Program Manager To SAFe® RTE- Rethinking When Scaling Agile

Editor’s note: Original blog was published on: Sep 4, 2017

Early days of her career, Susan Gibson had roles as a developer and as a project manager. Now Susan is an enthusiastic and caring presenter, consultant, facilitator and coach, and CEO. I am pleased to have her as the speaker for this evening, and I would like to turn over the presentation to see them now.

Great Lindy! Thank you everybody; it's incredible to be here with you this evening. I am here to talk to you about the Scaled Agile Framework and the role of the Release Train Engineer as well as the Solution Train Engineer. How do you make that transition from a program manager or project manager into both of these are very crucial and vital roles within the scaled agile framework? So I am going to start here, and we are just grounding us in what the scaled agile framework is, and you can find this at scaled agile  

To orient us on what you are looking at here, I have got the two red arrows showing the two roles that we will be talking about. I am going to focus on the Release Train Engineer that's RTE there at the bottom corner and the upper one though I want to call attention to the Solution Train Engineer. It's looking at enormous scope around the work that's going on and so very briefly what you see here is the scaled agile framework, and organized around four levels, which is considered as the full configuration of the scaled agile framework and what you see in the upper left-hand corner is the enterprise. If you can imagine the scaling factor here, an enterprise would be made up of multiple portfolios and what you see there across that portfolio level are value streams. So portfolios may have more than one value stream again, that's what represented there in those chevron diagrams and what that second level of safe is representing that extensive solution configuration is when you have vast value streams and that working with enterprises that are building large development systems.

It could be great product solutions and comprehensive services they are providing, where you have a complicated scope of work with several hundred or even thousands of people and in some cases had many suppliers or vendors. And what you see in the next level is the program, which is talking about program execution and what that is meant to represent is that you have got the agile release train which is that programming engine in safe. It is made up of multiple agile teams, so that's what you can see that at the team level in the big picture. The person who is guiding, coaching and handling impediments on behalf of all of the teams on that agile release train is the release train engineer, that is an RTE. Here you can see that they are connected to the system architect or the engineer and product management and so they work together around not only guiding the work that's coming into the agile release train but giving that overall architectural guidance and that business representation and product vision and roadmap on the product management.

So I would like to pose a question - What's your listening superpower? If you had to characterize yourself as a listener well, what does it look like? It takes a different shape and different people. When it comes to myself, I space to the person who is talking, the person who is in the team who are engaged in a conversation and I bring my superpower of observation to that profound listening ability to be able to turn that to the individuals or to the teams to be able to ask probing questions. I give that space for listening and supporting, and one of the things that bring into the conversation is that you have to even allow for what we think is the wrong decisions to be made. Let some failure come into being able to support people and empower them to make decisions, and one of the benefits around agile is that we limit that to hopefully small time increments. It is like reducing the risk of failure, but you know they are there for us every day; we are human beings. They can listen and support people and teams throughout and they are growing their ability to make decisions is a vital part of becoming a release train engineer and when you are dealing with scale, and I am sure some of you deal with scale and organizations you are in today. You know you cannot be the one and only problem solver well you have to decentralize these decisions and move into that listening stance and supporting stance.

The third characteristic, our ability or superpower of a release train engineer is creating an environment of mutual influence, and I would love to hear from all of you, you know what has been your experience of mutual influence? What does this mean to you when you hear the phrase mutual influence? What comes to my mind is it's not only you know it kind of breaks down the hierarchy of the organization and the power hierarchy of the organization and realize that we are human beings showing up for work every day and having that ability to have good conversations and communications with everybody.

How do you bring that into the work environment? It might sound to do, and it's something we tend to do without even thinking about it in our personal lives. But when we walk into our corporate environment, it is not so easy, and it comes down to exposing our vulnerability at that time by saying I have expressed this, I have experienced this and so on. What we can do together to create an environment of trust, safety, and mutual influence regardless of the level that you are in, in your organization or with your clients. So I have some great comments coming - thank you so much Kunal for that and Lindy, and you know really being able to ask those questions allow that environment of brainstorming to occur and coming back to that listening and supporting the right of all those thoughts and ideas and decisions that are getting made - thank you so much for that.

Next, we have Empathy, and I think Empathy can be quite misunderstood and empathizing with others. I took this picture from a very lovely Youtube video from Brunel Brown, it's about two and a half minutes, and you can search for this. Empathy is putting oneself in the heart of the other person, and you may not have experienced what they are experiencing and but you want to share those experiences with them. This builds different thoughts and ideas that we are talking about here, moving into the space of listening and supporting mutual influence and saying I feel your pain and your failure. I want to be here with you and hold this space with you and the differentiation that a "Brunel Brown makes Empathy and sympathy is" I am sure we have all experienced this, and maybe we have even said it to ourselves at times. I hear what you are saying, and at least it is not this other thing, and what that does is minimizes the feeling of the other person. It's like always painting that silver lining and sometimes we don't want actually to have a silver lining. We want someone to sit there and hold the space with us and put a hand on the shoulder or give a hug or extend some human compassion and say I am here with you, and whenever you are ready, I am here to listen and support you in whatever it is which is troubling you.

