My Release Train Engineer Career Path: Transition from RTE to Enterprise Agile Coach

Enterprise Agile Coach

Recently I’ve transitioned from working as a Release Train Engineer (RTE) to an Enterprise Agile Coach. While the RTE career path isn’t always well defined, this has been a rewarding journey personally for my professional development and collectively for growing our organizational capabilities. 

In this blog post, I discuss:

  • Enterprise Agile Coach as a potential development path for RTEs
  • My personal experience nine months into the role and what an Enterprise Agile Coach does in a SAFe® context
  • Learning paths for RTEs and several key insights

Pointing the Release Train Engineer Career Path toward Enterprise Agile Coach

If you look at the SAFe Big Picture (in any configuration), you can quickly identify Agile coaching roles at the team (Scrum Master) and program level (Release Train Engineer). But beyond these roles, the development path isn’t always clear. 

Release Train Engineer

What are the opportunities for Release Train Engineers?

To start, current Release Train Engineers could look at either a Solutions Train Engineer (STE) or a SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC) role. STE is a good progression, but the role only exists in very large enterprises (typically comprising thousands of people) building large solutions (for example, cyber-physical) that require multiple ARTs for development. SPC is a much more common role because it is required at organizations of any size. SPCs play a critical part in implementing SAFe.

Release Train Engineer

But, because SAFe leverages the concept of a dual-operating system (proposed by John Kotter), SPC is often more a set of responsibilities than a specific position. So although many RTEs become certified SPCs to deepen their knowledge of SAFe and increase their own SAFe transformation capabilities, SPC is their next credential but not their next job title.

Enterprise Agile Coach is a common job title for someone who operates at an organizational level and works across organizational boundaries to coach Agile transformations and enable business agility.

These functions make Enterprise Agile Coach an excellent progression for an RTE whose scope has expanded beyond an ART to a broader role in their organization.

What Does an Enterprise Agile Coach Do? My Experience After Nine Months

After working in my current organization for six months, it became clear the role had grown significantly beyond Release Train Engineer. I found myself increasingly leading a SAFe implementation rather than facilitating an ART. I was also managing an Agile delivery function/department with Scrum Masters working on projects operating outside of SAFe. I was promoted to Enterprise Agile Coach to recognize these responsibilities and to make my role clearer across the organization. 

Some of my new Enterprise Agile Coach responsibilities, which are described in SAFe, include:

  • Delivering and provisioning SAFe training across the business
  • Establishing a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE)
  • Value Stream identification and onboarding new teams onto our ARTs
  • Extending practices to the portfolio level
  • Leading Communities of Practice

RTEs or Scrum Masters may occasionally do (or directly support) some of this work, but there is an essential distinction between leading and contributing to these activities. Additionally, RTEs and Scrum Masters have program and team-level responsibilities that they need the capacity to focus on.

My new role also encompasses leading an Agile delivery function/department, which has a wider scope than our current SAFe implementation. Some of our delivery teams work outside our SAFe ARTs on independent projects with fixed durations. Taking a more complete and integrated view of how we deliver our value streams and projects has allowed us to gain a broader range of perspectives and insights, share knowledge, and apply standard practices across teams when beneficial. 

In my experience, the biggest shift from RTE to Enterprise Agile Coach has been learning to influence across organizational boundaries and starting to more fully apply systems thinking (SAFe Principle #2). This includes partnering with departments beyond Product and Technology (like HR) to examine the impact of policies, consider the working environment, and remove systemic impediments. I’ve also gained a better understanding of how value flows across the organization rather than just focusing on optimizing development activities.

One of the challenges that I had not anticipated was the amount of work needed to develop my own personal leadership capabilities. Here are a few of the practices I’ve found beneficial for building a new skill set:

  • Regular professional coaching
  • Developmental practices such as meditation and journaling
  • Leadership self-assessments
  • Enterprise Coaching Mastercamp

Additionally, I’ve continued reading widely to expand my knowledge in some of the disciplines listed in the next section.

Going Beyond Release Train Engineer Skills: My Key Learnings

Enterprise Agile Coaching is shaped by a wide range of disciplines. If you’re interested in moving to Enterprise Agile Coach, some of the areas you might start exploring include:

Release Train Engineer
  • Systems thinking and complexity theory
  • Organizational design
  • Organizational change process
  • Developmental theory
  • Leadership development
  • SPC certification (for advanced knowledge of SAFe)

Some of the ideas and concepts that immediately resonated with my own experience are:

  • Holons – The concept that something is simultaneously a whole in and of itself but also a part of a larger whole (see Arthur Koestler, Ken Wilber, and Michael K. Spayd). This is a useful way to consider individuals, teams, ARTs, and the enterprise. 
  • Fractals – Patterns reoccur at various scales, and this occurs throughout the organization (Mandelbrot).
  • Developmental stage models – Understanding how organizations can be centered in a developmental stage and how their worldviews and values affect the system and culture (see Clare Graves, Don Beck, Ken Wilber, and Frederic Laloux).

Defining Your Release Train Engineer Career Path: More Resources

Enterprise coaching can be very challenging but is also incredibly rewarding. Working more holistically as an Enterprise Agile Coach across the organization has broadened my perspective and understanding of how systems work. 

My previous work as an RTE gave me access to program-level perspectives and insights invaluable to my current role. For any RTE that wants to move into Enterprise Agile Coaching, I recommend seeking out mentors and peers to help support you in your learning journey, adopting a strong growth mindset, and investing in your own development as a leader. 

From Our Team

Defining your RTE career path can start now with a few small steps. Below are more resources you can use to improve your daily practice as an RTE and clarify your professional development path:

About Tom Boswell

Tom Boswell is an Enterprise Agile Coach

Tom Boswell is an Enterprise Agile Coach and certified SPC and RTE. He has worked at multiple organizations using SAFe, coaching at the team, program, and enterprise levels. He is passionate about lifelong learning, helping others grow, empowering teams, and co-creating more meaningful workplaces. Connect with Tom on LinkedIn or at www.tomboswell.com.

Your Guide to Writing Great Iteration and PI Objectives – Agility Planning

Write PI objectives that get results using this guide

Agile is disciplined; not reckless.

Writing useful Iteration Goals and Program Increment (PI) Objectives requires focus and discipline to achieve proper agility transformation. Bad objectives are one of the most common reasons organizations stop using them. This guide will help you write objectives that get results.

For simplicity, I will use “objectives” interchangeably when talking about iteration goals and PI objectives. Iteration goals are a scaled-down version of PI objectives, which means you can apply my guidance to both metric types.  

Understanding Why We Write Iteration and PI Objectives

Before you can write effective iteration and PI objectives, you must understand why we write them. It’s common for organizations to treat objectives as summaries of the features or stories teams commit to in the PI or iteration. But that is a misunderstanding of the objectives’ purpose.

Objectives represent the Agile Team’s commitment to delivery in the PI or iteration. They create a feedback loop from the business to the team. This loop ensures both parties understand the organizational vision:

  • Teams can confirm their understanding of the business’s desired outcomes
  • The business can clarify or further refine its value priorities

During an iteration or PI Planning, teams neither commit to all the features brought to PI Planning nor to whole features. So it’s important to understand what outcomes the features create. This gives everyone a chance to weigh in on those outcomes.

Agility Planning

How PI Objectives Support PI Planning

At PI Planning, the business gives its prioritized feature list to the Agile Release Train (ART). Then, teams on the ART sequence their stories and features based on their priorities and capacities.

During this process, teams will only commit to a subset of the business requests. PI objectives ensure teams commit to the proper subset of the business’s requests. Business value scores and conversations with business owners and key stakeholders also support team commitments.

Teams can then sequence stories and features into a delivery plan that leads to business outcomes. They communicate this plan through the objectives and summarize the business and technical goals in language the business understands. It’s much more than a summary of the planned work.

Well-written objectives also create an opportunity for alignment. Teams should be able to connect their features and stories to the highest value objectives. This makes it easier for the team(s) to see if they’re doing the most valuable work first. If not, they need to address priorities or technical dependencies.

