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Agile typically starts with small teams focused on contributing parts to a whole. Eventually, a need arises for long-standing, cross-functional teams, focused on delivering value in a particular value stream or set of value streams. Forming Agile Release Trains (ARTs) – teams comprised of multiple Agile teams aligned to a common goal—is key to delivering value that scales at the enterprise level.

The Agile Release Train includes all the people (expertise) needed to implement, test, deploy, and release to deliver software, hardware, firmware or other. Typically composed of 50-125 people, each ART is a virtual organization that plans, commits, develops and deploys work together.

Teams of Teams : How Planview provides visibility across the Agile Release Train

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Agile Program Kanban connects Agile Release Trains at the program level.
Agile Program Kanban connects Agile Release Trains at the program level.

Agile Release Trains Require High-Performing Agile Teams

High-performing Agile teams are the building blocks of Agile Release Trains. Building high-performing Agile teams that deliver consistently and reliably over time creates motivation for more teams and provides the blueprint for replicating its success. Successful Agile teams are:

  • Cross-functional: Delivering a product or service typically involves the work of several organizational departments. Smooth collaboration with other Agile Release Train team members is also critical to long-term success.
  • Stable: Dedicated teams that don’t change over time present team members with opportunities to grow, especially when it means they work directly with members outside their core areas of expertise.
  • Autonomous: Agile teams tend to be self-organizing entities that work autonomously to deliver functioning improvements of product or incremental value continuously.
When organized into Agile Release Trains, or teams of teams, high-performing Agile teams can realize their full potential: consistently, sustainably delivering value to the end users of their respective value streams.

Key Principles of Agile Release Trains

ARTs operate on this set of common principles, as outlined by our friends at Scaled Agile, Inc.:

The schedule is fixed

Agile Release Trains plan and deliver work on a fixed schedule, which is determined by the program increment (PI) cadence. Program increments are typically 8-12 weeks in length. If a project or feature is not planned into the current PI, it is not started until the next one begins.

A new system increment every two weeks

Similar to how Scrum and some Agile teams operate in sprints, ARTs operate in two-week cycles, called system increments.

Synchronization is applied

To keep Agile Release Trains aligned, all teams within ARTs are synchronized to the same PI length and operate on the same schedule (with common start / end dates and durations).

The train has a known velocity

Using historical data for reference, Agile Release Trains can reliably estimate how much work can be delivered in a single PI and plan their workloads accordingly.

This burndown report shows the Agile Release Train a particular amount of work to complete in a specific period.
This burndown report shows the Agile Release Train a particular amount of work to complete in a specific period.

Agile teams

High-performing Agile teams are a critical component of Agile Release Trains. Agile teams embrace the Agile Manifesto and apply Agile methods like Scrum and Kanban to their work. They are cross-functional, stable, and autonomous.

Customize Kanban boards to various ways of working and Agile methods for Agile Release Trains.
Customize Kanban boards to various ways of working and Agile methods for Agile Release Trains.

Dedicated people

To maintain the stability and sustainability of the Release Train, most people included in the ART are dedicated to it full-time.

Face-to-face PI Planning

Agile Release Trains typically plan their work during an Agile ceremony called mid-range or Quarterly Planning. Scaled Agile Inc. refers to this event as Program Increment or PI Planning. It is during PI Planning that the Agile Release Trains and Agile teams within the release trains align around their strategic priorities for the coming PI. These events are usually held in person, but there is also a case to be made for why virtual planning events can be just as effective.

Software to support Agile Release Trains during PI planning, whether in person or virtual.
Software to support Agile Release Trains during PI planning, whether in person or virtual.

Innovation and Planning (IP)

At the end of every Program Increment, Agile Release Trains hold an Innovation and Planning Iteration, or IP. These sessions provide a buffer between PIs as well as dedicated time for PI planning, innovation, continued education, and infrastructure work.

Inspect and Adapt (I&A)

Also following each Program Increment is an Inspect and Adapt, or I&A event. During the I&A event, the current state of the solution is demonstrated and evaluated. Teams and management use this time to identify improvement backlog items in a structured, problem-solving workshop.

Develop on Cadence, Release on Demand

Agile Release Trains develop in fixed cadences, as mentioned above, to help mitigate the variability inherent in building and developing new things. But in order to deliver value as quickly as possible, releasing is typically decoupled from the development cadence. As long as work passes governance and release criteria, ARTs can release bits of realized value at any time.

Agile Release Trains Roles

Operating Agile Release Trains requires active facilitation and familiarity with Agile. The following roles help to ensure the successful execution of the ART.

  • Scrum Master – Guides the team through meetings, processes and best practices and ceremonies on an ongoing basis.
  • Product Owner – Responsible for the value the Agile team produces.
  • Team Member – Make up the heart of Agile teams. They are cross-functional, collaborative workers focused on incremental delivery.
When it comes to structuring your Agile teams, think about it during the project planning stage. What kind of incremental support is needed during the product development phase? How do needs change after the product is available to customers? What ongoing sales and marketing support is required throughout the product life cycle? Answering these questions will help determine who to recruit for these roles.

Other roles that are often utilized by Agile Release Trains include Release Train Engineers (RTEs), System Architects / Engineers, Product Managers, and Business Owners.