This is an essential aspect of being a release train engineer when you have got upwards of a hundred and fifty people that you are interacting with every day. Sometimes people want you to be there and listen to them and hold that space with them, so hopefully, you have some ideas and some experiences of you that you can share and reflect on around Empathy versus sympathy.

Then we have an encouraging personal development of the team and kind of the reflection here is, who has encouraged you and your personal growth? What did that mean to you? And what did that allow you to do when you have that environment of mutual influence with this individual? And how has that contributed to your ability to encourage the personal development of others? When you are talking about a release train engineer or a solution train engineer, you know you want to look at the building up that super of the teams. They are the ones doing the daily work around product or solution development around or capability development. Having the ability to listen and to support them in their decision making and their problem solving leaving that up to them to decide what is the right next move. You know you get the guidance, and you are working with that. System agriculture working with your product team to understand what we are asking the teams to do in giving the team space to do the work in the way that they believe is right. It might not be right in our minds in such a giving up that intervention and allowing them to have that development aspect and feel some failure. As I mentioned before minimizing the impact of those failures and the risk around that by working in minimal times boxes and from an agile point of view, that's what we call iterations and sprints and from a sharp release train point of view. We call it a program increment, but being able to minimize the impact of those failures to these time boxes. So you want to bring your development abilities, and also grow others development abilities instead of keeping in that mode of I am going to assign the work. I am going to fix the problems; instead, I am going to find people who can help solve the problem. When they become more significant than the teams can handle, you are going to help them find people in the organization who can take on these impediments and solve these problems that are greater than the ability of the team and the individuals and the team.

So I would love to hear from you about your experience with people you that space for personal development and what kind of influence that had on you in your career and that you have experienced so far.

The next topic is persuading rather than using authority, and It is quite a change instance if you think about it. It's giving up control of the decisions of the problem solving of the influence giving that up and looking at it as how do we come to a common understanding; how do we come to a common way of communicating, how do we come to a common form of working. And the only way we can do that is by talking to one another and having a two-way conversation that requires one person to listen while the other one is talking to you. In my professional development career, there were times when I was too quick to come up with the solutions, and I had that in my mind before I was listening to the person to find out and understand what it is that they are asking of me. That's so how the misalignment happens and then depending upon what's the situation is. I might wield my authority to say well regardless of what you are asking for I am right, and this is the way it is going to be instead of using that stance of persuasion, humanity and deep listening to say we may not agree, and we may not fully understand each other.  We are going to take the time to dig into this. It gives you my thoughts and ideas, and you share your thoughts and ideas, and even if it comes out where we don't agree with one another, we will at least come to a shared understanding and so it is really about you know giving up that control.

I was teaching a class this week about the scaled agile framework. At the end of the day, we did a coaching plan, and one of the students said, I realized that I need to relax and let others make the decisions and then I can talk about the decision. As I don't have to be right all the time, I don't have to own those decisions all the time, and so you know that the act of persuasion, that is taking more of the stance of listening and supporting rather than building authority. It is an important aspect when you are dealing with human beings every day, and as well as coping with scale, you have to give up that control.  Look at it as allowing that kind of creative energy to emerge in the chaos that might ensue and like I say that these failures and the chaos and all of these things from an agile point of view are telling box. So that we have a chance to allow those things to happen and then have a point of reflection and then decide what is it that we are going to do next. So that time boxing allows us to have this cadence around what we are planning to do, what we are doing, what is that we need to improve upon, and so all of this comes together and is facilitated by the release train engineer and allowing all of this kind of creative energy to take shape.

Next is applying system thinking and you know systems thinking is a big discipline unto itself and you know when you are looking at this, I am sure a lot of have experienced around taking a holistic view or being able to see the whole kind of depending upon the scope of work that you have been engaged in and you know when you are taking that holistic view you know you want to take a setback and say all of these pieces are interconnected and when we are dealing with our enterprise today and dealing with corporations and dealing with government and all of these industries that are out there building things you know there is everything related to something else and so being able to see the hole is important that as a super power of a release train engineer because they are getting all of these observable data, you know they are listening to the teams, they are supporting the teams, they are accepting impediments that the teams cannot remove on their own, they are finding people in the organization who can remove these impediments and really get to that state of flow with the agile release train engineer so you can see here you know all of these people are fixing different parts of the overall systems but there is somebody standing there saying I can see the whole system and you know we have a tendency to be very good at local optimization and looking at it from a very kind of microscopic point of view when in reality we need to take that step back and look at all of the interconnections all of the people who are involved, all of the processes that are involved, all of the technology solutions that are involved and how are they piece together and have the ability to kind of help identify where the ideas that need some help and support, where are the areas that need some training some coaching some mentoring right and what are the areas the areas that are running smoothly and have that all build up kind of the story of what's happening within that agile release train and bring that into kind of an inspect and adapt or problem solving workshop at the end of every program increment so that you can turn those problems and impediments into possible solutions that you will try for next time.