Who Are Iteration and PI Objectives For?

Besides understanding what objectives are for, we must also consider who objectives are for.

Teams do not write iteration and PI objectives for the Product Managers and Product Owners (POs) who manage the backlogs. The Product Managers and POs know what work they asked for. Teams write objectives for the Business Owners and key stakeholders.

Objectives communicate which business outcomes the team contributes to and why they matter. Teams then understand the deeper purpose behind their work, thus helping employee engagement. 

How to Write Meaningful Iteration and PI Objectives

Now that we’ve identified what objectives are and who they’re for, let’s inspect some example PI objectives from the field.

  • Implement Jenkins
  • Build 2 APIs
  • Build a database
  • Design a template

These examples do not effectively communicate the business outcomes the work produces. Additionally, these example objectives are written solely from the perspective of development or engineering teams and have no connection to why the work matters. If the objectives just restate the names of the features, they are a waste of time and energy.

Let’s review how to write objectives that create a meaningful connection between the technical work and the business.

First, all objectives should be S.M.A.R.T.

Agility Planning

Second, a good objective has five components that effectively communicate a business outcome and why it matters:

  • Activity: What will we be doing?
  • Scope: What are the boundaries of the work we will touch?
  • Beneficiary: Who is the intended recipient of the new work?
  • User Value: Why does this work matter to the new user?
  • Business Value: Why does this work matter to the business?

Examples of each component include:

  • Activity: Create, Implement, Define, Design, Enable, Modify, Etc.
  • Scope: App, API, Mobile, Web, Database, Dashboards, Etc.
  • Beneficiary: Customer, End-user, System Team, Mobile Users, Etc.
  • User Value: Faster, Better, Cheaper, Enhanced, New Features, Etc.
  • Business Value: Reduced Call Times, Increased Sales, Increased Data Efficacy, Reduced Loss to Fraud, Etc.

You can put these two steps together using the following formula.

Agility Planning

Review Examples of Iteration and PI Objectives from the Field

Here are a few examples of good iteration and PI objectives from three different contexts.

Financial services company example

  • Activity: Add
  • Scope: three new methods of e-payment
  • Beneficiary: so that mobile users with digital wallets
  • User Value: have an improved checkout experience
  • Business Value: to drive a three-percent revenue increase

“Add three new methods of e-payment so that mobile users with digital wallets have an improved checkout experience to drive a 3 percent revenue increase.”

Digital transformation team example

  • Activity: Create
  • Scope: an Agile Ways of Working guide
  • Beneficiary: so that {Company} employees
  • User Value: have clear guidance on implementing Agile behaviors
  • Business Value: to enable a faster flow of value with higher quality delivery

Create an Agile Ways of Working guide so that {Company} employees have clear guidance on implementing Agile behaviors to enable faster flow of value with higher quality delivery.”

An example from a team building a new customer data platform

  • Activity: Create
  • Scope: a single source of truth customer database
  • Beneficiary: so that customers who call us
  • User Value: have an improved customer experience
  • Business Value: with a 25 percent shorter time to resolution

“Create a single-source of truth customer database so that customers who call us have an improved customer experience with a 25 percent shorter time to resolution.”

Using the above approaches creates a powerful statement of business value. And it creates greater alignment between the teams’ work and business strategy. Tip: teams can write their objectives using the bulleted format to make them even clearer.

Conclusion

Iteration and PI objectives create feedback loops between the teams and the business. They also assess how well the team’s work aligns with organizational goals. When you understand this connection, you can improve your implementation of these objectives.

To see the role of PI objectives in PI Planning, watch this video. And if you’re ready to take your S.M.A.R.T. objectives to the next level, check out this video.

If you have objective-writing stories, good or bad, in your organization, share them with me. Together, we can improve this process for everyone.

Agility Planning

About Saahil Panikar

Saahil is a SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT)

Saahil is a SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) and certified Enterprise Business Agility Strategist. He is determined to help organizations extend their Agility beyond IT. He started his career as a Data Scientist, and Saahil is still passionate about the metrics behind successful transformations. As a former collegiate rugby player for the University of Florida, Saahil bleeds Orange and Blue and is a die-hard fan of Gator Football.

Connect with Saahil on LinkedIn

How Does a Scrum Master Coach a Team with More Experience Than Them?

SAFe® scrum master

I’ve found myself in many different contexts throughout my career as a SAFe scrum master:

  • Multimedia 
  • Instructional design 
  • Marketing 
  • Globalization 
  • Data analytics

Make no mistake. I am neither an animation artist nor an instructional designer, nor a digital marketer, nor fluent in a second language, nor can I write SQL (or any code for that matter).

So how do I effectively work as a scrum master when I don’t share technical experience with my teammates? I’ll help you answer that common question by focusing on three areas: 

  • What does a scrum master do?
  • What if I’m a scrum master without experience?
  • Setting scrum master improvement areas

What does a scrum master do?

SAFe® scrum master

This sounds simplistic, but there’s a reason! Reviewing the basics, in this case the role of scrum master, can help reaffirm your role on the team you serve and help you clearly state it to others. 

Your goals are simple (not easy), and they often include:

  1. Helping the team navigate ART practices and processes. In doing so, the team can participate fully and have their interests, concerns, questions, ideas, and voices heard. This is especially true for new team members. Everyone will need time and support to adjust to a new way of working, no matter their experience level. Scrum masters are a little bit like the glue that holds cross-functional teams and ARTs together.
  2. Allowing teammates to focus on execution. As experts in their domain, your team members are usually deep in the trenches of value delivery. Most other team responsibilities are shared between you, the product owner, and the product manager. This means scrum masters need to be experts at supporting the PO, PM, and other team members at defining the why, gathering requirements, prioritizing work, and knocking on doors to unblock progress.
  3. Being a champion of relentless improvement. You should help define success metrics, measure the team’s value delivery, and create a forum for the group to view and discuss the results. Teams might think they’ve defined value delivery well, but scrum masters are uniquely positioned to provide essential perspectives from the ART, customers, business owners, and other teams. Aside from objective metrics, you can also discuss qualitative experiences like team dynamics. In partnership with the product owner, you can create a system to start incrementally improving. The organizational value realized from increasing and sustaining employee participation is always significant.

The full SAFe® scrum master article has more extensive guidance to help you define role expectations and responsibilities. As a quick reference, the image below will help you visualize three core areas where any scrum master can immediately start to add value.

SAFe® scrum master

Does this work require you to know what the team is making and how? Yes, to an extent. But it often doesn’t require the depth of specialized knowledge needed to build end solutions. In fact, another voice with the same experience and biases might only add to a myopic perspective and goals.

What if I’m a scrum master without experience?

SAFe® scrum master

Starting as a scrum master without experience is a little overwhelming.

When it feels like too much, there are some foundational concepts you can use to stay grounded and help your team succeed.

Below are three key reminders for scrum masters that are new to their role or serving an experienced team in an unfamiliar domain.

1 | The team is expert in their way, you are expert in your way

To coach a team effectively, you need to understand and maintain focus on:

  • The team’s value flow
  • Typical bottlenecks
  • Impediments to high quality

The rest is simply nice to have. Understanding flow, bottlenecks, and quality will allow you to quickly grasp what holds the team back and how they achieve success. This will also help you relate to your team’s emotional dynamics, including what makes them personally frustrated or fulfilled. Empathy will break through differences in experience levels and foster lasting relationships.

If you’re still skeptical, think of it this way; the product owner is backlog and content authority for the team. They still do backlog refinement with the team. Why? Because team members are the experts! That’s their thing. That’s why they were hired.

A scrum master isn’t an expert in the same areas. That’s not their job. Their job is coaching and enhancing the PDCA cycle, customer centricity, flow, dependency visualization, bottleneck identification and removal, conflict management, and listening.

