Thursday, October 12, 2023

Introducing our new collaboration - Shaping Agility

In 2015, Martin Burns had a vision.  A passionate agilist and early adopter of and advocate for SAFe, he felt strongly that the community needed a way to come together and collaborate to shape the evolution of the framework.  With the help of his wife Lucy and the support of Scaled Agile Inc, he activated this by creating and hosting the first SAFe Leadership Retreat in Crieff, Scotland.  He was seeking “An event that brings experienced leaders together to build the community and creatively take SAFe forward.”  

Given the general application of SAFe in large enterprise and the prevailing ‘partner consultancy’ based model, creating an environment where both consultants and practitioners came together to transcend boundaries and share was no mean feat.  But Martin’s seemingly boundless energy made it a reality.  Forty people gathered for 2 days of unconference and amazing collaboration and friendship building.

Photos courtesy of Phil Gardiner, unofficial Retreat photographer

We regathered in Banff, Canada in 2016 and then returned to Scotland for 3 days in Edinburgh in 2017.  The conversations were rich, the friendships deepened, and the sense of community continued to grow.   The influence on the framework was also tangible – Essential SAFe being a great example of something created in a breakout session entailing an intense discussion about how much you could remove from SAFe without breaking it. 

Sadly, in 2019 Martin passed away and the world lost an amazing human being.  Although the SAFe Leadership Retreat disappeared without Martin’s energy, the community he’d inspired lived on.  At every SAFE Summit, SPCT or Fellows gathering you’d find clusters of people who’d formed community at a Leadership Retreat gathered, sharing in deep conversation, reminiscing on the retreats, lamenting their absence in our lives and talking about how bring it back to life.  

The first post-COVID SAFe Summit in Denver last year was no exception.  One of the retreat buddies I reconnected with was Wolfgang Brandhuber.   He had been doing a lot of work on Large Solution and wanted to share some of his thinking about a structure somewhere between an ART and a Team called a Solution Area.  We found a spare flipchart, and an hour later we’d figured out this was almost identical to what I called an ‘Agile Release Tram’ and agreed that we should leverage the fact COVID had taught us virtual collaboration and keep the discussion going once we got home.  We started weekly calls, and it was fun.  We were back to the types of conversations we used to have time for at the Retreat, but without the 24 hours on a plane!   Saahil Panikar started to join us, and this series culminated in the events I shared in my ‘Emerging from Seclusion’ post in May.    

As I wrote the ‘seclusion post’ I was sitting in Mexico on a writing retreat.  What I didn’t mention was that I was spending a couple of hours a day chatting to ‘fellow FellowEric Willeke.  I’d been so energized by my collaboration with Wolfgang and Saahil that somewhere on the train between Munich and Prague I’d dreamed up the idea of deliberately creating a collaboration community.  I didn’t know what it looked like, but I did know it involved a Discord community server and lots of collaboration and creation.  Serendipitously, Eric had reached a point in his ’year of not working’ where he was starting to think about what a return looked like.  We’d both shared the Leadership Retreat experience, both enjoyed engaging with others who could stretch our thinking and both felt very values-driven in our creative intent.  Further, if there was one person in the world I knew could challenge my thinking on pretty much anything in the world of Enterprise Agility it was Eric!

What quickly emerged was the idea of creating a community which provided a shared platform to enable collaboration between thought leaders.  The backdrop to our conversation was an amazing book Eric had pointed me to: Jacqueline Novogratz’s ‘Manifesto for a Moral Revolution’.  We knew the community needed to be purpose-driven, even if our purpose paled in comparison to “changing the way the world tackles poverty”.  Eric’s purpose of ‘Creating a stress-free world of work in pursuit of a kinder, more abundant world of humans’ aligned incredibly strongly with my ‘Create a world where people are excited to come to work and fulfilled by the outcomes they’re a part of creating’, so we had a foundation for the journey ahead.

In true agile fashion, we embarked on an iterative process.  We wanted a ‘collaboration rather than a company’, so we began by testing our ability to generate routine collaboration and generative discussion via our Discord community.   Novogratz suggests that “if you are a change agent, then you are by definition a nonconformist”.  Eric and I both love to ‘live on the edge’ teasing at the boundaries of ‘SAFe Canon’ and our other founding members Wolfgang and Saahil were no strangers to living on the edge either so when it came to picking a name Eric’s ownership of the domain made life easy – we became ‘Shaping Agility’.  

