An Agile program is challenging:
- Business wants to achieve results quickly
- Management wants to have a good view of progress and reduce costs
- Teams (projects) must work together
- Teams are self-organizing
Good communication is needed to ensure that all those parties work together efficiently.
How do you approach that and keep an overview?
How do you follow up programs ?
SAFe® (Scaled Agile Framework) proposes the use of an Art-Sync meeting.
What is an Art Sync?
The Agile Release Train meeting (Art-Sync) helps to follow up the progress of the program and to solve important problems (impediments).
The following is handled in this meeting:
- Global progress on objectives and features
- Risks and issues that need to be escalated to other teams or to the program level
- Status on dependencies with other teams
Who is present in this meeting, and for what reason?
- The Program Manager (sometimes also called ‘Release Train Engineer’ or ‘Delivery Lead’) chairs the meeting.
- The Product Owners and Scrum Masters present the progress of their team (project) and escalate any problems.
- The Product Managers (sometimes also called Feature Managers) are present to set priorities for the overall program and find solutions for problems.
Why not a separate Scrum-Of-Scrums and PO-Sync?
Some companies don’t have an Art Sync. They hold separate Scrum-Of-Scrums and PO-Sync meetings:
- The Scrum Masters and Program Manager meet for the Scrum-Of-Scrums. It is mainly an IT meeting.
- The Product Owners and Product Manager are present in the PO-Sync. That is mainly a Business meeting
These separate meetings are not efficient for the follow-up and management of the program:
Primary, because each problem is then discussed separately in those two meetings. And then you need another third meeting to consolidate.
Secondly, because the solutions found are sub-optimal. The Scrum Master is the most suitable person for changes in operation, and the Product Owner for replanning according to priorities. You need both roles to properly address the issues.
The Art Sync completely replaces the Scrum Of Scrums, and the PO Sync mostly. You may want to organize a separate PO-Sync to prepare the content of the planning for the next quarter.
Keep the Art-Sync weekly
In the meeting you want to actively follow up and tackle problems.
This requires a weekly meeting.
In the meeting, each team briefly explains the progress, and raises issues that need to be solved at program level. This is for example:
- A feature that has a delay
- A dependency that risks being missed
- A team member that leaves the organization.
Art Sync – best practices
Use a meet-after and offline topics board
An Art-Sync meeting with all Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Product Managers and Program Manager within a program easily consists of 20 people.
You don’t want to discuss every problem in detail in the large group.
This requires strong moderation, certainly the first few times.
I use a meet-after & offline topics board technique during the Art Sync, and that technique works as follows:
- Divide a large piece of paper into two pieces:
- The first part is for Meet-after topics : these are important topics that require a large proportion of those people present. This includes urgent topics. Meet-after topics are discussed one by one immediately at the end of the meeting.
- The second part is for Offline topics : these are topics that are important and that can be discussed with a small proportion of those persons present. They will be handled after the meeting for next week’s Art Sync.
- Timebox the time for each team (e.g. 3 minutes). If the discussion becomes too long, the point will be designated as a meet-after or offline topic. Write it on a Post-It and stick it on the board. An owner is indicated for offline topics.
- Members of the meeting may also indicate if a discussion is taking too long and should be discussed separately. Agree on a gesture for this. For one customer the gesture was simply raising the hand, for another customer an ‘Agile Card’ was raised.
- At the end of the meeting, determine who should be after for the meet-after.
- Discuss the meet-after topics one by one, and take minutes of the decisions and actions . This is possible on an intranet page, for example.
- After the meeting, send the minutes to the participants.
A first Art-Sync, including meet-after, can easily take 3 hours.
After a few times it takes about an hour.
For the first Art-Sync’s and meet-afters I reserve a timeslot of 3 hours in the agendas. Once the raft goes I still reserve 2 hours (so there is always room for important agenda items in meet-after).
Take Lean & Agile decisions
In the Art Sync meet-after, difficult problems are discussed that cannot be solved by one team alone.
Use the SAFe / Lean-Agile principles to tackle the problems.
Here are some principles that I, as a moderator, trigger via the following questions:
- Build incrementally, step by step. What is the first step we can take for the business? What is the Minimal Viable Product (MVP)?
- Learn continuously, try things out. What is safe enough to try and good enough for now?
- View the priorities across the entire program. What is the best overall for the business? How can teams help each other? “Not in my scope” is a taboo for a team within Agile. Teams help each other. What work can be moved from teams that are bottlenecks to other teams?