2 | Build initial trust levels with authenticity

The not-so-secret ingredient in serving any team is trust. If you share technical expertise with your teammates, building initial trust may be easier. Teammates will know that you understand their impediments and have insight into root causes because you may have experienced them before. Your coaching may be well received because “you know what you’re talking about,” and teammates can immediately talk shop with you.

There may be some initial distrust if you don’t share technical knowledge with your teammates and they don’t understand how you contribute. If this situation sounds familiar, it’s best to start with openness about your background and willingness to learn. Emphasize that you’re not a technical expert but you do fill many other roles that help them work better, including:

  • Servant leader
  • Live-in consultant
  • Advisor
  • Team protector

Your expertise starts with process, method, and people.

Trust is particularly key when your work environment prioritizes honesty, candid feedback, and personal responsibility. Technical competency is a must for most roles, but emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are vital for helping teams and individuals thrive. Organizations using SAFe should create ample space for digging into messy issues, feedback, processes, and team performance. Scrum masters can build trust in these complex emotional environments in several critical ways: 

  • Help everyone approach discussions in good faith
  • Create a safe environment for all feedback
  • Find and equip team members with the right tools and methods to provide feedback
  • Encourage participation by all; not only the loudest or most persistent voices
  • Communicate feedback clearly to others, demonstrating advocacy for the team

3 | Promote self-organizing teams

A scrum master’s best tools are powerful questions and intentional listening. If you share deep technical expertise with your teammates, you may have a bias when determining problems and solutions.

You might make more assumptions and be more suggestive because you have so much familiarity with the team’s work. Scrum masters without technical experience have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective and have no choice but to truly listen, clarify, and guide the team to their own solutions.

Setting scrum master improvement areas

SAFe® scrum master

It’s helpful to build trust and develop personal relationships. But you’ll need concrete growth goals to gain competency and confidence.

The list of scrum master improvement areas below will give you a big head start in owning your role:

Identify the team’s value stream(s). The team might already have a value stream visualization. Maybe the product owner knows it well. Or maybe there’s a great opportunity for the team to work on identification. This will help both you and your team understand how work flows and the most essential tools and processes the team uses. You’ll likely find areas for immediate improvement!

Ask obvious questions. Though it might feel like you’re slowing the team down, asking foundational questions is actually beneficial for everyone. Here are just a few obvious benefits:

  • You need to learn more about team content
  • The teammate receiving the question needs to think about the purpose and processes behind their work
  • Other team members who aren’t involved in that work may have the same question 

Schedule one-on-one meetings. Learn team member’s professional goals and interests. Ask about their pain points, what keeps them up at night, dynamics within the team, dynamics with other teams, etc. Build empathy to help smooth over inevitable future difficulties. Also, if your teammate is comfortable with it, you can ask to shadow their work while they narrate and complete day-to-day tasks. 

Always have a Google tab open. Answers to technical questions are often difficult to grasp. You can’t expect to know everything your team does. Instead of scheduling an hour lecture with a teammate every time curiosity strikes, try checking internal directories, knowledge wikis, and even Google to find a quick answer. Continuous learning is imperative.

Use an assessment to measure your progress. The AgilityHealth Scrum Master Radar Assessment (or a similar tool) can help you understand your current performance and identify areas for improvement. 

Learn more about the team’s work. This shouldn’t necessarily be your first priority, but it’s definitely worth your time. Common examples include joining a lunch book club, attending a conference, creating content that requires you to learn new material, and reading technical articles. You’ll deepen your knowledge and show that you truly care about the team’s work.

Hone your craft. Consistently prioritizing professional development will demonstrate your growing expertise to the team. Whether you’re trying new approaches to retrospectives or diligently protecting and coaching team members, your efforts will earn trust.

If you’re still unsure about exactly where to spend your time, the graphic below breaks down how real scrum masters (in our company) spend a typical week. You can use this tool as a gut check for balancing priorities, assessing your time management skills, and planning for a productive iteration.

SAFe® scrum master

More Resources for You, Scrum Masters!

Even with prior scrum master work experience, serving a team with technical expertise that you don’t have can feel daunting. But a skilled scrum master can quickly bring significant value. By clarifying how you serve the team, building trust, and continuously learning, you and your teammates can work together to build a self-organizing, high-performing team.

Here are some additional resources to help you learn more about how scrum masters of all experience levels can continue improving and serving well:

About Emma Ropski

Emma is a Certified SPC and scrum master at Scaled Agile

Emma is a Certified SPC and scrum master at Scaled Agile, Inc. As a lifelong learner and teacher, she loves to illustrate, clarify, and simplify to keep all teammates and SAFe learners engaged. Connect with Emma on LinkedIn.

View all posts by Emma Ropski

Facilitation Tips to Excel at the RTE Role – Agility Planning

Release Train Engineer

I spend most of my time in the Release Train Engineer (RTE) role facilitating groups from all levels of the organization.

When I facilitate poorly, people notice, and the Agile Release Train (ART) struggles to align on objectives and mitigate risks.

When I facilitate well, meetings blend into daily work, and the ART runs smoothly.

In this blog post, I focus on facilitation tips and tools that have worked for me in agility planning with three ceremonies that RTEs facilitate:

  • PI Planning
  • Scrum of Scrums (SoS)
  • System Demo

Let’s take a look at how I prepare for and facilitate each.

Release Train Engineer

Prepare for the RTE Role in PI Planning

PI Planning is the most important event the RTE role facilitates. A well-run PI Planning aligns the ART to:

  • strategy
  • business context
  • priorities

It creates the space for tough conversations about dependencies and tradeoffs. Teams have the autonomy to plan to achieve the desired value delivery within their capacity.

How to prepare for a successful PI Planning

It’s helpful for me to think about PI Planning preparation in the following sections.

Organization

This includes the tools and tips I use to stay organized before and during PI Planning.

Book calendars in advance

If you want 125 people available at the same time in the same location, you need to get dates on the calendar a year ahead of PI Planning. When I have not met this criterion, key stakeholders miss the event due to scheduling conflicts.

ART Readiness Workbook

We use an updated version of the readiness checklist in the ART Readiness Workbook. The SAFe® PI Planning Toolkit on the SAFe Community Platform includes this checklist.

It includes everything we need to prepare our teams and ARTs for PI Planning, from the program backlog to video call links. We’ve started calling it “the dream” because it keeps us so organized that the event runs like a dream.

Content

This is how I think about the information I want to convey during PI Planning.

Business context

Work with leaders to prepare a strong business context presentation. As a facilitator, it’s my job to ensure the connection from strategy to execution is clear. That connection starts with the business context.

As an RTE, I work with our leaders to paint the picture of:

  • Our progress so far
  • Our priorities moving forward
  • What we want to do with those priorities
  • Why it matters

A motivating message will resonate with people and set the tone for the event.

Note: Leaders can be your GM for the business unit or CEO for smaller organizations.

Product strategy

The product strategy connects the business context to the prioritized backlog. It shows the research, customer feedback, and PI roadmap that will achieve our strategic themes.

This means RTEs work with the head of product to create a presentation that encourages engagement with the content. It should also include plenty of time for Q&A.

I know I’m successful when, in the Q&A, team members make clear connections between the product strategy and top features in the program backlog.

Prioritized program backlog

Our product team prepares early for the upcoming PI by:

  • Understanding customer needs and desired outcomes
  • Defining, sizing, and prioritizing features

This process gives teams plenty of time to understand priorities. It also helps them understand how to do the work and which features to pull first. If I have done a good job of facilitating through the business context and product strategy, the teams will have confidence in the backlog. They’ll also understand how to engage with it to achieve the most value in the PI.

Space

How you set up impacts how your teams engage and where they focus during planning.

Virtual

Release Train Engineer

We use the Virtual PI Planning Collaborate template for virtual PI planning. This template allows us to set up all the things we would have on the walls if we were in person in one easy-to-use online location. It cuts down on logistical questions during PI Planning and allows people to focus on their tasks.