  • Release Train Engineers (RTEs) – Responsible for facilitating program execution, removing impediments to flow, and risk and dependency management.
  • Product Manager – Owns the product vision and strategy; communicates with internal and external stakeholders to define and fulfill customer requirements.
  • System Architects / Engineers – Define and design the overall architecture of the system, operating at a birds-eye view to make sure that major system elements and interfaces work together seamlessly.
  • Business Owners – Key internal stakeholders of the ART; responsible for delivering the intended business outcomes of the ART.

Powering Your Agile Release Trains with the Right Tools

ARTs are the heartbeat of Agile at scale, taking the organization’s biggest priorities and delivering against them in an accelerated and predictable way. But delivering value like this requires practice, and it requires technology and solutions that ensure the teams stay aligned and coordinated all the way from strategy to delivery.

Leveraging the right technology and processes combined with visibility to make decisions enable the team to deliver as a fully functional release train.

Technology Considerations for Managing Agile Release Trains

Enterprise Kanban

Enterprise Kanban tools are invaluable for illustrating workflow, status, and context, by helping to visualize workflows, improve velocity, and unify teams for continuous improvement and timely delivery. By prioritizing, managing, and tracking work on digital Kanban boards, teams can understand the work that needs to be done and communicate with each other about the work in a single, shared view.

Scaling Agile successfully means not forcing teams to change the habits, work styles, and tools that keep them performing at such a high level. This is another area in which the right enterprise Kanban tool can help organizations practice Agile at scale.

Even if teams are working in a mix of Agile tools and configurations, they can coordinate their efforts with a single Kanban board for cross-team planning and collaboration.

Integrate enterprise Kanban with other application lifecycle management tools to scale Agile across Agile Release Trains.
Integrate enterprise Kanban with other application lifecycle management tools to scale Agile across Agile Release Trains.

Dependency Management

Teams can plan and coordinate across the ART with multiple, inter-connected boards that map epics to features and other key milestones. This helps Agile Release Trains to visualize, communicate, and manage dependencies between teams and teams of teams.

Quickly visualize dependencies to understand priorities for Agile Release Trains.
Quickly visualize dependencies to understand priorities for Agile Release Trains.

Enterprise Kanban boards can also be used to perform Program Increment (PI) Planning or Quarterly Planning easily. ART leadership can build virtual boards that mimic the whiteboards and stickies used for in-person PI Planning, giving teams a way to prioritize features based on size, capacity, velocity, and customer value metrics, all in one place – no duplicating efforts or wasted time re-writing features and stories. By simply dragging cards between lanes or boards, everyone using the board can prioritize the highest value epics first and flow those epics to the ARTs and teams.

Work Tool and Agile Methodology of Choice

It’s important to give teams the flexibility to continue to use the Agile execution tools they are familiar with or that are already tailored to support their processes. Whether teams use Atlassian Jira, Rally Software by Broadcom, Microsoft Azure DevOps, or Digital.ai (previously CollabNet VersionOne), the ideal enterprise Agile tool will allow Agile teams to integrate their tool of choice with an ART Kanban board with ease – enabling them to continue delivering value without disruption.

Within Agile Release Trains, allow teams to use any process – Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban, or others – to achieve continuous value delivery. Integrate with existing development tools and visualize all work at the ART level for a comprehensive view across your teams.

Data Analytics and Reporting

When choosing tools to enable your scaled Agile initiative, it’s also important to consider what metrics might be useful for measuring the effectiveness of your Agile Release Trains.

The right tools will foster continuous improvement by providing insights and analytics into delivery trends across the teams of teams and individual team levels. Make sure that the tools you choose to use to coordinate and execute your Agile Release Trains enable you to collect the Lean metrics your organization needs to track progress, measure success, and continue to scale Agile across the enterprise.

Flow metrics enable Agile Release Trains to determine how best to deliver work steadily and predictably.
Flow metrics enable Agile Release Trains to determine how best to deliver work steadily and predictably.
Speed metrics ensure work is delivered quickly by Agile Release Trains.
Speed metrics ensure work is delivered quickly by Agile Release Trains.
Efficiency metrics measure the difference between total WIP and the work that’s waiting in queues for Agile Release Trains.
Efficiency metrics measure the difference between total WIP and the work that’s waiting in queues for Agile Release Trains.

Implementations

Leveraging comprehensive implementation and coaching services can help get your teams of teams or Agile Release Trains up and running fast. Delivered remotely and / or onsite, Lean-Agile coaches can walk teams through Kanban basics and best practices, as well as Kanban board setup. Keep the momentum and value flowing with ongoing, cadence-based coaching and follow ups.

Conclusion

Enterprises who organize their Agile teams into Agile Release Trains experience greater return on their investment in both their digital and Agile transformations by:

  • Connecting business strategy to team-level delivery, ensuring what is delivered to the market directly impacts the bottom-line
  • Reducing team costs by limiting re-work, prioritizing high-value work first, and pivoting toward better business decisions
  • Maximizing and accelerating Agile team delivery by visualizing different work methodologies and processes for Kanban, Scrumban, and Scrum, in a single view
  • Fostering collaboration and teams of teams planning with a clear view of progress and cross-team dependencies across all Agile teams

Learn More

Planview’s Agile Program Management Solution Bundles give your Agile teams a way to visualize, plan, coordinate, and deliver your organization’s biggest initiatives quickly, effectively, and with clear visibility into the value delivered. To learn more, read our Agile Program Management data sheet.