- Finish work before starting work on new items. Minimize the “Work In Progress” (WIP). Do we have enough focus? What do we have to finish before we tackle something new?
- Reduce lead time. How can we speed up the process? What are bottlenecks? How can we tackle it?
- Be open to change. It makes an organization more competitive. Are we open enough for change? Are we not rusting or over-planning?
- Build and decide ‘Just in time’. Use insights that increase over time. What do we have to build or decide now? What is possible later?
- Decentralize decisions as much as possible. Central decisions limit the possibilities for teams to develop. Can teams decide themselves?
Follow up on open actions and offline topics
Suppose you have made good decisions, defined actions and communicated them.
Nice, but is it enough? No.
An unfollowed action may have no result, meaning that the meeting was a waste of time.
Actively follow up actions, and start the Art Sync with the status of last week’s actions.
Art Sync tooling and reporting
What do you mean Agile reporting?
Wait a second …
From Lean & Agile, every form of reporting is ‘waste’ that you want to remove, right?
“Working software is the best form of reporting” is indeed an Agile value. You want to promote communication between people, and limit tools & processes to what is strictly necessary.
Nevertheless, a mature company is managed by a Board of Directors and Executive Committee. Those persons must have a correct flow of information.
If your management does not provide enough information, they risk making incorrect decisions and even delaying an entire Agile transformation.
And not only management needs communication:
- Other teams must be well aware of dependency stories.
- Business must have an estimate when the next features are delivered.
- People – according to research by Frederick Herzberg – are motivated when they see the ‘big picture’ and assume responsibility.
What do we show in the Art-Sync meeting?
Standard project reports (eg Prince2 highlight reports) have been dropped. We don’t show that.
But what to show then?
The Art-Sync board is a combination of:
- A SAFe Program board (with features and dependencies visible per sprint)
- Lean promotes the use of Visual Management and Metrics to gain transparency on progress.
The anatomy of an Agile Program
I summarize the concepts before we dive further into the visualization.
A Program (sometimes also called “Agile train”) consists of teams (projects). Each team consists of approximately 7 full-time people, and a program can easily include 100 full-time people.
A Program Period typically consists of 6 or 7 sprints of 2 weeks each. A period therefore typically covers a quarter, and is preceded by the Program Increment Planning (sometimes also called ‘Quarterly Planning’ or ‘Quarterly Agile Planning’).
Features (in some organizations “Epic” is a synonym for this, sometimes “Epic” refers to a group of features) are large pieces of functionality with value for the business. They are delivered by the teams. Stories are smaller pieces of a feature.
Dependency stories (sometimes called interface) is work that one team does for a feature of another team.
Do you want to follow all the stories within a program at program level? Of course not.
The focus is on features and dependencies for a specific program period.
Below an example sketch of a program.
Team Lion is responsible for 2 features, team Rabbit for 1 feature. To complete a Team Lion feature, a dependency story from Team Rabbit is needed. Conversely, for a Team Rabbit feature, a dependency story from Team Lion is also needed.
Visualize feature (Epic) progress
The first component of the Art – Sync board is an overview of the features across the sprints. A feature is shown in the sprint where it is estimated to be finished.
That already gives a first overview of the program.
As a program manager you can look at the health of that feature planning:
- Is a team working on too many features at the same time? You can see this for example with pie diagrams: are there several diagrams that are filled at the same time? That is not efficient. A team must complete feature per feature.
- Are the features spread over the sprints or are they all planned in the last sprint? In the case of the latter, the team has insufficiently sequenced their features.
- Are features starting to shift? What is the underlying problem? If the workload was underestimated, this can be learned for the next program period.
Below an example of features for team Lion.
You can see that Feature # 1 has been finished with 2 Story Points, feature # 2 is about halfway through 4.5 story points (see pie chart) and feature # 3 with 10.5 story points can still be started.
Features # 1 and # 2 are committed , feature # 3 is a stretch objective.
The features were originally scheduled in sprints # 2, # 3 and # 4 (see ‘baseline’ field), and are currently on schedule.
The planning looks healthy: the features are planned and implemented sequentially within the team.
The second component of the Art – Sync board is an overview of the dependencies across the sprints. The dependency is shown in the sprint where we can deliver it according to the current schedule.
As a program manager you can
examine the health of the dependency planning:
- Do the teams confirm that the dependencies are planned?
- Is the planned sprint still feasible?
- Are stories starting to shift? Is there a side effect on other teams? What is the global priority to focus on first?
Below you can see the dependencies for Team Lion. The three dependencies are for team Rabbit features.
