity grow before our eyes.
  • The team engages in collective learning, with the chance to dissect their different interpretations in discussions and exercises. They are not reliant on “1 brain – the ScrumMaster” to ensure they get value from the agile approach, they have many brains who each captured different nuances.
  • The features for the PI will be ready. The very long (and effective) series of exercises involving the identification, splitting, estimation and evolution of stories can actually be done as practice on real features the teams will be dealing with in PI planning. 
  • Not only do the teams form their own identities, but they begin to form the shared identity of the train. As the discussions and debriefs progress, they start to learn about each other’s worlds.
  • Logistics are easier and more cost-effective. You’re already booking a large venue and flying people in – you get to double-dip on both the venue logistics and the return from the investment in collocating people for the planning event.

The biggest takeaway, however, is the momentum that builds.  The team members don’t leave the training room to head back to their old day-jobs while they wait for the train to launch and give them a chance to put their ideas into practice.  The day after training finishes they’re back in the room to apply their newfound techniques.

Now zoom back out to the QuickStart as a whole.    A train succeeds when 100 or so people come into alignment, form a shared identity and sense of mission and collaborate to both execute and learn together.    Can you think of any better way to accelerate the beginning of that journey?

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