And so when you take a look at this you know having the ability to see the whole is a superpower, and that's something release train engineers grow into if they don't have when they get started and as a program manager. You know you have a lot of these abilities already inside of you, and it can kind of call those out and in looking for you know how can we introduce these improvements as we go along.

Lastly, what we have here is you know supporting teens in their commitments, and you know, taking a look at whether the responsibility you feel is right or wrong. I am going to support the team and give them you know; it is easy for us to say we are going to empower you to make decisions. We are going to enable you to have failures, but all of these nine topics here, I have run through the build-up to this supporting the commitments made by the teams. Trusting them in their decision making and I would love to pose this question to you, I have two questions around this so have you ever supported a team's commitments for a group of team commitment that resulted in a wild failure? And how did that make you feel? Then the second part of the question is, have you ever supported a team or a group of teams commitment that resulted in wild success, and how did that make you feel? I would love to hear some thoughts about it. It is giving up that control, the decision-making and problem-solving aspect to the team. Giving them that the environment of mutual influence like giving them the ability to develop and be committed to the personal development of the team, moving from that fixing problems to helping others fix problems stance and using your expertise and skill of persuasion instead of authority and control. So I would love to hear from all of you, about these nine topics, which are near and dear to my heart. And building that ability to release train engineers within a scaled agile environment, it's like moving from that stance of a problem solver and controlling the work that is going on to one of support listening and mutual influence.

And so with that Windy, I would love to open this up for questions from the audience, we have got some time left here to do a useful Q&A, and you know I am happy to turn the presentation back over to you if you like and come in as a facilitator for the conversation.

Questions and Answers

So, Kyle, I do see a comment from you thank you so much for that. I can appreciate the environment of the young team I had a conversation this week with somebody who is approaching retirement. I have a situation we were talking about creating an atmosphere of mutual influence, and I said, there is a trend going on right now freshers are new joiners coming into our enterprise are getting paired up with the senior level executives and c-level executives as a reverse mentoring. And she said I had such a kind of visceral reaction to that like how could somebody new to the company be a mentor for a senior or c-level executives.  Think about it in this environment that we're in today, and you know people coming into our workplace our first of all looking for a great purpose in the work that they are doing. They have also grown in an environment where there is an enormous amount of information and freedom given to them. And then you look around us you know those who are leading successful startups and internet companies are the young teams and the freshers that are out there. We got to give them the opportunity, their creativity, and their innovative thoughts and ideas, and give them a space to run these experiments that some will bring failure and some will bring wild success so thanks a lot Kyle for that feedback and commentary I appreciate that.

Susan, this is Kunal, I have a question for you - in terms of career advancement or progress right is like how do you see release engineer or release train engineer advancing in their career the same in terms of program manager? We do understand the project manager to program managers and eventually a portfolio manager, but how does that work in a safe environment of a release train engineer? 

That's a great question, so it is a professional career progression, and very commonly a scrum master on our agile team will grow into the role of a release train engineer. Grow into that role of the solution train engineer who is looking across multiple agile release train and suppliers and grow into some role of the portfolio level. One thing I didn't go to all the icons in the big picture, but that lean portfolio management at the portfolio level contained the PMO. There is a PMO in safe you know, and so that does kind of slow scrum master to the release train engineer, the solution train engineer and ultimately in that lean portfolio management group. I will say it is a new role that's out there and SAFE has been publicly available since 2011, we still have that space of early adopters around the world. Some markets are much more advanced than others like the US, and in Europe, it is coming on the rest of the world. It's starting to take shape, and so it is a relatively new role and so a lot of times what is happening in our project and program managers are taking on these roles of scrum masters and release train engineers. Solution train engineers a brand new role that's come in SAFE, which went out of the need to have some organizational construct for these large solutions and so the progression is there, the demand is there, the growth opportunities are there, and it really does come down to the individual's ability to go through. I have touched the tip of the iceberg here, with these nine topics but that's being able to change the stance from one of the management. We have that pretty strong word in our vocabulary as well as the roles to one of listenings, supporting and removing impediments on behalf of the agile release train of the solution train.


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