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)