In the Scaled Agile Framework®, SAFe®, Program Increment (PI) planning is an essential element and is generally run as a ‘big room planning’ event where everyone is in the same location. Often some people connect remotely but how could PI Planning be done when everyone is working remotely?
Think about the challenge of remote PI planning in three stages:
1. Select a set of online tools for people to use;
2. Prepare tasks ahead of the planning event;
3. Running the PI Planning event.
For the event itself, there are two key facilitation roles:
1. The host – who runs the meeting from a visible, traditional facilitation point of view, introduces the briefings, manages the schedule, keeps people focused on outcomes, etc.
2. The online facilitator – who looks after the video conference meetings, breakout rooms, and is available for people to contact for assistance during the sessions.
It would be very difficult for the same person to perform both roles during the event.
There are many tools available that could support an all-remote PI Planning event. Rather than specific tools, here’s a look at the functionality that would be required to help it run smoothly:
- Video conference – to see and hear what is going on;
- Chat – to ask questions or to ask for assistance;
- Online collaboration – to create the team and program outputs;
- Online polls – to do the confidence votes and to help the facilitation;
- Online surveys – to get the end of PI planning feedback;
- Backlog management tools.
Video conference tools
There are very many different tools out there that allow video conferencing. Fundamentally there is one main decision to make. Do you:
- Use one high-end tool that allows everyone to connect for the whole duration and move in and out of breakout rooms for specific sessions, or
- Use multiple video conference room lines and people dial in and out of them over the course of the day depending on where they are on the schedule.
Using one tool would be easier for participants and it would be easier to keep to the timeboxes as people would be brought back to the main session automatically but would require more coordination i.e. someone opening and closing the rooms, putting the right people in the right rooms, etc.
There are two elements to this:
- Having an open chat channel that all attendees can use to put in questions, point out issues like a loss of audio or broadcast information, state what time we will restart after a break, will help with keeping the event flowing.
- Allow attendees to contact an online facilitator directly if there are any issues relating to the event that they need support with, such as video conference details or online tool links.
Online collaboration tools
In a similar way to video conferencing, fundamentally there is one main decision to make. Do you use:
- A single online canvas that contains areas for each of the teams and also shared areas for cross-team collaboration.
- Multiple online boards, each with a specific purpose. For example, a board for a single team to forecast their sprints. A different board to capture risks. A different online board specifically for program level items such as features and cross-team dependencies.
Using an online polling tool could be helpful in the following circumstances:
- Having a confidence vote towards the end of the session to see if the forecasts are believed to be achievable.
- Asking the audience direct questions – do you need more time? Shall we have a break? Which options should we go with?
This is really to capture feedback about the session so that improvements can be made for next time. Keep it short and snappy but try to get people to fill it out on the day rather than doing it ‘later’.
Backlog management tools
If you’re not using one already, you’ll need to move your backlog into a virtual environment so that you can access, amend or add details to the product backlog items.
Once you have chosen your tools, the next stage is to prepare everything for the planning event.
Getting features ready in your chosen online collaboration tools so that all teams will have access to them and they are insufficient details for the teams to use them in the team breakouts.
Decide who will do what
To make the event slick it is key that everyone who is going to present knows and is lined up ready. This includes who:
- Will present each briefing
- Will present draft plans on behalf of each team
- Will present draft risks on behalf of each team
- Will present draft objectives on behalf of each team
- Will present the planning adjustment
- Will present final plans on behalf of each team
- Will present final risks on behalf of each team
- Will present final objectives on behalf of each team
Each person presenting should ensure that:
- They have a good connection
- There is little background noise in their location
- They are familiar enough with the technology to share their screen etc. as required.
Everyone should check that they have appropriate and working equipment for the event, especially those who are going to present. It may be beneficial to get everyone to a minimum standard. For example, reasonable quality headphones with a built-in boom microphone.
Prep online tools
As well as the content itself, there will be much to prepare in terms of online tools. For example:
- Getting any online boards set up with the appropriate columns
- Getting the boards/canvas set up for each team
- Getting a space ready for identified risks
- Getting a space ready for team and program objectives
- Everyone can access the online tool
(e.g. there are enough licenses, no firewall restrictions, etc.)
Ahead of the event communicate the following:
- All of the video conference details
- All of the online tool access details
- The event schedule
- The process and objectives for each session
- Contact details for the online facilitator
Running the PI planning event
PI Planning is usually run over 2 days. The first day in particular can be very long, especially for those involved in the management review and problem-solving session. Consider spreading out the event over 3 days – this is also useful if there are multiple time zones so there is a better chance that the common hours could be more sociable.
Limit to a maximum of 6 hours of video conference per day for everyone, including the people involved in the management review.
As part of the introduction, include a slide on etiquette for remote meetings (such as keeping your line on mute if you are not speaking). Also, add an overview/reminder of the tools to be used by each team in the breakout sessions.
Frequently refer back to the schedule and keep people informed of where we are up to and what is next, and indicate which video conference lines, tools, etc are required for each session.
Ensure that stakeholders stay contactable even if they are not needed immediately in some of the session.
It is highly likely that things will not go perfectly. Make a note of improvements that could be made for subsequent events, fix what can be fixed, but always focus on the objectives of the event so that at the end of the event there is alignment across the whole agile release train for the program increment ahead.
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