You’re heading a cross-departmental software development project, charged with delivering a complex application on time and within budget. The pressure is on, and various teams need a systematic way to manage the ever-evolving requirements, ensure frequent releases, and maintain a high level of collaboration.

That’s why you need agile release trains (ARTs), an innovative approach that bridges the gap between large-scale software development and agile project management methodologies.

What’s an agile release train?

An ART is a team of teams working to complete a shared project. This is typically long-term work that involves cross-functional teamwork and broad expertise to successfully execute.

Picture an ART as a fleet of train cars moving along the product development process, with each train representing a distinct agile team. Each group works collaboratively within timeboxed iterations, churning out valuable product increments at the end of each iteration, known as a “program increment” (PI). This orchestrated effort enables rapid and consistent delivery of features, fostering adaptability to changing requirements and enhancing the end product's overall quality.

The ART method is a feature of the scaled agile framework (SAFe®), a set of organizational workflow approaches aimed at assisting agile development teams. Creating and managing ARTs is one way to help agile teams succeed. The ART structure does this by encouraging cross-communication and collaboration between otherwise distinct and often siloed departments, keeping all teams moving forward.

Through team PI planning, all teams can converge to discuss dependencies, priorities, and objectives for an upcoming iteration. This synchronization not only minimizes bottlenecks but also promotes transparent communication and cross-functional problem-solving.

What’s the role of the release train engineer?

The release train engineer (RTE) is what you might consider the train’s conductor. These engineers ensure trains work well together and follow SAFe processes. This typically involves extensive project-specific product knowledge and project management skills like task prioritization and delegation, effective communication, and the ability to motivate various team types. The RTE also acts as the Scrum Master for the entire project, focusing on getting each team to success.

6 key principles behind agile release trains

For various cross-departmental teams to effectively work together, they must agree with and respect certain values and priorities. Here are six common principles that bind ARTs:

  1. Customer value: An unyielding focus on delivering value to customers connects all teams involved and affects every task in the project.
  2. Fixed PI time, variable scope: While each PI timeline is rigid, the work involved in each increment can change as needed.
  3. Biweekly system increments: SAFe agile trains work in two-week timeboxes, delivering a new system increment each time.
  4. Innovation and planning (IP): SAFe ARTs must hold end-of-increment meetings to assess previous PIs and plan future ones.
  5. Inspect and adapt (I&A): ARTs also attend I&A events at the end of each increment to evaluate progress and determine what items they want to take from the backlog into the next PI.
  6. Develop on cadence, release on demand: This principle showcases an agile team’s care for customer value. ARTs stick to development cadences — clearly defined PIs — that follow customer demands. As ARTs develop features and new products, items release when it’s best for customers, the market, and the business. Product managers typically decide when to release products or features, setting PIs accordingly.

Agile release train roles and responsibilities

ARTs convincingly symbolize the adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” These trains combine diverse perspectives and expertise to create an unstoppable product development vehicle.

Here are some common roles you might find in an ART:

  • Customers/Users: These are the end-users receiving the product or service the ART develops.
  • Release train engineer: The train’s conductor, this leader coordinates all PI events, including sprint planning, IPs, and I&As.
  • Business owners: These are the most important internal stakeholders and are held accountable by external stakeholders for the development project’s outcome. They also tend to have the most “skin in the game.”
  • Scrum Master: When paired with the Scrum agile framework, the Scrum Master guides their team through meetings and teaches and implements ideal agile processes.
  • Agile teams: This includes every on-the-ground worker focused on task deliveries.
  • Product managers/Product owners: These teammates focus on a product or service’s market value and ensure launch is successful.

How to create and manage an agile release train: 5 steps

Ready to embrace the ART framework for effective, value-driven, and flexible collaboration? Here are five steps for creating and managing an ART.

1. Train all teams

If you haven’t already implemented Agile at Scale, start by embracing agile practices at every level of your business. This includes understanding agile principles, roles and responsibilities, and organizational structures.

Then, share this knowledge and what you’ve learned about ARTs with the entire team. Make sure this information is available to employees who will be involved in future ARTs, like product managers and systems teams.

Training yourself and your employees ensures everyone understands the value and reasoning behind implementing this new framework to encourage employee buy-in.

2. Conduct value stream mapping

Value stream mapping involves visualizing and improving upon every step of the product development process with a focus on delivering customer value. Value here means anything a customer might pay for or enjoy, like a new feature or quicker delivery. This process is essential for ART implementation as it promotes agile principles like prioritizing customer needs and continuously improving.

For every product development project, create a value stream map that illuminates the current execution process to determine weaker areas where you can offer more customer value. Under-utilized talent, unclear information, and delays are common weaknesses that affect how successful the final product is to end-users and clients.

3. Define roles and responsibilities

Within each ART, help project leaders delegate roles like RTEs and product owners. Initial training should teach everyone what these titles mean but have useful job descriptions on hand if folks need reminding.

4. Plan and execute PIs

Ensure all ART leaders know how to plan for PIs, which includes:

  • Prioritizing sprint backlogs
  • Running PI planning meetings
  • Hosting IPs and I&As
  • Working closely with all project managers to track task progress
  • Creating and following an external stakeholder update cadence
  • Adding team contributions to release train project progress docs

5. Review often

Check in with all ARTs to ensure this new method is going smoothly. You might schedule retrospectives with team leaders every few months or at the end of each project to gain feedback you can implement for future initiatives. And you could even chat with external stakeholders to make sure they enjoy this more agile and iterative approach to project work.

Agile release train best practices

Implementing organization-wide process changes is tricky. You must handle diverse perspectives and training on new communication cadences and workflows. But successfully integrating ARTs into your product development process isn’t impossible. Follow these tips to encourage success:

  • Share your reasoning: Asking employees to adjust current practices might cause frustration and avoidance. To encourage buy-in, clearly state why you want to make this change, backing your reasoning with persuasive data that supports your choice. This shows your team you’ve made a thoughtful decision and think this option has the company’s best interests at heart.
  • Offer support throughout the transition: Provide training workshops, mentorship, and Q&A meetings throughout this transition so employees feel well-supported and prepared to take on this change.
  • Celebrate successes: While agile frameworks focus on continuous improvement, only discussing challenges and improvement areas can be demotivating. Acknowledge every success — like the first completed ART-led project or a great PI planning session — to encourage and motivate your team.

Power your agile release train journey with Tempo’s tools

To kick-start your transition to the ART product development approach, try Tempo’s suite of project management tools. Plan work with Roadmunk and track progress with Structure. You can also use Jira-based Kanban board planning tools to create your value stream maps and monitor task times for more accurate insights into improvement areas.