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Common Anti-Patterns That Derail Release Trains

anti-Patterns That Derail Release Trains

As a release train engineer (RTE), you play an indispensable role in enabling multiple agile teams to deliver value quickly through well-coordinated release trains. However, even experienced RTEs can fall prey to common anti-patterns that derail efforts if they are not vigilant. Left unchecked, these missteps can profoundly impair program productivity, lead to dysfunction between teams, and tarnish your credibility as an effective guide.

This article aims to illuminate such anti-patterns that frequently obstruct RTEs from realizing their full potential. We will explore a diverse set of pitfalls – from dictatorial top-down management to lack of transparency and failure to address technical debt. By understanding these hazards and mindfully avoiding them, you can deftly steer release trains clear of dysfunction.

Awareness of these counterproductive patterns allows RTEs to course-correct early and uphold team empowerment, engineering excellence, priority alignment, and flow efficiency across programs. Your influence and daily example are vital forces that keep trains on track. By leading according to agile values versus regressing into old habits, you can fulfill your responsibility as an enabling coach across initiatives.

Anti-Patterns That Derail Release Trains

Lack of Prioritization

One of the most fundamental yet impactful missteps an RTE can make is failing to establish clear prioritization tiers and hierarchies across interdependent release trains.

Without explicit ranking of business priorities, teams waste endless hours locked in debates over whose requirements should take precedence when inevitable resource or time constraints arise. Ambiguity breeds frustration and stalls progress.

The RTE must work closely with product management and technology leaders early when forming trains to classify each as low, medium or high priority based on strategic objectives.

These priority designations should be made transparent and communicated consistently across the program. RTEs must reinforce priorities continually, not just set it and forget it. As business needs shift, so must train prioritization.

Program roadmaps should visually distinguish trains by their priority tiers. Teams must understand where their train falls in the hierarchy so decision making is anchored in that context.

By defining ironclad prioritization upfront, RTEs enable groups to stay focused and aligned. Teams can execute autonomously within their train knowing how trade-offs will be adjudicated.

Clarity of priorities minimizes conflict and keeps the full program efforts synchronized to maximum business value delivery.

Dictating Versus Directing

A common downfall for RTEs is sliding into an authoritative command-and-control style rather than embracing agile values of empowerment.

RTEs who dictate decisions without genuine collaboration quickly disenfranchise teams. It breeds resentment and apathy.

While RTEs certainly provide oversight and structure, prescribing solutions undermines team creativity. It deprives them of autonomy within the program guardrails.

Effective RTEs advise teams on constraints, risks, and priorities but allow groups to determine the optimal path. They guide through influence not mandate.

RTEs should actively involve cross-functional perspectives in key trade-off decisions versus handing down authoritative decrees.

Solutions far exceed what any one person can conceive when leveraging the collective wisdom of teams. RTEs must resist the urge to govern execution.

By directing through context and enabling framework versus dictating steps, RTEs inspire teams to solve challenges themselves. They coach teams to excel, not command them to comply.

Not Respecting Team Autonomy

A major pitfall for RTEs is micromanaging team execution, which disempowers groups and hinders agility.

Excessive control over how teams accomplish their goals demotivates members by eroding a sense of ownership.

RTEs should set necessary guardrails and expectations but allow teams autonomy on organizing workflows, tools, techniques etc.

They must resist the urge to prescribe solutions and instead provide advice only when asked by teams. Otherwise they risk undermining ingenuity.

Teams closest to the work have insights RTEs lack. Let their energy drive continuous improvement, not external oversight.

By empowering teams to self-organize and determine optimal paths, RTEs enable agility to flourish across the release train.

RTEs should be transparent on priorities, goals and constraints but not dictate play-by-play execution. Outcomes matter more than prescribed steps.

Respecting team wisdom unlocks ingenuity that overbearing control stifles. RTEs must trust teams to excel within aligned autonomy.

