Risks To Consider When Hiring Key Roles For A Lean-Agile Transformation

Balancing the Tradeoffs

In this post I offer my insights from my experiences on hiring key roles from outside cultures vs. growing ones internally. To set a context, let’s consider an expanding transformation in an enterprise that is utilizing SAFe as a Lean-Agile scaling framework.


IMO, the hiring of Release Train Engineers and the Value Stream Engineers are strategic staffing decisions. They are the core of the servant leadership conduit from value definition through to work definition. Let’s consider the RTE role specifically.

These are the key qualities I look for in an RTE candidate: Is she successfully operating in her current work ecosystem? When conducting real world type problem solving, role play sessions, do the decisions she makes and her stated actions, based on the scenarios, align with the lean-agile mindset? Is she respected? Can she influence upward and downward? Has she demonstrated a history of servant leadership? Does she understand change management? Of course an RTE also needs good business acumen, organizational skills and a solid understanding of the Framework they are serving within, just as would a good project manager.

I actually value accomplished program managers that possess advanced skills and knowledge needed to be successful in operating in complex portfolio / program environments. These are valuable and applicable in a Lean-Agile environment; it is just how they are applied that is vastly different.

Of course, one can only find out so much asking questions from outside candidates coming from different work ecosystems. Internal candidates can be vetted far more effectively by speaking with the candidates’ peers and current and past managers.

Building a network of allies across the business functions is key if the RTE is going to be successful in enabling the needed cooperation and collaboration to deliver successful solutions.

IMO, the key qualifications for an RTE position are not only understanding the role and having had experience in that role if that experience is in another company’s work ecosystem. For reference, a work ecosystem is the intersection of many variables, including the work cultures, leadership mindset, operating structure, and physical environment of an organization. A candidate needs to have high potential to be successful operating in your current work ecosystem. They need to produce value in it, while working on evolving the work ecosystem, as part of the transformation, to enable more efficient and effective outcomes.

The trade-off between the risk of someone not having operated with the title of RTE vs. the risk of a candidate not having experience in the current work ecosystem must be taken into serious consideration. While bringing in a new cultural influence can be positive, I find that if that person isn’t at a level of leadership to have the authority and necessary skills to design and make changes in the culture in which they will operate, then the value in this trade off is more often lost.

Lastly, the hiring management should consider that often a person who has operated very successfully in a lean-agile work ecosystem, is used to having certain characteristics in that ecosystem. A Lean-Agile work ecosystem

  • is conducive to focus, embraces “pull” execution
  • enables alignment from planning through execution from strategy to team levels
  • values team performance over individual performance with motivational systems congruent with that stance
  • enables collaboration
  • makes it safe to be transparent
  • enables distributed decision making to reduce and remove the inefficiency of bottlenecks created by escalated decisions
  • provides significant autonomy to maximize the potential of each team member to the team
  • highly values the learning nature of a lean system which is reflected in how improvement work is made visible and capacity is provided for its follow through

The risk of an experienced externally sourced RTE’s chance of success in your work ecosystem drops as you remove, from the list above, those characteristics that don’t describe your current work ecosystem. It would be useful to explore what the work ecosystem of a candidate claiming to have had success in it, was really like. This includes the physical environment.

Scenario: I have two candidates on my short list, both with potential. The first is a highly seasoned and accomplished Scrum Master that had previously grown up as a Program Manager in the company and successfully transitioned to a lean-agile mindset. The second, an external candidate with 2 years of successful experience as an RTE, but in a very different work ecosystem. I’d very likely promote the Scrum Master and enable success with additional training and coaching.

This has many benefits, such as, leveraging established networks of relationships, leveraging cultural awareness to help enable transformation change planning, and sending a clear message about the value of developing people.

What would you do?