Should All Agile Teams in SAFe Release Trains Work “…the same way?” Should They Be Expected To?

I’ve been engaged in a dialogue via LinkedIn messaging with a new Product Owner assigned to three Scrum teams within the same Agile Release Train (ART.) Her latest question focused on whether she (or they) should expect the three teams to operate identically (and should she interact with them the same way) or should each team be allowed to evolve on its own. Great question! We discussed the importance of language a bit and then I shared some examples of why teams should be allowed to evolve versus be forced into cookie cutter patterns.

“Fluid” was her initial description for how she could adjust to different team working patterns. I suggested she use “adaptive.” I’ve learned (scars visible) that words matter to our audience especially when we’re introducing or encouraging new principles, practices and/or tools. When “management” hears “fluid” they could conclude we’re not “in control” (even through we are not in control, but management consciousness and commitment are key.) “Fluid situation” usually means the outcome is unpredictable.

Agile is (all) about becoming increasingly predictive (not absolutely predictive like some who describe Waterfall ascribe to that practice.) We owe our sponsors, customers and ourselves an effort to improve our predicability: Agile was a response to our industry’s poor predictive practices (at the time, 50-80% of “IT” projects were considered failures. Frankly, it’s still around 50%.)

We don’t want to have a one-size-fits-all set of practices (especially) as each team merits finding it’s own rhythm and personality. (I’m not saying teams stop running Retrospectives or eliminate Sprint Demos. I’m saying that they merit doing these their own way that meets customer expectations. Teams members are encouraged to attend other teams’ activities to see other forms of the same practice in use. There are many permutations of the Scrum practices, for example, to draw from.)

Identical Practice or Not?

  • Agile, Scrum  and SAFe Principles? Yes. How they are adapted belongs to each team. Teams are encouraged to discuss these (at least during PI Planning; not just Leads, Coaches and Management. Whole Teams.)
  • Team Working Agreements? No. Each team merits their own (shared with other teams so accelerated learning and adaptation occur.) These will evolve (and should) as teams improve their practices and their understanding of what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, themselves and their colleagues and customers.
  • Definitions of Done? No and Kind-of. Each team should be allowed to develop their own at the outset and evolve per team (and be shared, preferably on a wiki, to accelerate learning.) Over time, these will “normalize” to be near identical per team but likely not 100% identical (nor should they be forced to be identical.) The discussions about why Team A is doing ____ and Team B isn’t are key learning opportunities for whole teams.)

We don’t want zombie teams nor do we want to encourage those outside the ART to expect our teams to look and behave identically.

Greg Tutunjian

Greg Tutunjian is a leadership and performance coach specializing in team-centric innovation. Greg is a former software and systems engineer, technical program manager and director, and now advisor to organizations ranging from small and medium-sized software product and service companies to Fortune 10 multinationals.