In-person

We spend a lot of time thinking about tables, breakout rooms, and supplies:

  • Does all the in-room tech work?
  • Are there clear instructions for how to use it in the room?
  • Are there snacks and fidget toys on the table for idle hands?
  • Plenty of sticky notes in different colors with pens and markers?

The less time people spend looking for supplies or troubleshooting tech, the more engaged and focused they will be.

Snacks and fun

Whether in person or virtual, planning for snacks and fun is crucial. We send out a theme for planning in advance. We also provide engagement ideas like:

  • costumes
  • virtual backgrounds
  • table decorations

In-person, we plan for snacks and catering; virtually, we send meal kits or snack boxes to people’s homes. Themes bring fun and create camaraderie and empathy that make difficult conversations easier. Snacks keep people focused and stave off the hangry moments.

How to facilitate a successful PI Planning

No matter how well you prepare and set up, facilitation will be tricky, and there will be many twists and turns. Here are my top tips for facilitating successful PI Planning.

Use a detailed facilitator’s agenda

We write a script and annotate every transition, timebox, and tool used. As a facilitator, I plan out:

  • How long to give each team for read-out, Q&A, and transition to the next team
  • Who will present on which screen and from where, and so on

Scripting this prevents worry in the moment and allows us to focus on active facilitation.

Know your end goal so you can pivot

These down-to-the-minute agendas will go off the rails at some point. It may be because a meaningful conversation runs past the timebox. Or we need to discuss a risk or de-scoping in real-time. With a detailed facilitator’s plan, we can adjust in the moment and still achieve our goal.

Embrace crucial conversations

PI Planning includes difficult trade-offs, scoping conversations, and cross-team dependencies and risks. Emotions are high, and the content is high stakes. We must model and facilitate embracing these conversations in productive ways. As a facilitator, I ensure these conversations are happening by coaching people through them.

When people come to me with problems and risks they want me to solve, it is often something they can solve themselves with a crucial conversation. I coach them to use:

  • “I” statements
  • Clear, transparent communication

The pain caused by avoidance or indirect communication is always worth this time and effort. For more detailed PI Planning facilitation guides and templates, check out the SAFe PI Planning toolkit. Find it on the PI Planning SAFe Community Platform page.

Release Train Engineer

Prepare for the RTE Role in Scrum of Scrums

After PI Planning, it’s essential to manage dependencies in a clear and consistent way. The RTE role helps create clear visibility on impediments to and progress toward our objectives.

For the ART, Scrum of Scrums (SoS) acts like a train-level stand-up. As an RTE, preparing well for SoS ensures we get the right outcomes. Facilitating well ensures it does not become a status meeting.

How to prepare for a successful SoS

Here are my tips and tricks for preparing a successful SoS in the RTE role.

Agenda and purpose

It’s important to provide a clear and visible agenda and purpose for SoS. This enables all the teams in the ART to prepare and show up with the right information to work dependencies and remove impediments.

Visuals to help review dependencies and progress toward objectives

We use the program board we built in SAFe Collaborate at PI Planning during SoS. We also use an iteration-by-iteration cross-team dependency board in our ALM tool.

Knowing we will use these in advance gives a clear place for everyone to prepare for the event. It also creates a visible place for dependencies and risks.

Representation from every team

Schedules can make it hard for every Scrum Master or team representative to attend SoS, but it must be a priority.

When Scrum Masters don’t represent their teams at SoS, questions go unanswered, and dependencies are harder to manage or make visible.

How to facilitate a successful SoS

Once I’ve prepared for SoS, here’s how I facilitate smoothly in the RTE role.

Pre-fill items in shared notes so you can spend time discussing risks, dependencies, and releases

A single, visible place for all SoS notes allows teams to add updates before the meeting. It allows others to review and show up to SoS ready to ask questions or share related information.

Ask questions that go beyond status updates to uncover dependencies

Ask clarifying questions about the work and related data in the ALM tool. Asking for visuals or links to related documents ensures everyone understands.

Mix up your questions each time. This prevents automatic responses and encourages thinking about the work from new angles.

Invite guests and people new to the company

This orients new people to your organization to your process for managing dependencies and risks. It also shows them where to find the information they may need about other teams’ work.

Check out the SoS Facilitator’s guide on the ART Events page of the SAFe Community Platform to improve your SoS facilitation.

Release Train Engineer

Prepare for the RTE Role in System Demo

The System Demo is the flashiest of ceremonies the RTE role facilitates. It’s when the teams get to show off the work they’ve completed during the iteration (or PI if it’s the PI system demo).

How to prepare for a successful system demo

Because System Demo is about showing off the work of the ARTs, it’s important that I prepare them for a smooth experience.

Prepare presenters in advance

I provide a timebox and share my agenda deck two days before the demo. Participants to leave a “live demo” slide if they plan to share their screens during the event.

Then I meet with speakers half an hour before the demo. We test the timing of presentations, handoffs, and technology. This ensures a smooth delivery.

Create a reusable template

Using a template that follows the same pattern makes it easy to prepare topics. The topics I select show the progress toward our objectives and strategic themes.

A familiar template and standard format will make preparations easy and calm the nerves of those not used to presenting.

Build in time for Q&A and space for the conversation to continue past the timebox

While the demo of the end-to-end solution is critical, it is as important that stakeholders have the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

We often only have time for a few questions, so we create a thread in our company messaging app for more questions and discussions.

How to facilitate a successful system demo

Once I prepare everyone, facilitating a successful system demo is pretty straightforward. Here are a few essential tips.

Open the meeting with purpose and expectations

I always take the first few minutes of the system demo to remind everyone why we are there. I also remind them of their role in ensuring we meet the purpose:

  • Paying close attention
  • Asking questions
  • Giving feedback
  • Looking for ways what they saw affects or improves their work

Connect demo topics to objectives and strategic themes

I structure the agenda by grouping demos by strategic theme. As part of the agenda overview, I discuss each theme and how each demo will connect to the theme and the team’s objective.

Embrace silence

The group often hesitates to speak up when there are over 100 people on a call or in a room, including key stakeholders and customers.

As a facilitator, I open the floor to questions and feedback. Or I ask questions and then count to 10 in my head. This can feel like an eternity of silence that you want to fill. But nine times out of ten, right toward the end of the silence, someone will come forward with a question. If you don’t allow for silence, you will lose much of that engagement.

Looking for more tips and tricks? Check out:

Conclusion and Additional Resources

The RTE role of preparing for and facilitating ART-level events impacts the ART’s ability to:

  • Connect strategy to execution
  • Manage risks and dependencies
  • Understand the end-to-end value delivered during the PI

Preparing ourselves and others in advance removes in-the-moment confusion. It also increases understanding and transparency.

We create space to pivot and shift in the moment while achieving desired outcomes.

Coaching and modeling crucial conversations means more productive team engagement and outcomes.

I hope this blog post has inspired you to explore new ways to approach facilitating your events. To help you on your journey:

About Lieschen Gargano Quilling

Lieschen Gargano is a Release Train Engineer

Lieschen Gargano is a Release Train Engineer and conflict guru – thanks in part to her master’s degree in conflict resolution. As the RTE for the development value stream at Scaled Agile, Lieschen loves cultivating new ideas and approaches to Agile to keep things fresh and engaging. She also has a passion for developing practices for happy teams of teams across the full business value stream.

View all posts by Lieschen Gargano Quilling

How to Measure Team Performance: A Scrum Master Q+A

Assessing your team’s agility is an important step on the path to continuous improvement. After all, you can’t get where you want to go if you don’t know where you are. But you probably have questions: How do you measure a team’s agility, anyway? Who should do it, and when? What happens with the data you collect, and what should you do afterwards?

To bring you the answers, we interviewed two of our experienced scrum masters, Lieschen Gargano and Sam Ervin. Keep reading to learn their recommendations for running a Team successfully and Technical Agility Assessment.

Q: How does SAFe help teams measure their agility, and why should I care? 

