Why Quarterly Retrospectives Guarantee Nothing Ever Changes in Agile Release Trains

Quarterly feedback may align with SAFe's Program Increments, but it can hinder the success of Agile Release Trains. Discover how Agile Delivery Managers and RTEs can drive continuous improvement through frequent retrospectives and actionable insights. Learn why embracing agility and faster feedback loops is crucial for your organization's growth and success.

John Samuelson

April 3, 2024
6 minutes

In the fast-paced world of software development, Agile methodologies have become a cornerstone, emphasizing continuous improvement, flexibility, and swift responses to change. Most software development organizations fail to gather and evaluate team feedback. Even the best typically do so quarterly, often aligning with planning cycles like the Program Increment (PI) in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). While quarterly feedback is better than none, it introduces significant drawbacks that hinder the effectiveness and growth of Agile Release Trains (ARTs). Release Train Engineers (RTEs) and Agile Delivery Managers face unique challenges when feedback is gathered infrequently.

To understand the real-world implications of quarterly feedback cycles, we reached out to over two dozen Release Train Engineers (RTEs) and Agile Delivery Managers. These agile professionals, who steer the course of Agile Release Trains (ARTs) and delivery teams across various industries, shared candid insights into how the quarterly feedback cadence impacts their ability to deliver value and drive continuous improvement.  Here are their biggest takeaways:

1. Slowed Response to Issues in Agile Release Trains

One of the most glaring issues with quarterly feedback is the delayed response to problems. Agile teams thrive on rapid iterations and adjustments, but when feedback is only gathered and acted upon every three months, it slows down the ability to address and resolve issues. This delay can lead to prolonged periods of inefficiency, decreased morale, and the potential for minor problems to escalate into major challenges that are harder and more costly to fix.

Waiting three months to gather feedback is like driving with a fogged windshield. You're moving, but the clarity and speed at which you can address issues are severely compromised," explained Alex, an experienced Release Train Engineer (RTE) in fintech. "The agility we pride ourselves on is diluted when we can't swiftly react to feedback, hindering the progress of our Agile Release Trains (ARTs).

Instant Feedback, Rapid Improvement

Facilitating real-time feedback is the first step in keeping your teams adaptive and efficient. To translate that feedback into tangible improvements, teams need a clear process for analyzing insights and taking action. Here is a good example of how to think about it:

  1. Ask: Actively solicit feedback from team members on a regular basis
  2. Analyze: Review feedback as a team, identifying patterns and prioritizing issues
  3. Act: Assign ownership and set deadlines for addressing each action item
  4. Measure: Set up specific metrics with target values to track progress and impact

By combining instant feedback with this Ask-Analyze-Act-Measure (AAAM) approach, teams can rapidly iterate, improve, and demonstrate the value of their efforts.

2. Missed Opportunities for Continuous Improvement in SAFe

 SAFe suggests team retrospectives every iteration and a program-level retrospective each Program Increment (PI). Yet, many organizations only conduct quarterly PI retrospectives, limiting improvement opportunities for their Agile Release Trains (ARTs).

Frequent team retrospectives surface issues faster, reducing the need for costly program-level meetings and enabling quicker adaptation. This not only stifles growth but also diminishes the team's agility and ability to stay competitive in a rapidly changing environment.

Maria, an Agile Delivery Manager in healthcare, highlighted the stifled growth, saying, "Even though our teams are doing retros every two weeks, we are only reviewing that as a larger group each quarter (at best!) so we never get a chance to address the things that are impacting the entire portfolio until it's far too late."

Alignment through Visibility

Continuous feedback tools should provide a transparent, real-time view of team sentiments, wins, and issues. This shared understanding helps leaders quickly identify and address misalignments across teams, while enabling team members to see how their work contributes to overall goals, keeping everyone aligned and focused.

3. Disengaged Teams, Stalled Improvement in Agile Release Trains

Frequent feedback is essential for driving continuous improvement. When teams see their input regularly acknowledged and acted upon, they're more likely to engage in the feedback process. Quarterly reviews, however, can leave teams feeling disconnected from the improvement cycle, as their insights aren't promptly addressed.

If teams know their feedback won't be heard for months, they disengage. Without active participation, continuous improvement stalls," noted John, an experienced Release Train Engineer (RTE) in e-commerce. "Keeping the feedback loop tight is crucial for maintaining team engagement and progress within our Agile Release Trains (ARTs)."

