The software development paradigm called the Agile Release Train (introduced in Scaling Software Agility and better elaborated in Agile Software Requirements) is being put to effective use in a number of larger agile, software enterprises. It is often put in place between six months and a year after the team-level agile transformation. (That’s when the entropy and local optimization of all that team-level empowerment can become an impediment of its own).
As I’ve described, the loftier goals of the ART are to “align teams to a common mission” and “institutionalize product development flow.” What that translates to is “get all the teams pulling in the same direction and keep them there” and “implement development practices based on synchronization and cadence (uber-sprinting) that bring the same agile content management and continuous system integration discipline to the program as you have done with the teams”.
While conceptually, it’s not that complex a process, there are a number of misconceptions about the train that require clarification.
The first is the behavior implied by the name Agile Release Train. As illustrated in the Scaled Agile Framework Big Picture graphic below, development occurs on a fixed cadence of about 8-12 weeks (often 4 dev sprints plus a hardening sprint if applicable).
Each larger interval results in a product or full system release, or Potentially Shippable Increment. (Note: of course, our goal is to have PSI’s every darn day, but in the larger program, that’s not a practical reality). Though the PSI cadence is highlighted, the intent is that teams are free to release software at any time the market demands it, or whenever it benefits the enterprise to do so. However, since the name is “Release Train”, and the cadence and the Scaled Agile Framework Graphic are overloaded, some assume that you can and must release only on the fixed time boundaries. That can create some unwarranted resistance to adoption of the train. Comments like “we can’t adopt ART because our customers don’t want releases that often” or “we can’t adopt the train because we have to release more often than the train cadence” are not uncommon.
But you can and should synchronize development. Since this is a common misunderstanding about the train, I typically use the graphic below to illustrate the conceptual firewall between development cadence and release cycles.
To summarize from the graphic:
1) Development occurs in constant length intervals, each characterized by a plan-commit-execute-demo-retrospect model with forced asset synchronization at the two-week sprint cadence synch points.
2) Any team, or the entire program,is free to release any product, component, or system to anyone whenever they want, subject only to the program/enterprises release quality and governance criteria.
In other words, Develop Synchronously, Release Whenever!
Next post: The Agile Release Train as an agile practice fractal above the teams.