Measure and Grow is the Scaled Agile Framework’s approach to evaluating agility and determining what actions to take next. Measure and Grow assessment tools and recommendation actions help organizations and teams reflect on where they are and know how to improve. 

The SAFe® Business Agility Assessment measures an organization’s overall agility across seven core competencies: team and technical agility, agile product delivery, enterprise solution delivery, Lean portfolio management, Lean-agile leadership, organizational agility, and continuous learning culture. 

business agility assessment

The SAFe Core Competency Assessments measure each of these core competencies on a deeper level. For example, the Team and Technical Agility (TTA) Core Competency Assessment helps teams identify areas for improvement, highlight strengths worth celebrating, and baseline performance against future growth. It asks questions about how your team operates. Do team members have cross-functional skills? Do you have a dedicated PO? How are teams of teams organized in your agile release trains (ARTs)? Do you use technical practices like test-driven development and peer review? How does your team tackle technical debt?

For facilitators, including scrum masters, the Team and Technical Agility Assessment is a great way to create space for team reflection beyond a typical retrospective. It can also increase engagement and buy-in for the team to take on actionable improvement items.

Q: Who should run a Team and Technical Agility Assessment? 

Running assessments can be tricky. Teams might feel defensive about being “measured.” Self-reported data isn’t always objective or accurate. Emotions and framing can impact the results. That’s why SAFe recommends that a scrum master or other trained facilitator run the assessment. A scrum master, SPC, or agile coach can help ensure that teams understand their performance and know where to focus their improvement efforts. 

Q: When should I do this assessment?

It’s never too early or too late to know where you stand. Running the assessment for your team when you’re first getting started with an agile transformation will help you target the areas where you most need to improve, but you can assess team performance at any time. 

As for how frequently you should run it … it’s probably more valuable to do it on a cadence—either once a PI or once a year, depending on the team’s goals and appetite for it. There’s a lot of energy in seeing how you grow and progress as a team, and it’s easier to celebrate wins that are demonstrated through documented change over time than through general sentiment.

Q: Okay, how do I prepare for and run it?

The agility assessment tools are available free to SAFe members and customers at the Measure and Grow page on the SAFe Community Platform. There you can choose from tools created for us by our partners, AgilityHealth and Comparative Agility.

Before you start the Team and Technical Agility Assessment, define your team’s shared purpose. This will help you generate buy-in and excitement. If the team feels like they’re just doing the assessment because the scrum master said so, it won’t be successful. They have to see value in it for them, both as individuals and as a team. 

Some questions we like to ask to set this purpose include, “What do we want it to feel like to be part of this team, two PIs from now?” And, “How will our work lives be improved when we check in one year from now?”

There are two ways you can approach running this assessment. Option #1 is to have team members take the assessment individually, and then get together to discuss their results as a group. Option #2 is to discuss the assessment questions together and come to a consensus on the group’s answers.

When we’ve run this assessment we’ve had team members do it individually, so we could focus our time together on review and actions. If you do decide to run it asynchronously it’s important as a facilitator to be available to team members, in case they have questions before you review your answers as a team.

Q: What else should I keep in mind?

We like to kick off the assessment with a meeting invitation that includes a draft agenda. Sending this ahead of time gives everyone a chance to prepare. You can keep the agenda loose so you have flexibility to spend more or less time discussing particular areas, depending on how your team chooses to engage with each question.

Q: Is the assessment anonymous? 

Keeping the answers anonymous is really helpful if you want to get more accurate results. We like to be very clear upfront that the assessment will be anonymous, so that team members can feel confident about being honest in their answers. 

For example, with our teams, we not only explained the confidentiality of individuals’ answers but demonstrated in real-time how the tool itself works so that the process would feel open and transparent. We also made it clear that we would not be using the data to compare teams to each other, or for any purpose other than to gain a shared understanding of where we are selecting improvement items based on the team’s stated goals.

Q: Then what? What do I do with the results?

Once you’ve completed the assessment using one of the two approaches, you’ll want to review the sections one by one, showing the aggregate results and allowing the team to notice their top strengths and top areas for improvement. Your job as facilitator is NOT to tell them what you think based on the results; it’s to help guide the team’s own discussion as they explore the answers. This yields much more effective outcomes!

One thing one of us learned in doing the assessment was how much we disagreed on some things. For example, even with a statement as simple as, “Teams execute standard iteration events,” some team members scored us a five (out of five) while others scored us a one. We treated every score as valid and sought to understand why some team members scored high and others low, just like we do when estimating the size of a user story. During this conversation, we learned an important fact. The product owner thought the iteration was executed in a standard way because she was the one executing it. But team members gave that statement a low score because they weren’t included in much of the decision-making. There was no consensus understanding for what “standard iteration events” meant to the team. 

This prompted a conversation about why the team isn’t always included in how the iteration was executed. We talked about the challenge of aligning schedules to share responsibility for decision-making in meetings. And we talked about the impact of team members not having the opportunity to contribute. 

As a result, the assessment did more than help us see where we needed to improve; it showed us where we had completely different perspectives about how we were doing. It prompted rich conversations that led to meaningful progress.

Q: Okay, I ran the assessment; now what? What are the next steps?

With your assessment results in hand, it’s now time to take actions that help you improve. For each dimension of the Team and Technical Agility Assessment, SAFe provides growth recommendations to help teams focus on the areas that matter most and prioritize their next steps. You should: 

  • Review the team growth recommendations together to generate ideas
  • Select your preferred actions (you can use dot voting or WSJF calculations for this; SAFe® Collaborate has ready-made templates you can use)
  • Capture your team’s next steps in writing: “Our team decided to do X, Y, and Z.” 
  • Follow through on your actions, so that you’re connecting them to the desired outcome
  • Check in on your progress at the beginning of iteration retrospectives

Finally, you’ll want to use these actions to set a focus for the team throughout the PI, and check in with business owners at PI planning on how these improvements have helped the organization make progress toward its goals.

Q: I’m ready! How do I get started? 

Fantastic. Just visit the Measure and Grow page at the SAFe Community Platform to choose your assessment tool. While you’re there, you can watch the video for tips or download the Measure and Grow Toolkit for play-by-play guidance. As you’re running the assessment, use the SAFe Collaborate templates to guide the discussion and identify actions and next steps. 

Have fun!

About the authors

Lieschen is a product owner and former scrum master at Scaled Agile.

Lieschen is a product owner and former scrum master at Scaled Agile. She’s also an agile coach and conflict guru—thanks in part to her master’s degree in conflict resolution. Lieschen loves cultivating new ideas and approaches to agile to keep things fresh and exciting. And she’s passionate about developing best practices for happy teams to deliver value in both development and non-technical environments. Fun fact? “I’m the only person I know of who’s been a scrum master and a scrum-half on a rugby team.”

Sam is a certified SAFe® 5.0 Program Consultant (SPC) and serves as the scrum master for several teams at Scaled Agile. His recent career highlights include entertaining the crowd as the co-host of the 2019 and 2020 Global SAFe® Summits. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Sam lives in Denver, CO, where he enjoys CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting.

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To Accelerate Impact, Measure Team Performance and Cohesion

This post is part of an ongoing blog series where Scaled Agile Partners share stories from the field about using Measure and Grow assessments with customers to evaluate progress and identify improvement opportunities.

As organizations move from team-level agile to enterprise agility, predictive analytics and statistical insights play an increasingly important role in improving how organizations operate. Gartner predicts that this year, AI will create 6.2 billion hours of worker productivity globally, resulting in $2.9 trillion of business value. The rationale for this increased focus on data-driven insights is clear: while business environments continue to grow more complex and uncertain, the need for fast decision-making and agility has never been greater. 

By identifying potential problems before they become organizational challenges and applying proprietary algorithms to large amounts of data, we can identify patterns and direct organizational attention where it matters. But the insights must be shared in a way that helps change leaders improve their decision-making. 

To make complex statistical analysis useful, it should be presented in a way that inspires action.