The dependency planning is not healthy: an orange and red flag is indicated on the last 2 dependencies.
More about tagging features and dependencies in the next section.
Visualize Problems and Risks
Do you know meetings where everyone works on their Laptop or cellphone? No one is really following?
If you do not pay attention, the Art-Sync also becomes such a meeting.
People have the reflex in an Art Sync to tell what they have done in extensive detail.
That has little value, and requires moderation from the Program Manager.
Ask explicitly that teams discuss global progress and problems, without telling what they have achieved in detail. You can refer to the ‘system demo’ meeting, where realizations are presented.
Use the Red – Amber – Green (RAG) technique to make the Art Sync meeting more efficiently.
Ask the teams to assign a RAG indicator to each feature and dependency:
- Green : the feature / dependency is on track . It should not be discussed in the Art Sync. Features that were scheduled and not yet started may also be indicated in green.
- Amber : there are problems or risks , and the team has created a mitigation plan themselves. This can be briefly explained in the Art Sync meeting.
- Red : there are problems or risks, and the team needs help from other teams or management. This should be discussed in the Art Sync (probably in the meet-after or as offline topic ).
Below an example of a feature with a red RAG and accompanying description.
Visualize team progress metrics
The third component contains the progress per team.
Progress on what?
Agile promotes the use of Story Points.
The metrics typically consist of:
- A total of story points within the Program Period
- A subtotal of story points for features that are committed (so excluding stretch objectives )
- De done story points per sprint
- Forecast (extrapolations) based on the average speed, the slowest sprint speed and the fastest sprint speed. That gives a fork within which the team will normally finish.
The metrics provide insight into the realism of the planning of a team:
- Is there an “elbow” upturn or downturn in the actuals line? Then there is a variation in sprint speed. Why?
- Does the extrapolation show we finish before the end of the period? If not, what can be done? Which priority can be set globally?
The graph below shows the progress of Team Lion.
The team is on track with their planning: the intersection of the extrapolation line (dotted gray) with the total line (blue) is already mid sprint 4.
With the optimistic planning of best sprint velocity (dotted green), the intersection is at the start of sprint 4. With the pessimistic (amber), the intersection is on start sprint 6.
Art Sync tooling
I hear you thinking: those visualizations and metrics look good, but where do you get them?
Can a Scrum Master produce them? No, because due to dependency stories and the corner cases, the data is cross-team.
Can it be produced in a large Excel? It is difficult to work with many people in the same Excel file. Everyone wants to do an update in the hours before the Art Sync meeting, you risk having conflicts.
If you use Jira, the data is in Jira. Can it she be shown from there?
Yes, with the plugin Ativo Programs for Jira. This shows:
- Feature and team progress. The data comes directly from the Jira stories of the teams.
- Audit trails are available.
- Metrics have a separate line for Committed & Stretch objectives.
- Metrics have forecast ‘forks’ with the best, average and worst sprint velocity.
- RAG indicators are shown, with explanation (at mouse-over).
- All dashboards are generated from live data.
The screenshots in this article come directly from the tool (with fictional data for confidentiality reasons).
Below an example of the full Art-Sync Board for the program.
The extrapolation from Team Lion shows that it is realistic to achieve all objectives. The committed objectives may still be feasible for Team Rabbit, but the total (stretch + committed) objectives are unrealistic.
Agile Programs for Jira (Art Sync view)
After an Agile transformation, reports disappear and the overview abates.
An Art-Sync with accompanying Art-Sync Board is a relief for program managers, senior management and teams to keep an overview of progress, predictions, dependencies and problems.
Organize a weekly Art-Sync meeting, and keep them efficient:
- Invite all involved
- Use facilitation techniques (time boxed, meet-after and offline topics)
- Take Agile & Lean decisions (MVP, priority over train, WIP minimization, …)
- Follow up on decisions and actions
- Visualize features
- Visualize dependencies
- Visualize metrics
- Visualize problems and risks via RAG indicators
Use a tool that consolidates the data for you.
Credits and Bibliography
I learned a lot from Catherine Coubergs about the Art Sync.
Byrne, Art. The Lean Turnaround: How Business Leaders Use Lean Principles to Create Value and Transform Their Company . McGraw-Hill Education.
Certo, Samuel C.. Modern Management: Concepts and Skills, Global Edition. Pearson. Kindle Edition.
Herzberg F., “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?,” Harvard Business Review (January/ February 1968): 53–62.
Leffingwell, Dean. SAFe 4.5 Reference Guide. Pearson Education.