Next came livestreaming.  We didn’t want to share polished content, we wanted to share the process of creation.  In 'The 5th Discipline', Peter Senge suggests that the discipline of working with mental models “includes the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance enquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others”.  This was what we wanted, not just between those of us in the inner community but between us and the broader community of change agents and practitioners.  

We started with a Shaping Agility channel on, the dominant streaming platform in the world of e-sports.   This was brand new territory for me, and I’ll confess I learnt more from my two daughters (who both stream their gaming) than my more traditional forms of research.  We’d been holding a regular Saturday session with whoever could make it and we started streaming them.  My daughter Sammi is an audio engineer by day and helped us figure out the technology in between giggling at my ineptitude and after a couple of sessions where she was our only audience and we struggled our way through managing both the stream and the conversation it felt like it was starting to gel.  

Next came persisting the broadcasts.  Balancing the Australian/European/US timezones meant our conversations happened at very weird times and we needed a way for people to ‘catch what they’d missed in the middle of the night’.  So, we created the Shaping Agility Youtube channel and after a few video editing tutorials I started editing out the glaring flaws in our streams and posting them.  We shared them with a few friends and colleagues for feedback and our community started to grow.

Two things were happening for me over this time.  Firstly, I was loving the learning journey of bringing this community to life and our learning cycles on making it work.   We could feel a high performing team emerging even though we all ran our own companies with our own separate offerings.  We looked forward to our conversations, we laughed, we debated, we learnt, we improved.  

Secondly, the creative energy was flowing back into my personal work.  I’d created a one-day experiential course back in 2015 called ‘Experiencing SAFe’ and despite many good intentions had created nothing bigger than a workshop since.  All of a sudden I was in the thick of creating and delivering a ‘Lean Portfolio Management bootcamp’.  I’d be in a discussion with Eric and he’d reference a book I hadn’t read and I’d race off to read and fill the gap.  The process that began in May is now most definitely running at full steam.  Meanwhile Eric has launched the pilot of his cohort-based mentoring program for leading change – Unleashing Scale.

As I write this, we’re shaping the next iteration.   We're playing with ideas for extra shows for the stream.  Wolfgang is preparing to launch a 64-part series on Large Solution, while Michael Casey and Dave Eva joined Eric, Wolfgang and I this morning for the first episode of a weekly bookclub study series on The 5th Discipline.

The decision to go a little more public also prompted a big backlog refinement session.  Among other things, we're going to need a website rather than a redirect to twitch and an approach to engaging more broadly with those who have feedback on the ideas we stream.  We had a bare minimum of stuff we needed to articulate more clearly before this post went live, assembled it on a Miro and decided that the lightest weight version of it was a stream to share (and a learning lesson on audio levels for Eric's first time being the host).

I hope you'll enjoy joining us on the learning journey as much as we're enjoying learning together.

In memory of Martin Burns, sorely missed and never forgotten!

Friday, May 26, 2023

Release Train Engineers (RTEs) - The Power or the Passion


The Release Train Engineer (RTE) is a (arguably THE) pivotal role in the success of a SAFe implementation, so over the course of my book research in 2019 I interviewed RTEs at every organization I visited.  Whilst this was a great way to learn the “true state and current pain points of the implementation at the coal-face” it had the side-effect of challenging my beliefs about the characteristics of a great RTE.   As I processed my notes from the study trip I formed the idea of writing a post on identifying and selecting great RTEs but it went onto my writing backlog to collect dust during COVID.

Last week in Prague I bumped into one of the truly inspiring RTEs from my study and as we caught up on her journey since then I shared with her the concept of this post and she challenged me – “why didn’t you write it”.  Em Sperring – this one’s for you!

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Emerging from COVID Seclusion: Revitalizing the Blog and New Endeavors


Over the past few months, I have gradually emerged from my COVID-induced seclusion. I embarked on collaborations, traveled to teach in Germany and speak at the SAFe Summit in Prague, visited clients and old friends in London, and currently find myself in Punta de Mita, Mexico, where I'm writing this blog post. As I reconnect with people, I am often asked about the whereabouts of my book and my dormant blog. With a lot of writing ahead of me in the coming weeks, I've decided to dust off the blog and explain the reasons behind its silence.

