Team Coaching Self-Selection (SAFe from the trenches)

September 29, 2021
by Tim Meyer, Agile Rising

Recently I was asked to work as a coach for multiple teams on a freshly relaunched ART at a large government agency. Due to the large number of teams on the ART, we had to decide which teams I should focus on first. How this decision was made might surprise you.

In some organizations, the managers above the teams choose which teams to work with first. This decision might be made by one manager or a group of managers, based on their understanding of the teams’ productivity. In other organizations, the Release Train Engineer (RTE) looks at the predictability metrics and assigns the coach to whichever team seems to need the most help. 

But this time, before relying on the management hierarchy to make this decision, we decided to look at the SAFe principles to see how they would apply.

The principles that stand out in this situation are #6 (Visualize and limit WIP) and #9 (Decentralize decision-making). Let’s look at how these principles manifest in this situation.

The ART has ten teams that all have their team meetings on the same cadence. If I tried to coach all the teams simultaneously, I would have a high level of Work in Process (WIP). Think of what happens when a team works on multiple features at once — nothing gets done very quickly.

To limit the number of teams I was working with at once (limit WIP), I needed to find a way to identify which teams I should start with.

This is where principle #9 comes into play. It is best for the people closest to the problem to make the decisions. So, who would have the most knowledge of the teams? In this situation, it is the Scrum Masters of the teams.

Utilizing these principles, we decided to hold a Team Coaching Self-Selection workshop to determine which teams I would engage with first.

In the workshop, we had each Scrum Master give a one-minute sales pitch on why their team needed help. Once that was done, each participant was given three votes to dot-vote on which teams had made the most persuasive pitches. Since no one was Scrum Master for three teams, this means that they each had to vote for at least one other team. 

At the end of the self-selection workshop, the Scrum Masters had chosen which teams I should start coaching first. 

A couple of unforeseen benefits came out of the workshop. The sales pitches made it apparent that several teams were having the same issues. The workshop also increased the transparency within the system (a core value in SAFe). 

The workshop led to some of the SMs talking about finding common ways to address team-level issues. (Alignment is another core value in SAFe).

SAFe, by definition, is a framework and does not offer specific guidance for every possible situation. It can’t, and it shouldn’t. What it does offer are core values and principles. When faced with a new situation, it can be natural to rely on previous habits. Before going down that road, look at the situation through the SAFe principles to see if a new way of working comes to mind.

Most of the time, you will find a better way to work.