The Impact Matrix: Measuring performance and cohesion

This challenge is the motivation behind the Impact Matrix, a canvas that immediately identifies how teams are doing based on two essential vectors of team potency: performance and cohesion. Getting an understanding of teams helps change leaders quickly recognize challenges, prioritize efforts, and develop improvements.

Let’s take a closer look at a sample Impact Matrix report and explore how it can accelerate an organization’s transformation efforts.

The Impact Matrix

As illustrated in this example, the teams (represented as dots) in an organization’s portfolio are positioned on the canvas based on their relative score across two vectors; performance and cohesion.

Depending on a respective team’s score and relative position, we can quickly identify a theme of focus, categorize a strategic approach, and pinpoint essential questions that leaders should consider when deciding next steps. 

Amplify: High performance, high cohesion (green zone)

Teams in the Amplify quadrant are performing at a relatively high level and there are no major disconnects between the team members. Organizations benefit from observing these teams, understanding what makes them perform consistently, and trying to amplify these norms across the broader organization. Some helpful questions to ask include, “To what degree is the environment enabling teams to perform at this level?” “What role does management play in empowering these teams to do so well?” and, “How can coaching help these teams sustain—and even exceed—their current levels?”

Align: High performance, low cohesion (yellow zone)

When teams are in the Align quadrant they are performing well, but there are significant disagreements and disconnects between team members. Organizations benefit from keeping a close eye on teams in this quadrant, as a lack of team cohesion is a leading indicator of deteriorating performance. Questions to consider for teams in this context include, “Are certain team members dominating conversations?” “Is there sufficient psychological safety so all team members can feel comfortable speaking up?” and, “Is there a clear purpose that team members can rally around?”

Mitigate: Low performance, low cohesion (red zone)

Teams in the Mitigate quadrant are indicating they need help: they’re not only performing poorly, but they’re also disconnected. Organizations benefit from listening to and engaging with these teams to help alleviate their challenges. Questions that may be helpful in this context include, “What are immediate actions we can take to ease the current situation?” “How can we better understand why the team feels challenged?” and “How can the organization give the team a safe environment to work out challenges?”

Improve: Low performance, high cohesion (yellow zone)

Teams in the Improve quadrant usually don’t remain there for long. These teams are performing relatively poorly, but they’re aware of their challenges—and typically, they take steps to improve their situation. Organizations benefit by helping these teams accelerate their improvement efforts and providing them with the necessary resources. Questions these teams should ask include, “What steps can the team take to start alleviating current challenges?” “How can the organization help?” and, “What insights do the data give us about where to start?”

Conclusion

By leveraging data and sophisticated analytics, the Impact Matrix helps change leaders accelerate their transformation efforts by focusing their work where it matters, pointing them in the right direction, and ultimately supercharging their ability to lead organizational change. Although data and meaningful analytics are insufficient to give you all the answers you need, they can help you ask better questions and complement your overall transformation strategy.

Do it yourself: Run the Impact Matrix on your release train or portfolio today to get a comprehensive picture of how teams are performing, and find out immediately where you can provide the most value to your organization. Activate your free Comparative Agility account on the SAFe Community Platform.

Matthew Haubrich is the Director of Data Science at Comparative Agility.

Matthew Haubrich is the Director of Data Science at Comparative Agility. Passionate about discovering the story behind the data, Matt has more than 25 years of experience in data analytics, survey research, and assessment design. Matt is a frequent speaker at numerous national and international conferences and brings a broad perspective of analytics from both public and private sectors.

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We’re Giving More Than a Donation for Pride Month – Agility Leadership

I wanted to share a learning moment I and my colleagues at Scaled Agile had recently. June is Pride Month, and some employees requested that we modify our logo to include the rainbow. This request led to an internal debate about whether altering our logo was a trivial act or a meaningful symbol.

People raised valid points. “Others are doing it. Why aren’t we showing our support?” and, “We don’t do enough externally to support the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA+) community, so changing our logo feels like an empty gesture.” Ultimately, we decided not to modify our logo but instead encourage an employee-driven campaign that the company could share on its social channels.

Personally, I saw the request to alter our logo as a non-issue. Here’s why: As an openly gay male executive at Scaled Agile, I lead one of our largest global regions. No one has ever questioned my capabilities and I’ve always felt accepted. As a leader here, I have opportunities all the time to lead by example. And I consistently get feedback from employees that they appreciate my approach. People who know me, professionally and personally, know I don’t have a “work Brendan” that’s different from my “personal Brendan.” My customers know this too. I’ve always been proud of this and I feel totally supported in this regard at Scaled Agile. 

Scaled Agile participates in Pledge 1% Colorado, and every year we donate a significant part of our time and profits to lots of good causes. While we haven’t yet focused on the LGBTQIA+ community, we do give back to many other underrepresented communities through volunteering and donations. Few companies of our size have matched our commitment to giving back. Our company was founded by a strong team and we’ve never wavered in our support for the gay community.

Early on in Scaled Agile’s existence, we chose to hire the best talent. And we ended up with a large and enthusiastic LGBTQIA+ employee base. I’m here to say that you can find a place to hang your rainbow hat here with us. Fostering a welcoming workplace where LGBTQIA+ people feel safe, supported, and trusted is giving back, and it’s worth getting loud about. I’m fortunate that I’ve always found these qualities in my employers; I vet them in that regard. Providing an environment where LGBTQIA+ people can grow their skills in a welcoming way is worth more than any donation we could make to an LGBTQIA+ organization. 

Many young LGBTQIA+ people struggle and wonder whether they’ll have a safe future. Showing them that we can thrive and choose whatever career path we want is very important to me. There are LGBTQIA+ adults who go to work every day living a tale of two selves: they are fearful, and rightfully so. When people are forced to hide who they are, they miss out on the right to be their authentic selves, and out of preservation, they show up as a different self. I’ve seen the pain this causes. I’m committed to continuing to play a strategic role in growing this company so that more people can enjoy a safe, fun, and respectful workplace. As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I think this is the best giveback we can provide.

I’m a big proponent of providing donations to communities in need. You hope your money goes to the right people, at the right time for the right reasons. And you trust that the organization is using your funds wisely. But controlling your contribution to the LGBTQIA+ community by hiring us, no questions asked, and providing us with an amazing, supportive team of colleagues and customers, elicits a tremendous feeling of pride in me.

It can be risky for leaders like me to pen posts like this because they’ll stick with you forever. But leading by example means being vulnerable. We should celebrate who we all are, together, as well as the fact that our company is having a big impact by offering more than just words or donations. I’ll participate in developing our more concrete LGBTQIA-focused initiatives, and in the meantime, we’ll keep on giving.

About Brendan Walsh

Brendan Walsh

As an active member of the Colorado tech startup community, Brendan has enjoyed growing some of the most successful Colorado-based companies for 25 years and counting. He lives in Denver, along with his partner of 16 years, Aaron. The two have had the privilege of living abroad for several years and always looked forward to bringing their life experiences back to Colorado. Their four-legged, rescued son, Rex, rules the house—just to be clear.

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Three Lessons I Learned in My First Year as a Product Owner – Agility Planning

My First Year as a Product Owner

I had managed marketing teams before, but being a product owner (PO) of an Agile marketing team was a completely new concept. As a team member, I was fortunate to spend a year watching POs do the job, which gave me a leg up. But I never really appreciated the intricacy of the position until I became one. Looking back at a year in the role, here are three key lessons I’ve taken from this experience.

The Scrum Master Is a PO’s Best Friend

Stop trying to do it all by yourself. You can’t, and you don’t have to. The scrum master is your co-leader. They don’t just run retros; they’re your sounding board and partner.  

Consider this: scrum masters spend their entire day thinking about how to support the team. Not the customer, not the executives—the team. So, listen to them. When they give you constructive criticism, listen. If they give you advice, listen. Scrum masters are often the ones at the back of the room watching everyone’s body language and unspoken communication while you’re busy thinking about the stories and features. They can catch things you don’t, so listen to them.

