Unlocking the Inner Coach in an RTE

by Tim Schwamb, Sr. Agile Transformation Consultant, RTE

Have you been a Release Train Engineer (RTE) for a little while now and wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into?  Feel like you were thrust into the role without the guidance of how to succeed?  Like this is one hard, thankless job as just an administrative cog in the ART machine?  Or maybe that your ART just isn’t making the improvements you (and everyone else) wants to see?  Feel like you’re in the dark just feeling your way toward your destination?  I see you.  There is hope!  RTE is one of the most critical roles on the Agile Release Train (ART) – and it can be one of the most rewarding!  With just a few strategically-placed lights, the path ahead suddenly seems much clearer and much less daunting.

Organizations first starting their Agile journey often appoint an RTE with little understanding of what the RTE role is all about.  Consequently, many are told something like, “We need you to facilitate PI Planning and the Coach Sync/Scrum of Scrums to ensure the Teams plan out the next three months and then stay on track with the plan.”  That makes for a pretty small box to stay within with very little to challenge you to grow.  It also likely hinders growth within the ART as a whole.  

The reality is that the role of the RTE is so much more, as the Figure below shows.  In fact, facilitation is just one small part of what we need an RTE to be.  We need thinking, creative, driven professionals that understand the Agile principles and help their ARTs relentlessly pursue better products, better processes, and higher technical and professional competence.  Maybe you’re not sure if you’re really allowed to go beyond the bounds you’ve always known or not.  If that’s you, then hear this:  I give you permission!  Take responsibility for the ART’s Agile journey.  Unleash the Agile coach inside you!  

A diagram of a release train engineer

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If you’re feeling unsure about taking your next few steps, I can relate.  Many years ago, when I was first starting flight training, I went out with my instructor to pre-flight the aircraft.  Previously, he had shown all of us how to do each task on the pre-flight checklist, walking us through it to ensure we knew how to do it correctly.  This particular time, I was still hesitating as I went through the steps, looking up at my instructor before I did anything, to make sure I didn’t do anything incorrectly.  Suddenly, he looked at me and said, “Are you going to do this, or do you need me to?  Show me you know what you’re doing!”  It was right then that I realized my instructor was looking for me to build his confidence by sharing all of the risk-reduction activities I had done to ensure my plane would fly safely.  To be sure, I was nervous about doing something wrong, but I also had no doubt that if I did do something wrong, my instructor would correct me.  As I worked through my list of pre-flight checklist items with more confidence, my instructor asked me a few questions, clarified a point or two, and shared suggestions to help me understand what I was doing on a deeper level.  This gave me the freedom to experiment, try, evaluate, adjust, and improve the next time I had to ensure my plane was flight-ready.  Similarly, as an RTE, guiding your teams through the relentless improvement journey takes experimentation, trying, evaluating, adjusting, and improving.  So I say again:  I give you permission to take charge and own the ART’s Agile journey!

What does that mean, though?  If we refer back to the Figure, it means you are the ART’s Agile coach!  Own its Agile journey!  Think back to that SAFe course you took that talked about what makes an Agile journey successful (if it was the RTE or SPC course, even better!).  Think to yourself, “If I were going to coach the ART, what advice would I give?  What improvements would I implement?  And why?”  In asking yourself these questions, keep in mind SAFe Principle #2:  Apply systems thinking.  That means take a step back and think about the ART holistically.  What’s going well that you need to reinforce?  What are one or two key improvements that you see that would have noticeable effects?  Start thinking like an executive and understand the strategic goals of the organization.  What can you do to facilitate (greater) connection or focus between the strategic goals of the organization and the work that’s happening on the ART?

I recently worked with an RTE that seemed stuck in the mundane rut of keeping the wheels turning without much focus on where the Train was headed.  After just a little bit of coaching from the Agile Rising coaching team, it was as if the shackles had been removed.  Suddenly, she was much more aggressive on asking the questions and providing the guidance that previously my colleague and I had done as the “official” Agile coaches.  It was remarkable!

At this point you may be thinking that you just don’t know enough to be the coach for the ART.  Let me let you in on a little secret:  I didn’t either in my first coaching engagement over five years ago.  I just rode that wave of “fake it til you make it” and rode it a long way!  But I was also very aware of what I didn’t know, so I studied hard.  I never wanted to be in a position where I just made something up that wound up being unsound advice.  I committed myself to learning.  At first, I would just go look up information on the SAFe framework site and circle back with a more complete answer than I originally gave.  I had been encouraged in classes to also do some professional reading, but I didn’t want to take away from my personal time at home, so I put it off for a long time.  When I finally did start some professional reading about three years ago (I started with The Phoenix Project), I was amazed at how much it improved my coaching.  Suddenly it wasn’t just my own knowledge based on reading the SAFe framework articles.  I now was deepening that with a wealth of other perspectives, especially in areas I was weak in, like DevOps and Lean Manufacturing.  If you’ve been putting off any outside professional development, start now.  Invest in your own growth.  Be the catalyst for a continuous learning culture on your ART.  You won’t regret it.  If you don’t know where to start, two outstanding and very readable books are Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard and The Phoenix Project.

Additionally, find a mentor.  Maybe that’s one of the “official” Agile coaches in your organization, or maybe that’s someone you know through your professional network, or an experienced SPC from a SAFe Gold SPCT Partner.  Some of the best growth I’ve experienced as a coach was in talking through challenges and exchanging ideas through both Coaching CoPs and one-on-one mentoring.  

In one government organization I worked with, the people assigned the Business Owner role didn’t seem to be a good fit based on their organizational relationship within the larger organization, but we were struggling to identify who might be better placed.  My initial conversation with an SPCT mentor of mine on the role of the Business Owner was enlightening.  I had one perspective on this critical role, but she challenged me to think differently.  After reflecting on this conversation, I had a fresh perspective, and together we generated some new ideas on how to approach identifying Business Owners with the organization’s leadership given the unique organizational model.  That discussion and others like it challenged me to think deeper, beyond what I already knew.  I, in turn, have taken the opportunity to have similar conversations with coaches, RTEs, and Scrum Masters I have mentored – to help them grow, to think deeper, to help them become coaches in their own right.  That leads me to the last point.

One part of coaching that you can’t ignore is creating the next generation.  Whether you stay an RTE for many years or move on to a different Agile role, the bottom line is that you won’t be there forever.  That means that you need to pass on what you know to those coming after you.  Mentor your Scrum Masters, your Product Owners, your troika – even your Business Owners.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to set up a formal relationship with each one with a let-me-teach-you-about-Agile approach.  That likely won’t go over well.  Instead, model the characteristics of a Lean-Agile leader.  Engage them.  Listen to them.  Be open and approachable.  Understand what their challenges are.  Offer advice grounded in Agile principles.  Ask powerful questions that challenge them to grow themselves.  That can happen in both one-on-one settings and in groups.  Over time, you’ll become the person they seek out for advice.  Then when it’s time for you to move on – whenever that is – you will have several people that could easily step in to take your place.  Not only that, just like David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around, you will have created an ART full of thinking, proactive, creative, passionate people that are actively working to deliver the best solutions to customer problems.

Taking that first step toward coaching the ART can seem daunting.  But it doesn’t have to be.  First, embrace your role as coach.  Second, just as our ARTs develop incrementally, so should you.  Start with small steps and limit your WIP, such as starting a professional development book and challenging your ART to implement one needed improvement.  Then don’t give up.  Reflect, get feedback, adjust, and continue growing yourself, your ART, and the people on it.  It won’t be long before you see the change in yourself and those you work with.