In 2019 I took a semi-sabbatical year to dedicate myself to the book I had been contemplating for years. Its working title was "The ART of SAFe: The Secret to Creating and Sustaining High Performing Agile Release Trains." I believed that I had already written more than half of the book through my blog posts, but it needed refreshing, organization into a coherent narrative, and some content gaps filled. Consequently, I decided to pause the blog temporarily to focus my energy on the book and determine the distinction between content for the blog and content for the book.

A Shift in Perspective: 

However, I made the mistake of undertaking a study trip. I sought to validate the beliefs I had formed while working with my own clients by studying other large SAFe implementations. Through the generous help of friends and contacts, I had the opportunity to observe their worlds and exchange some free consulting for a glimpse "under the covers" of their organizations.

While my initial belief was that the true purpose of the Agile Release Train (ART) was to activate and equip ART-level leaders and stakeholders in creating an ecosystem for their teams to thrive and align with high-performing agile teams, my perspective changed. I realised that ARTs were not the primary challenge – truth be told they’re the “recipe part of SAFe”. Instead, it became evident that what we truly needed was an organization-wide ecosystem capable of fostering an environment (or as Dr. Deming would say, a "System of Work") where ARTs could flourish.

Everywhere I looked, I encountered organizations that had been on their SAFe journey for a couple of years, most with over 20 ARTs in place. However, they were hampered by complexity, politics, difficulties in organizing around value, and challenges in evolving their funding, assurance, and other enterprise-level processes.

Shifting Focus and the "Wrong Book": 

Consequently, I decided not to write the "wrong book." In truth, my former customer and later colleague, Em Campbell Pretty, published an excellent book on that topic ("The ART of Avoiding a Train Wreck") while I was conducting my research. 

I went back to the drawing board, realizing that this was a much more complex problem. Although I had written a small amount on the subject and gained numerous insights that were yet to be synthesized, I needed an overarching strategy. While grappling with this challenge, I taught Luke Hohmann's Agile Product Management course, which led to an "aha" moment. I realized that I could approach an organization's path to enterprise agility through the lens of Moore's Product Management theory. Organizations either struggled to cross the chasm due to gaps in their agile approach's "whole product" hindering adoption by the pragmatists in the Early Majority, or they successfully crossed the chasm based on executive mandate only to become stuck in the Early Majority Tornado due to the same gaps.

The Metaphor and Writing Struggles: 

I had found a metaphor for the book, but there was a tiny problem. I had always written about "things I'd applied enough times to synthesize into patterns," and I had never coached a SAFe implementation using a Product Management metaphor. Additionally, the advent of COVID and lockdowns had a profound personal impact on me. My creative energy waned, and my focus shifted toward simply surviving the circumstances and supporting my clients. 

Despite the challenges, I continued experimenting and learning, engaging in user testing. I quickly realized that while the Product Management metaphor provided a strong framework for my thinking and resonated with other thought leaders like Eric Willeke, it was not suitable for my clients. This should have been obvious, considering that effective Product Management is a key challenge for most enterprises.

Regaining Momentum: 

Fast forward to 2023, and I have conducted enough experiments to have a wealth of new material ready to write about. Along the way, I also gathered a substantial amount of ART-level content that belongs in the blog rather than the book. However, I had yet to regain my writing mojo, despite theoretically living in an "after-COVID" world.

Then, luck came in the form of Wolfgang Brandhuber. We spent 2 hours in a hallway at the 2022 Denver SAFe Summit delving into how his theories on "Large Solution" intersected with my concepts of "Agile Release Trams" and "Loosely Coupled ARTs." Wolfgang reached out to me in early February, suggesting that we continue our conversation, which led to weekly calls and idea-sharing sessions. Soon after, Saahil Panikar joined our collaboration, and our weekly two-hour sessions became the highlight of my week. We began exploring the possibility of merging our work and creating a two-day course to teach in Germany, just before the Prague SAFe Summit.

My creativity started flowing again out of necessity, as I needed to synthesize concepts in order to teach them. Simultaneously, I worked with the incredible Rebecca Davis to prepare my talk on leveraging the power of change managers in pursuit of the flow of value for the Prague Summit.

Looking Ahead:

I’m writing and creating again and loving it.  And the lessons COVID forced me to learn about virtual collaboration are bearing fruit as we start to extend the conversation around creative collaboration in the community. You can expect to see a few things from me in the rest of 2023:

  • Quite a few blog posts
  • Some very different stuff as our “creative collaboration community” takes shape
  • Material Progress on the book (finally)