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How to Manage Multiple Agile Release Trains?

manage multiple agile release trains

For many organizations adopting agile methodologies at scale, it is increasingly common for release train engineers (RTEs) to oversee multiple concurrent agile release trains simultaneously. While managing multiple agile release trains can be intensely rewarding, it also presents unique challenges around prioritization, capacity planning, synchronization, risk management, and more.

Juggling the demands of multiple business priorities and stakeholder groups is no easy feat. The complexity of guiding several agile trains at once requires masterful orchestration, organization, and stakeholder management skills from RTEs.

This article aims to provide helpful tips and best practices for RTEs thrust into the role of managing multiple agile release trains. We will discuss how to navigate key aspects like defining priority hierarchies, balancing team capacity, synchronizing schedules, enforcing train autonomy, tracking health, and more.

Whether overseeing two trains or eight, these practices allow RTEs to effectively coordinate across programs, maximize value delivery, and avoid common pitfalls. The multifaceted nature of the RTE role evolves to new heights through the challenges of guiding multiple release trains to harmonize.

Defining Clear Hierarchies

When overseeing multiple agile release trains, one of the most critical steps an RTE must take early on is to define unambiguous prioritization tiers and hierarchies amongst the trains.

Work closely with business leaders and product owners to classify each train as primary/key/essential or secondary/supporting. Factors like strategic objectives, revenue targets, customer needs, and marketing timelines should drive these priority designations.

Communicate the prioritization tiers clearly to all teams and stakeholders. Document it visually on the program roadmap so there is no confusion which trains take precedence when demands conflict.

Update stakeholders regularly if any shifts in priority occur over time based on new company objectives. Transparency eliminates ambiguity around which train’s needs are served first when tough prioritization trade-offs arise.

Establishing clear hierarchies empowers teams to focus and make smart autonomous decisions, rather than constantly checking back for direction. It also minimizes frustrations when shared resources need to be temporarily directed away towards a higher priority train.

With well-defined tiers set by the business, RTEs can then make structural process decisions to properly segment team capacity, streamline governance, and support execution for each train accordingly.

Balancing Team Capacity

Once priority tiers are defined, the RTE must thoughtfully allocate team capacity across the release trains. Strive to segment team bandwidth appropriately based on the hierarchies.

For trains designated as top-priority, ensure they are staffed with sufficient engineers, designers, product managers, and resources to deliver on committed timelines. Avoid stretching these teams too thin by over-allocating them to other trains.

For secondary/supporting trains, prudently apportion segments of capacity while being careful not to starve these efforts. Scrutinize shared dependencies that may be bottlenecks like ops, architecture, security, etc. and scale their bandwidth accordingly.

Resist the urge to spread teams equally. Skew capacity allocation towards higher value trains first. Ensure teams are not overcommitted across too many initiatives. Watch for burnout.

Establish transparent capacity models and radiators that clearly signal team assignments across trains. Optimize capacity as priorities evolve. Frequently sync with managers on bandwidth and headcount needs per train.

Balancing capacity takes diligence, communication, and collaboration between the RTE and functional managers. But done right, it enables trains to have the focus and resources to deliver according to priority.

Staggering Cadences

When managing multiple concurrent release trains, look for opportunities to intentionally stagger the sprint cadences across teams.

For example, Train A teams could sprint from Monday to Friday. Train B teams could sprint from Wednesday to Tuesday. And Train C from Friday to Thursday.

This staggered sprint cadence creates beneficial buffers for shared resources like ops staff, IT, UX designers, architecture, security reviews, etc. It reduces overlap demand and minimizes resource contention.

With staggered sprints, these shared resources can focus more consistently on one train’s needs during a sprint rather than context switch. It also provides necessary lead times for hand offs between trains.

For example, if Train A relies on a middleware component from Train B, staggering allows Train B to finalize that component within their sprint before Train A’s integration sprint starts.

Look for offset opportunities in planning rituals like retros, demos, planning as well. Staggered start dates help regulate flow through common program processes and systems.

There may be some upfront complexity in aligning staggered sprint start dates across trains. But once established, it can greatly reduce congestion and coordination challenges for shared resources.

Synchronizing Roadmaps

Managing dependencies across agile release trains requires careful synchronization of roadmaps and launch timelines. As the RTE, work closely with product management and engineering leads to fully understand schedule interdependencies.

Map out key milestones for each train and identify integration points early. Highlight sync points where trains must come together such as end-to-end testing, UAT, or go-lives. Build lead times into delivery schedules to accommodate hand-offs.

Clearly indicate how milestones align across train roadmaps. Look for conflicting events like competing production launches or shared freeze periods. Shift timelines where possible to prevent collisions.

Establish open communication channels between trains on development status and timeline changes. Make roadmap review a standing agenda item in program level sync meetings.

Optimizing program velocity requires proactive roadmap synchronization. Treat schedules as early hypotheses and adjust cooperatively as learning unfolds. RTEs play an integral role in maintaining harmony between train timelines and shared milestones.

Keeping product, engineering, and business leaders lockstep on launch goals maximizes predictability and minimizes last minute surprises. Aligning roadmaps early prevents derailments.

Enforcing Train Autonomy

When managing multiple agile release trains, it can be tempting for teams to frequently shift capacity between efforts or over-rely on shared resources. As the RTE, establishing train autonomy is key for focus.