Feedback-Driven Engagement

Continuous feedback platforms should demonstrate that each team member's insights are valued and acted upon, fostering a culture of engagement and improvement when leadership acts on their feedback.

4. Difficulty Quantifying Impact Across Agile Teams

Agile teams face constantly evolving challenges. Quarterly reviews don't provide enough visibility into these changes, making it difficult to gauge the impact of issues across multiple teams. This hinders informed decision-making and prioritization.

"Quarterly feedback limits our ability to understand the full scope of challenges facing our teams. We might identify a problem, but not realize how many teams it affects," noted Samantha, an Agile transformation leader.

Team-Wide Insights

Continuous improvement tools should aggregate feedback across teams, visualizing trends over time. Dashboards that show the systemic issues that multiple teams are facing is a great way to prioritize the issues with the highest impact.

5. Challenges in Measuring Impact and Iterating for RTEs and Agile Delivery Managers

Infrequent feedback makes it challenging to track progress, identify what's working, and adjust course promptly. With quarterly cycles, teams can't easily correlate specific actions with outcomes, limiting their ability to iterate and improve. This delay in understanding impact slows down the critical feedback loop at the heart of agile.

"Quarterly feedback is like driving a car by only looking in the rearview mirror every few miles," noted Derek, an Agile Delivery Manager. "To stay on track, teams need a continuous stream of input to gauge their progress and make real-time adjustments."

Metrics that Matter

Frequent data collection allows teams to define and track key metrics based on what they identified during their retrospectives, ensuring they can measure the impact of their efforts and celebrate successes along the way.

How To Collect And Act On Team Feedback Faster

 While gathering and evaluating agile team feedback on a quarterly basis may align with the cadence of Program Increments (PIs) in SAFe, it introduces significant challenges that can undermine the principles of agility and continuous improvement. Agile Delivery Managers and Release Train Engineers (RTEs) should consider more frequent feedback mechanisms to enhance responsiveness, foster a culture of continuous growth, and maintain high levels of team engagement within their Agile Release Trains (ARTs).

To truly embrace agility and continuous improvement, feedback mechanisms must evolve to be more frequent, engaging, and responsive to the fast-paced environments in which Agile Release Trains (ARTs) operate. Agile Delivery Managers and Release Train Engineers (RTEs) play a crucial role in ensuring that team feedback is collected and acted upon regularly, driving the success of their ARTs within the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Here's a simple framework organizations can follow to make the most of their feedback data:

  1. Categorize feedback: Sort all the feedback shared into context buckets. For example, feedback items A, E, and Q might relate to communication, while items B, C, and S focus on technical issues.
  2. Identify sentiment: Divide each category into positive and negative comments to gauge the overall sentiment around each theme.
  3. Correlate with metrics: Compare the positive and negative cohorts against your team's performance metrics. Look for trends that indicate how each theme impacts outcomes.
  4. Prioritize and act: Use the insights gained to prioritize the most impactful areas for improvement and take targeted action.

By following this framework consistently, Agile Delivery Managers and RTEs can uncover valuable insights and drive continuous improvement within their Agile Release Trains. As the Agile landscape continues to mature, it's time for organizations to rethink how they gather and act on team feedback, ensuring that it serves as a catalyst for growth, adaptation, and excellence in value delivery.

Don’t Have The Resources To Dedicate?

If you're ready to revolutionize your team's feedback process and make data-driven decisions faster, ScatterSpoke is here to help. Our AI-powered platform transforms raw feedback into actionable insights in real-time, saving countless hours of meetings while empowering you to address high-impact issues and celebrate wins in real time.

With ScatterSpoke, you can:

  1. Automate your feedback loop: Our system efficiently asks, collects, and analyzes feedback, allowing your team to focus on what they do best - building brilliant software.
  2. Turn feedback into impact: ScatterSpoke refines raw feedback and metrics into a clear, impactful dashboard, enabling you to prioritize and address the most significant issues effectively.
  3. Gain scaled insights: Uncover the hidden narrative across your teams, equipping leaders with comprehensive feedback insights that surpass metrics dashboards to identify critical issues organization-wide.

Don't settle for quarterly retrospectives that leave you flying blind. ScatterSpoke's continuous feedback platform will streamline your focus with our AI copilot for team feedback, pinpointing critical priorities for maximum impact. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your Agile teams make decisions faster and deliver more value.

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