Poor Handoff Management

A notorious bottleneck for RTEs is inefficient handoffs between teams that stall program velocity.

When release trains have unclear interfaces, ambiguous acceptance criteria, and uncoordinated timelines, deliverables end up misaligned.

This causes lengthy delays as teams pass defects back and forth or dispute specifications. Progress halts amidst the confusion.

RTEs must facilitate the collaboration needed to establish explicit “done” checklists and entry/exit protocols between groups.

Clean handoffs require synchronizing roadmaps, managing dependencies, setting integration points, and specifying quality criteria upfront.

Without diligent coordination of milestones and transparent acceptance standards, teams offload work hastily causing rework downstream.

Establishing reliable end-to-end workflows is crucial for RTEs. Disciplined handoff hygiene prevents teams from passing the buck and improves program flow immensely.

Frequent demos and integration events also help align groups for seamless value delivery across train boundaries.

Ignoring Technical Debt

A huge yet avoidable mistake RTEs make is allowing teams to accumulate overwhelming technical debt in the name of speed.

When sprinting at pace to deliver features, quality can become an afterthought. But this sets programs up for slowdowns later from unstable foundations.

RTEs must mandate that teams implement robust engineering practices like test automation, code reviews, refactoring budgets, and static analysis.

Time must be reserved each sprint for paying down technical debt before it compounds. RTEs should coach teams to prioritize code health.

Left unchecked, technical debt from poor coding quality, architecture erosion, and testing gaps slows agility considerably over time.

RTEs must analyze code quality trends and failed deployments to identify areas of accruing debt. Address these promptly before they require rewrite.

Building in architectural spikes and DevOps upgrades provides capacity for improving engineering excellence and stability.

While responding to change is important, technical rigor provides the resilience needed for sustained outcomes. RTEs must uphold both speed and quality.

Neglecting sound engineering practices for perceived short-term gains backfires over the long-term. RTEs must keep teams accountable to quality.

Lack of Transparency

A surefire way for RTEs to erode trust is by withholding information, obscuring risks, and limiting exposure into program challenges.

Transparency is the lifeblood of agile. Lack of openness breeds resentment, duplication of effort, and surprises that derail programs.

RTEs must resist the urge to shield teams or sugarcoat status to avoid facing hard truths. Radical candor is required, even when it highlights deficiencies.

Default to overcommunicating on all dimensions of the program – positive milestones, negative risks, and work in progress. Illuminate don’t obscure.

Foster a speak-up culture where teams openly discuss impediments, defects, and resourcing needs without fear of judgment.

Create transparency rhythms through status reporting, open stand-ups, obstacle backlogs, and documented action item tracking.

Promote visibility tools like boards, dashboards, and radiators that broadcast real-time program information to all stakeholders.

Maximum transparency allows the collective wisdom of teams to surface the best solutions when challenges inevitably arise. RTEs must lead by open example.

Lack of transparency cripples engagement. RTEs should shine light on all aspects of the release train – sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Not Establishing Done Criteria

A common source of ambiguity for teams is when RTEs fail to clearly define “done” criteria for user stories and features.

Without precise, measurable definitions of done, teams are left guessing if work meets releasable quality standards.

RTEs must require teams to specify detailed done checklists for stories that objectively indicate ready-to-ship state.

Done criteria should encompass aspects like:

  • Code reviewed and refactored
  • Unit tested with sufficient coverage
  • End-to-end flows demonstrated
  • Performance and security vetted
  • Product owner acceptance
  • UX reviewed
  • Release documentation completed

Teams must align on common definitions of done at the program level to prevent gaps between group standards.

RTEs should audit periodically to ensure teams adhere to unambiguous done checklists for all work items. No exceptions can be made.

Establishing ironclad done criteria reduces uncertainty on progress and instills a shared responsibility for quality. RTEs must continually reinforce its importance.

Without objective done definitions, delivery delays and defects persist. RTEs set programs up for success by mandating meticulous done diligence.