Clearly define the scope and goals for each train and empower teams to operate as independently as possible. Discourage constantly borrowing resources back and forth between teams.

Implement clear interfaces and API contracts between trains. Guide teams to interact through defined integration points rather than highly coupled collaboration.

Reduce cross-train meetings that distract from train commitments. Limit teams taking on peripheral requests outside their train unless deemed high priority.

Coach teams to say “no” to out of scope work that detracts from their train results. Establish with leadership that train objectives take precedence when conflicts arise.

Occasional flexibility across train boundaries is healthy, but excessive churn leads to fractured focus. RTEs must reinforce teams to stay true to train deliverables first before stretching across initiatives.

Enforcing train autonomy empowers teams to march towards committed objectives versus being pulled in too many directions. Keep trains aligned but independent to sustain team productivity.

Automating Reporting

When juggling multiple release trains, manually compiling status reports and metrics can become burdensome. RTEs should aim to automate reporting as much as possible.

Implement centralized program dashboards that aggregate status from different trains through automated roll-ups. Integrate key metrics like velocity, defect rates, risk metrics, and test pass rates.

Configure release trains to update Story maps, feature burn-downs, risk registers, and other radiators consistently so data remains real-time. Automate key reports to compile routinely.

Evaluate PM software suites that allow aggregating data from multiple trains and visualize program health holistically. Look for automation capabilities.

Automated reporting reduces the disruption of constant verbal/manual status exchanges. RTEs can focus less on compiling updates and more on proactive program management.

Establish trust in reports accuracy so leadership relies on systems versus pulling RTEs into frequent one-off inquiries. Cultivate a data-driven management culture.

For a manageable view across release trains, dashboard automation is invaluable. The RTE maintains the big picture by configuring systems to compile the crucial program metrics reliably and efficiently.

Watching Load and Morale

When teams juggle multiple release trains, it often leads to increased nights/weekends work to meet deadlines on both efforts. The risk of burnout and low morale heightens substantially.

As the RTE, keep a meticulous eye on team bandwidth and energy levels across the trains. Monitor for signs of fatigue setting in like lower velocity, increased defect rates, or frustration during stand-ups.

Make load leveling and sustainability a priority, even if it means sliding less critical deadlines. Implement programmed recharge periods between intensive sprints to alleviate stress.

Encourage teams to take regular PTO between sprints to rejuvenate. Be fanatical about not letting people skip vacations, even if they want to power through. Mandatory time off is essential.

Watch for imbalance between different roles like developers, QA engineers, product managers, etc. Ensure no single role is disproportionately taxed across trains.

Add sprints dedicated to refactoring technical debt, upgrading tools, or improving test automation. These provide relief from new feature work and renew energy.

Intervene quickly if teams show prolonged signs of exhaustion, cynicism or disengagement. Fatigue makes people susceptible to burnout and emotional detachment.

RTEs must be hyper vigilant to team morale indicators and not hesitate to course correct if load becomes unhealthy. It is better to replan wisely than drive teams to complete exhaustion.

With careful load balancing, morale maintenance, and sustainability practices, RTEs can manage multiple trains without compromising team health and resilience long term.

Celebrate Small Wins

When coordinating multiple release trains, it’s easy for RTEs to stay focused only on the biggest achievements or priority train results. But celebrating small wins across all trains is vital for motivation.

Make it a habit to actively recognize positive results and milestones delivered by teams, even if they are not on your “primary” train. Acknowledge delivery of features, releases, prototypes, or upgrades.

Call out key contributors and top performers who delivered value through difficult work. Recognition reminds people their efforts matter, even on lower priority trains.

Celebrate testing milestones, mitigation of major risks, infrastructure upgrades, automation successes etc. that may not be big features but demonstrate progress.

Send notes of praise to teams when they put in extra effort, collaborate exceptionally, or deliver creative solutions. Recognition energizes teams to maintain engagement.

Set aside time for social interactions across trains like success celebrations, informal chats over meals, and team building activities. This fosters connection.

RTEs should strive to exemplify that no train’s work is inconsequential, no matter where it falls in priority tiers. Appreciate all progress made.

Rewarding small milestones provides positive reinforcement that uplifts morale across multiple trains. As leaders, RTEs set the culture tone through consistent acts of recognition.

Final Words

The complexity of managing several concurrent agile release trains is immense, but surmountable. By defining clear hierarchies, segmenting team capacity, staggering cadences, automating reporting, and more, RTEs can maintain control.

The keys are open communication, rigorous organization, and coordinating as proactively as possible. RTEs must also remain vigilant to team morale and overload risks inherent with juggling multiple trains.

There will always be challenges around priorities, deadlines, and shared resources. But establishing the right structural processes and sustainable working rhythms makes all the difference.

With diligence, collaboration, and a keen eye for risks, RTEs can successfully orchestrate multiple release trains to harmonize and achieve enterprise goals. The multiplication of trains does not need to diminish agility.

While demanding, the breadth of exposure and chance to enable large-scale change makes leading multiple release trains highly rewarding. There are immense lessons to be learned along the way.

In time, RTEs build the experience and instincts needed to navigate escalating complexity. Mastering this multifaceted role allows RTEs to truly transform how organizations deliver value at scale.

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