Planning Is Hard but Don’t Give Up

A year ago, you would find me crying after each iteration planning. Somehow we would start with 270 percent of capacity and be lucky if we got down to 170 percent—almost twice as much work planned than we could ever physically complete. If our planned capacity was ridiculous, our predictability was nonexistent. One iteration, we’d complete 120 percent, the next 50 percent—who knew what you were going to get from us.  

But we stuck with it.

We invested in iteration planning and backlog refinement. We went back to basics, agreeing on the definition of a “1” so we could do relative sizing. We started planning poker, where everyone on the team had a say in how to size stories, even if they personally were not doing the work.  And we started getting more serious and explicit about what we could and couldn’t accomplish inside two weeks.

iteration planning

A year later, I beam with pride. We’re a predictable and high-performing team. When we tell another team we can deliver something within an iteration; it’s the truth. Not a gut check, and employees don’t have to work insane hours to make it happen.

Pro Tip: If you’re struggling with iteration planning, I strongly recommend downloading the Iteration Planning Facilitator Checklist on the SAFe Community Platform. There’s also a good instructional video on the Team Events page.

PI Planning Is Not A Drill

I usually start thinking about PI Planning in iteration four. I don’t have features, I don’t know what the pivots will be, but I’m already thinking about what conversations I have to have to get my team ready. I’ve already got my finger in the air to sense the direction of the proverbial wind. My scrum master and I spend a lot of time thinking about preparing the team for PI Planning, creating space for exploration, and making sure we discuss every possible dependency, so there aren’t surprises later.

Virtual PI Planning offers another level of complexity. It’s absolutely critical that I have everything organized for my team and me, documented, and ready to go before we log in. The team knows where to find information, what the marketing objectives are, and what teams we need to sync with to plan our work.

Are you a PO? What lessons have you learned? What do you wish you knew when you started? Join the conversation in the SAFe Product Owners/Managers Forum on the SAFe Community Platform.

About Hannah Bink

Hannah Bink heads the Marketing Success team at Scaled Agile

Hannah Bink heads the Marketing Success team at Scaled Agile. She has nearly 15 years of B2B marketing experience and studied business at Pennsylvania State University. Prior to Scaled Agile, Hannah spent the majority of her career in telecommunications and healthcare sectors, running global marketing divisions. She is also author of the “Musings of a Marketeer” blog, and lives in Denver, Colorado.

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Next: How Vendors Can Apply Customer Centricity When Organizing Around Value

How Vendors Can Apply Customer Centricity When Organizing Around Value

Customer Centricity
In this post, we look at how a B2B vendor should organize around value when building products that are used to support its customer’s business operations. A common example might be a vendor building a CRM system.

Organizing Around Value

Lots of organizations are organized around functional silos—such as business, system engineering, hardware, software, testing/QA, and operations. These structures exist because they support specialization and allow organizations to grow and manage their people effectively. It’s why so many organizations are set up in this way. And many organizations persist in this siloed structure even when they start their journey toward business agility.

For example, they create Agile teams that map to specialized components or subsystems. Similarly, they create Agile Release Trains around entire departments or functions. From a change management perspective, it’s easier to keep the current structure and apply Agile ways of working on top of it. But value doesn’t flow in silos. In many cases, these so-called Agile teams or teams of teams struggle to deliver valuable increments because what’s valuable requires collaboration across the silos. Additionally, teams struggle to see how their work builds up to something valuable for the customer. 

Business agility and digital transformation are all about speed of learning and value creation in the face of a dynamic changing environment. The classic organizational structure isn’t optimized for this speed, which is why SAFe® introduces the value stream network as part of a dual operating system that runs parallel to the organizational hierarchy.

Customer Centricity
The value stream network within a dual operating system.

Development value streams (DVDs) are the organizational construct used by SAFe to create this value stream network. DVDs are where the essential activities of defining, implementing, and supporting innovative, digitally enabled solutions occur. Defined correctly, DVDs are able to deliver valuable business solutions on their own with minimal dependencies on other parts of the business.

Alongside the DVDs are Operational Value Streams (OVSs) which describe the steps needed to deliver value to the organization’s customers. Examples might include providing a consumer loan or provisioning a software product. With this in mind, the DVS has one purpose: to create profitable OVSs. They do this either by creating the systems that the OVS relies on to operate effectively or by building the products that the OVS sells. With this in mind, understanding how the work is done in the OVSs helps us understand what value looks like, how it flows from demand to delivery in our context, and how we might organize our DVDs to support this.

What’s the Right Approach to Defining Operational Value Streams?

Identifying the OVS is a relatively straightforward exercise for a technology/development organization trying to organize effectively around the value that the wider organization is delivering to customers. People supporting systems that are used when providing these services (digital or physical) can easily apply customer-centric thinking and identify an OVS oriented around the needs of the real external customer.

fulfillment OVS
Example of a fulfillment OVS.

It gets tougher to map an OVS when you’re a vendor selling your product/solution for use as part of another organization’s operational activities. A great example is an independent software vendor (ISV). Other examples include vendors building and selling cyber-physical systems such as medical devices and manufacturing equipment. 

Consider vendor ACME Corp, which provides banks and financial institutions with banking systems. ACME Corp is building an AI-powered loan underwriting system that will fit into their banking systems portfolio. What OVS should ACME Corp model when considering how it might organize around value?

Many SAFe practitioners would suggest that ACME Corp model an OVS that focuses on how it would market, sell, and operate its solution.

Customer Centricity

Vendor IT folks supporting systems like CRM and ERP find it a useful way to model the business process they’re supporting. With this OVS in mind, they can make sure they organize around the whole buyer journey. And they can apply systems thinking to explore what features to introduce to the systems supporting this process.

The problem with this approach is that this OVS is mainly from the vendor and buyer journey perspectives. It doesn’t provide any information on how the solution will be used or the kind of work that it will support. An alternative approach is to use the real customer’s experience/journey as the OVS. Basically, take the same perspective that an internal technology organization would when building systems for these customers.

Customer Centricity

Both the buyer journey OVS and customer-centric journey OVS exist. The question is: which of them is more useful to focus on? Remember that we map OVSs in order to build a hypothesis around what’s an effective DVS. In this example, both OVS perspectives can be useful. 

The customer-centric fulfilment OVS focusing on the solution context within which the ISVs product lives are the perspective that product development/engineering should focus on—this is where the systems/products/solutions that they create exist. This perspective would be more relevant to people building the products the vendor is selling because it would get them closer to their customers. It would also help them apply systems thinking to which features can really support generating value for these customers and for the enterprise serving these customers.

Customer Centricity OVS

Emphasize Customer Centricity as Part of Value Stream Identification

The example above illustrates why vendors can find it daunting to figure out which OVS to focus on. Going down the software product OVS perspective often leads to confusion and lack of guidance because it’s disconnected from how the products are used and from the solution context. A common move vendors make at this point is to fall back to organizing around products. Being able to explore, build, deploy, release, and operate/maintain a product can be a significant improvement for some organizations.

DVS

The problem with this structure is that it still has silos. And once we look at the value the vendor is trying to create, we might see a lot of dependencies between these silos. The management challenge is to connect the right silos—those that need to collaborate to deliver the value that the organization’s strategy is pointing toward. 

Leveraging customer centricity using the customer’s fulfilment OVS can help the vendor transcend product silos and maximize the value created by their product portfolio. More vendors we work with that started with ARTs and DVDs oriented around products find themselves with heavy coordination overhead across different DVDs and ARTs when executing on strategic themes and portfolio initiatives. 

Going back to our AI-powered underwriting product actually supports multiple steps in the customer-centric OVS, and requires new features across a range of the vendor’s products. Maximizing the value of AI-powered underwriting requires collaboration and coordination with the groups developing these products. If all of these different products are built by different DVSs, this coordination will be slow and painful. If the vendor organizes around value and brings the right people with the ability to get AI-powered underwriting integrated into the different products, time-to-market and quality will be improved. People would also feel more motivated and engaged since they’re very focused and effective. 