Too Much Multitasking

An anti-pattern that hampers productivity is allowing team members to spread themselves too thin across competing priorities.

When individuals juggle multiple disjointed tasks without dedicated focus, overall throughput slows as efforts fracture.

RTEs must guard against uncoordinated context switching that results from unclear priorities or overallocation of resources.

They should optimize assignments by aligning capacity to the priorities defined for each train and proactively balancing workloads.

Resist pulling top contributors into too many initiatives. This often leaves them overburdened, increasing risk of defects and burnout.

Protect team focus by insulating members from extraneous distractions and ancillary requests outside of train objectives.

RTEs should coach people to prioritize based on business value when demands conflict. Saying no is okay.

Task switching has accumulating costs. RTEs must streamline work intake and staffing to prevent fragmented efforts that hinder flow.

Laser focused execution accelerates results. RTEs must eliminate multitasking waste through priority and capacity planning.

Ignoring Bottlenecks

A major pitfall for RTEs is failing to recognize bottlenecks that restrict overall program throughput and velocity.

Common constraint points include dependencies on other teams, insufficient staffing, poor tooling, and legacy process issues.

But when RTEs are heads-down or not sufficiently data-driven, they miss symptoms of emerging upstream chokepoints.

RTEs must continually probe to uncover constraints like:

  • Shared services teams overload
  • Architectural shortcomings
  • Test environment deficits
  • Product owner availability
  • Legacy release processes

Left unaddressed, these impediments accumulate causing cascading delays even though engineering capacity seems sufficient.

By diving into metrics like cycle times, work in progress trends, and activity ratios, RTEs can spotlight problem areas.

Then they can lead root cause analysis and implement countermeasures like balancing capacity, refining processes, or redesigning architectures.

RTEs should inspect systems closely, not just execute. Anticipating bottlenecks before they disrupt flow is imperative.

Underutilizing Enablers

A common pitfall is RTEs not sufficiently leveraging ancillary teams, specialists, and shared services to maximize program productivity.

While engineers build features, it is enabling roles like tools developers, architects, automation engineers that amplify their impact.

But overloaded enablers often become bottlenecks when RTEs underutilize their skills to streamline delivery.

RTEs must evaluate options to scale the bandwidth of enablers by:

  • Identifying repetitive tasks to automate
  • Proactively training teams on self-service
  • Adding support capacity where overstretched
  • Preventing ad-hoc diversion of enablement resources

Enablers should focus on multiplier activities like:

  • Authoring playbooks and design systems
  • Building pipelines and test automation
  • Tool integrations and upgrades
  • Establishing architectures

RTEs must protect and grow capacity of specialists to platform agile teams for success. Their force multiplication powers velocity.

Neglecting key enablers in the ecosystem hampers results. RTEs should optimize allocation of enabling roles for the greater program good.


The role of the RTE is vital yet vulnerable to missteps that can inadvertently derail program success. By understanding hazards like lack of prioritization, micromanagement, poor handoffs, and more, RTEs can consciously avoid these pitfalls.

Awareness is the first line of defense. RTEs must be introspective, welcome feedback, and stay committed to developing their craft through mentorship and training.

No RTE is impervious to slip-ups, but those who humbly learn from errors position themselves to excel. The most effective RTEs evolve their leadership style constantly.

While avoiding hazards is crucial, it is equally important that RTEs exemplify agile values in their words and deeds daily. Leading by inspired example sustains engagement even amidst turbulence.

By bridging silos, uplifting teams, delivering value predictably, and embracing transparency, RTEs can fulfill their responsibility as servant leaders across initiatives.

Steering release trains is challenging but immensely rewarding when done in partnership with teams. Together, avoid the hazards and unleash the highest potential of empowered agile trains aligned to business goals. Onward.

Want to Become an RTE? Enroll in our 3-day Release Train Engineer certification program and become a certified RTE.

Note: LeanWisdom is a Accredited Gold Partner and training provider for Scaled Agile, Inc.