Real Tips from Actual Virtual PI Planning

Big room planning has incredible benefits.  A dedicated 2-day SAFe® Program Increment (PI) Planning effort saves hours of additional meetings, aligns the entire Agile Release Train (ART) on a common vision, and allows for unparalleled dependency management. 

The traditional PI Planning model recommends that all members of the Agile Release Train attend in person.  In the past, we have seen many geographically dispersed PI Planning across locations and time zones, but truly all-remote events have different considerations.   While such a coordination and communication-heavy event seems daunting to manage online, there are great lessons learned from existing distributed PI Planning models that can applied to a full remote model.  Using the construct of Plan, Do, Check, Adjust (PDCA), consider these tips to build your own remote model for PI Planning.

Create a well-documented Plan

In the Scaled Agile PI Planning model, there is a well-defined 2-day schedule.  If at all possible, we should stick to that framework, since it’s one that likely everyone on the ART is used to.

Top Tip: Create a detailed itinerary ahead of time that shows the schedule for 2 days, who attends each event, and the webex link to each event.  We recommend this in an Excel or Word table that has clickable links for breakout sessions or room locations. You’ll want to distribute this to everyone on the ART. 

You will need to document your logistics plan and circulate it with key people that will help with the remote PI Planning event.  This includes your Scrum Masters, other Release Train Engineers (RTEs), and any other resources you have recruited to help out. You will likely iterate on the draft plan multiple times, but once it is done, the expectation is that the Scrum Masters will then review the plan with their teams, just as you will need to review the plan with your business partners, Product Managers, and key stakeholders.

Test Your Plan Ahead of Time

It would be prudent to do a mock PI Planning with the agreed upon plan, maybe not with the whole release train, but a decent sized subset.  You can then capture things that need to be changed and then adjust your plan accordingly.

Finally, set the expectations of everyone participating in PI Planning that as a group we are going to give this our best shot, but there is a chance you will have hiccups during the event.  

Make Technology Your Remote PI Planning Ally

A big factor in the success of your remote PI Planning session is technology. 

For online collaboration, you will need a tool that allows you to have a large number of participants in one virtual room, as well as the ability to move people in and out of a variety of breakout rooms, including team level working sessions, scrum of scrum sessions, Product Owner sync sessions, and so on.  I suggest that you appoint someone as the switch operator so they can focus on the movement between rooms and troubleshoot technical difficulties that may arise. Zoom has a nice breakout room feature you can configure ahead of time and with a simple click of a button you can send people to their assigned rooms, as well as bring them back to the main room with another click of a button.  This is very powerful for keeping the meeting flowing.

You will also need a tool where teams can do online collaboration to be able to draw on virtual whiteboards, share information, and build out all of the artifacts that are necessary for a successful PI Planning.  I’ve seen the PI Planning App used successfully two times this week and highly recommend looking at it for your organization.  

Most likely you are already using an online tool for managing your Epics, Features, and Stories.  You will also need to be able to access that tool remotely, so that you can capture the stories and iteration plans for the PI.  The PI Planning App can sync up with many popular tools such as Jira and Rally, which will ensure the awesome efforts of your teams can easily be transferred to your day to day toolset.

Tactical Suggestions:

  • Start the day by creating a set of team norms as the first activity.  Some suggestions to cover are: be open minded, be flexible, ask everyone to mind online norms such as muting your line, allowing others to speak, and providing a parking lot area where team members can post questions or suggestions throughout each day.
  • After you build your team norms, do an IceBreaker activity.  Consider having an uplifting check-in question, such as “Write in the Chat something you are grateful for”. This not only helps set a positive tone, it also allows for a technology check since they are going to be relying heavily on Teams and Slack (and it serves as a kind of participant roll call).
  • At the beginning of day 1 there are scheduled events for Business Leaders, Product Management, and others to present key information for the upcoming PI.  Have your leaders pre-record their presentations, and you play the videos in the order on the schedule. This approach helps minimize the weirdness with screen-share switching, and minimizes risk of technology issues during a live presentation.

As your team completes all-remote PI Planning, let me know if you have more great tips to share. Here are some tips we have collected from the community so far:

Community Tips

I suggest you might add additional time in the agenda, such as adding a third day, to allow the planning activities to have additional time and to allow for additional breaks. Another suggestion is to cut the work day (the planning days) back to 5 or 6 hours to allow some breathing room in the day. My experience shows that many people struggle to be continuously connected for a regular work day.

– Linda C.

Bring an Agile Consultant onsite (virtually) to help with your all-remote PI Planning – contact us.

Tim LaPorta is a Managing Agile Consultant and Scaled Agile Program Consultant at LitheSpeed.