Using a customer-centric OVS is key to understanding your real solution’s context. This can enable you to organize effectively to minimize dependencies and enable collaborations that streamline the customer journey. Which is essentially the goal of most products—to help a business better serve its customers.

Customer Centricity OVS
Example of a vendor creating a DVS modeled around a customer-centric OVS.

When a DVS is created to support a customer-centric OVS, the organization can use techniques including value stream mapping and design thinking to innovate “in the Gemba—where the real value flows.” When this DVS includes everyone needed to explore, build, deploy, and support solutions that cut across the customer-centric OVS, we’ve truly created a network operating system that’s organized around value. And we’ve taken a huge step toward enabling real business agility. 

Join our webinar on June 9, 2021 with SAFe Fellow Andrew Sales. You’ll learn tactical advice and tips to identify operational and development value streams that help optimize business outcomes. We hope to see you there!

About Yuval Yeret

Yuval Yeret is the head of AgileSparks (a Scaled Agile Partner)

Yuval Yeret is the head of AgileSparks (a Scaled Agile Partner) in the United States where he leads enterprise-level Agile implementations. He’s also the steward of The AgileSparks Way and the firm’s SAFe, Flow/Kanban, and Agile Marketing. Yuval is a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT5), a Professional Scrum.org Trainer (PST), an internationally recognized Kanban Trainer, a thought leader, recipient of the Lean/Kanban Brickell Key Award, and a frequent speaker at industry conferences.

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Winning the Customer with Experience Architecture – Agility Planning

 Experience Architecture

As the post-digital economy begins to boom and the worlds of business process and technology come together, it’s time to think about how we optimize the whole from a unified, customer-centric perspective. Some organizations have begun to master the idea of experience architecture, whereas others are just beginning.

During my years consulting, I’ve had the opportunity to work with complex system architecture. Such as the APIs and data structures across multiple federal agencies that manage annual earnings and death records for every person in the United States. I’ve also experienced complex business architectures responsible for moving passengers, aircraft, and cargo around the world in a safe and predictable manner.

What was obvious to me in these and other scenarios was that there was no way we could treat the disciplines of business architecture and technical architecture as independent variables. Especially if these organizations hoped to keep up with the speed of innovation. In early experiments, I hypothesized that by pairing business architects with their peer application architects, we could better design experiments to achieve business outcomes that were efficient and technically sound. My hypothesis was partially proven. There were still missing pieces of the equation.

In later experiments, I treated the various architects in the value stream as an Agile team composed of all architectural perspectives that we needed to deliver the solution. Those perspectives included business architecture, application architecture, systems architecture, data architecture, information security, and even Lean Six Sigma Black Belts to help keep the group focused on flow efficiency. That experiment had some cool outcomes, though I had come to realize one obvious hole: the lack of consideration for the people in the system. We needed a different skill set. We needed experience in architecture.

Curated Experiences and Powerful Moments

In their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath give many examples of how people remember exceptionally good and exceptionally poor experiences. The authors illustrate how average experiences are largely forgettable. Conversely, experiences that are repeated merge together so that customers develop a general perception of the experiences, but don’t remember any experience in particular.

My family visits Disney. A lot.

 Experience Architecture

Before I met my wife, I’d been to Disney World twice in my life. Once when I was eight and again as a teenager. I have fond memories of each trip and can remember specific moments. These were positive experiences and here’s why.

Since having met my wife, I’ve been to Disney an average of twice annually and as many as four times in a single year. Each of those experiences has been positive, but I can’t articulate why. I know that I enjoy Animal Kingdom and the Avatar ride in Pandora. I know that the Magic Kingdom gives me anxiety and that you can get prosecco at Epcot. Unlike the trips of my youth which are memorable, not a single visit as an adult stands out. The experiences have merged.

My Disney experience is what most customers experience as they interact with our value streams. The customer will form a general feeling and only talk about the experience: if it was exceptionally good or exceptionally bad.

Need proof? Check out the reviews on Amazon or Google. You’re likely to see mostly very positive and very negative reviews without much in the middle. There is power in moments. The moments are what we remember and they can be curated when an organization makes investments in experience architecture.

Map Value Streams and Understand the Experience

Similar to the steps of value stream identification and business architecture, the first step in articulating a customer experience is to map the operational value stream. With alignment on how the business operates, the next step in understanding the customer experience is to visualize the technology that supports the operation and the development value streams that maintain the technology. Speaking of value streams, check out this cool webinar where I talk about them with Danny Presten.

With the value streams mapped, the next step is to embark on a journey to optimize the whole by eliminating technical and operational debt. With the help of business architecture, we can leverage the time focused on improvement to begin identifying opportunities for large-scale improvement in operational throughput. Additionally, the organization can begin investing in capability modeling with the goal of running more experiments for strategy implementation, faster.

With the operational value stream mapped, the underlying architecture understood, and a commitment made to relentless improvement, we can now begin exploring the customer experience.

Map the Experience

Now that we’re ready to map the customer experience, we begin by seeking to better understand the customer. SAFe® advocates using design thinking as a framework for customer centricity to best use personas, empathy maps, and experience maps. The art of experience mapping follows similar best practices used in other forms of value stream mapping. The distinct difference is that we engage with customers to understand their journey from their perspective.

Below is an example of an experience map that depicts the experience of an online public learner in the SAFe ecosystem. At the top, you’ll notice the phases of the customer journey, followed by the operational value stream. We continue by seeking to understand the customer’s goal within each component of the value stream, the touchpoints that Scaled Agile has with the customer, and finally, the customer’s happiness after having completed the operational component.

Similar to other types of value stream mapping, with the customer experience articulated, we can now start on a path to relentlessly improve the customer experience and curate memorable moments.

 Experience Architecture

Curate Unforgettable Moments

The Heath brothers explain the power of moments as a key theme in their book. For me, the true power of moments became evident when I purchased a new home in July of 2020. Veterans United Home Loans has made a significant investment in its customer experience and has taken advantage of the power of moments. The proof? The fact that nearly a year later I am blogging about my mortgage experience.

If you’ve ever bought a home, you can probably empathize when I say that it’s a stressful experience. In any mortgage transaction there are two particularly stressful phases for future homeowners: approval, and more notably, underwriting. Through their work in experience mapping, Veterans United was able to recognize this and curate moments to help ease the stress a little. When I received the approval for my home, my mortgage broker, Molly (do you remember the name of your mortgage broker?), sent me a pair of Veterans United socks.

 Experience Architecture

Yes, socks. They weren’t the best quality, they were kind of corny, but they made me smile and I’m still talking about them. Moment curated. 

When I closed underwriting, the curated moment was a little more personal. Molly had done her homework and knew that I liked to barbecue. So, she sent me a nice set of outdoor cooking utensils. As you sit there and ponder the ROI on socks and cooking tools, remember that you now know about Molly and Veterans United. ROI achieved. 

What low-cost, high-impact moments can you curate for your customers? How can you turn an otherwise forgettable experience into something that people remember for years to come? These actions are key to winning in the post-digital economy. Consumers want to know your organization is human. They want to know that you care. What can you do to help make that connection?

Experience Architecture: Conclusion

Success in the post-digital economy will require business agility and a clear focus on the customer. Experience architecture is something organizations should employ to better understand the customer so they can release on demand, as determined by the market and customer.

If you’re an experienced experience architect, consider sharing your stories in our General SAFe Discussion Group on the SAFe Community Platform. To learn more about working with varying architectural disciplines, while maximizing the amount of work not done, and embracing a just enough, just-in-time approach, check out these architectural runway articles.

About Adam Mattis

Adam Mattis is a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT)

Adam Mattis is a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) at Scaled Agile with many years of experience overseeing SAFe implementations across a wide range of industries. He’s also an experienced transformation architect, engaging speaker, energetic trainer, and a regular contributor to the broader Lean-Agile and educational communities. Learn more about Adam at adammattis.com.

View all posts by Adam Mattis

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