We Did It! Our Very First, Fully Remote, Distributed PI Planning.

As COVID-19 quickly spread worldwide, lots of organizations, including ours, realized that our next PI Planning would have to be entirely remote and distributed. We’d done distributed PI Planning before, where some employees joined on their laptops from global locations, but never one where everyone was remote and in their homes. So, just how were we going to pull this off?

Watch the video for a high-level look at what we did and keep reading the post for a bit more detail.

Planning the Event

For starters, we knew we had to answer lots of questions around locations, agenda, facilitation, tools, and working agreements. So, we started laying the foundation of our event by following the guidance in the advanced topic article from our Framework teamDistributed PI Planning with SAFe, and built our plan from there.

Agenda

I collaborated with our scrum masters and leaders to flesh out what this event would look like, and we knew that a two-day agenda wasn’t going to work. Not just because it’s hard to stay focused and engaged for two full days over video calls, but because we have people in China, England, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, and across the U.S.

If you were to research the words “learning network” via books or an online search, you might come up empty. There isn’t much out there on the topic. In fact, I was excited one day to see “learning network” listed in the index of one of my learning books. But it pointed me toward networks in general, which wasn’t helpful. Not long after that I was telling a colleague about one of my informal learning collaborations and I called it a learning network. It just seemed like the right way to describe it.

Distributed PI Agenda

We had to accommodate all the different time zones to make sure people weren’t working in the middle of the night (more about that later). So, I set up a recurring weekly meeting with our scrum masters to craft a detailed event schedule. We landed on a three-day agenda that had some people starting early in the morning and others joining toward the evening (and later at night) for a shorter amount of time.

Facilitation

Distributed PI Facilitation

We knew that to engage people remotely over three days, we’d need to get creative. So we came up with icebreakers featuring our talented employee musicians, a crazy hat theme, social video meetups to see people’s pets, a guided meditation session, and random quizzes to keep things light and fun.

In the spirit of relentless improvement, we sent out daily surveys to capture everyone’s feedback about what was going well and what wasn’t, and incorporated that into the next day’s activities.

Tools

The scrum masters and I worked with our information and technology team to figure out how to best use the tools we had to run the event. We set up a central location on our intranet and used our internal collaboration tool to create a main information hub and virtual rooms for each team, the program board, presentations, and the Scrum of Scrum meetings. We use the Google suite at Scaled Agile, so team breakouts happened via Google hangouts, and each team also had a dedicated channel in Slack that other teams could use to discuss joint projects and dependencies, and ask questions.

Hiccups and Takeaways

Overall our event went pretty smoothly, but we did run into some issues. When we set up the team spaces in our collaboration tool, we didn’t realize they were limited to just the individual team members. This meant people on other teams couldn’t access those spaces to interact with the teams they needed to. We managed to fix that issue on day one but it was pretty chaotic and time-consuming. 

Another thing we discovered is that it took a while for all of us to get used to communicating with each other both in the main space and in our individual team rooms. There was one hangout link to the main PI Planning room and different hangout links for each team to use during their breakout sessions. On day one, some people got lost in the transition, but by day two, all of us were seasoned pros. 

We’ve definitely got a list improvements we plan to make for our next PI Planning, including:

  • Being more intentional about team synchronization points so the teams come together more regularly throughout each day.
  • Adjusting the agenda to four days versus three to shorten the hours per day and better accommodate our international folks (at least one of them was online until 2 AM—sorry, Gerald).
  • Allowing more time for team breakouts, just because collaborating remotely takes longer.

To get even more details about how we executed our first fully remote, distributed PI Planning, I invite you to watch our Fireside Chat webinar on our Community Platform (login required). 

For more guidance around running remote PIs, ARTs and teams, listen to episode 27 of our SAFe Business Agility Podcast, which takes a deep dive into the topic.

About Jeremy Rice

Jeremy Rice

As the Release Train Engineer at Scaled Agile, Jeremy is a leader with a desire to help others achieve their greatest success. A U.S. military veteran, Jeremy has a diverse background in technology, engineering, and coaching, mixed with a bit of linguistics and work as a chaplain.
You can also find him occasionally posing with baby goats, cows, and pigs on his hobby farm.

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Next: From Boots to SAFe: A Veteran’s Career Move

From Boots to SAFe: A Veteran’s Career Move

From Boots to SAFe - A Veteran’s Career Move

In 2006, I enlisted in the U.S. Army as a Forward Observer. Basically, that meant I spotted artillery rounds to ensure they landed on targets. Every time I neared the end of my contract, I reenlisted to avoid facing the fact that I had no idea how to translate my experience outside of the military. What was I supposed to do: walk into a prospective employer’s office and say that I was really good at land navigation, and ensuring close air support and artillery rounds hit targets? Yeah, not so much.

So, I changed my job to a Criminal Investigation Division Special Agent—think Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), FBI, or Secret Service but for the Army. I figured that my expertise in areas like interrogation, crime-scene examinations, digital forensics, crisis negotiation, protective service operations, and undercover and surveillance operations would definitely transfer directly to non-law enforcement jobs in the civilian world. Again, not so much.

So, time for plan B. I took what I knew, retired from the military, and got a job at a bank making just about minimum wage. With 10 years of leadership experience, I was barely providing for my family. When my 401k was just about empty, I decided I needed to find a career that could help me give my family the life they deserved.

Making the transition

This isn’t a unique story. Servicemembers looking to get out of the military face two big challenges. Either they can’t commit to leaving or—if they do commit—their roles in the military don’t translate to civilian occupations. Which means they end up in dead-end jobs. The stress adds up: veterans holding cardboard signs asking for help and money appear on every corner, substance abuse/recovery facilities are filled with green duffle bags, and even worse, veterans are committing suicide. There’s a scary statistic cited in a recent report that in 2017, nearly 17 veterans died by suicide each day. It shouldn’t be this hard for transitioning freedom fighters. 

But here’s some good news: shifting to a position in an Agile environment can help open doors for veterans, relieve some of that stress, and provide a lucrative career. Remember that dead-end bank job and my determination to find something better? I found it as a Scrum Master at Scaled Agile, and the skills I’ve learned here translate almost perfectly to military roles.

In this blog post, I’ll explain how the roles within the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) correlate to military positions. I relied on my background and experience to translate the roles into terms aligned with the U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, and the Special Operations community, but veterans worldwide can relate to this.

Agile teams

When you mention Agile teams, most people think about software developers congregating in incubator garages across Silicon Valley. While these folks can be pretty Agile, I personally think that U.S. military teams are the most Agile because they’re on the ground making life-changing decisions instantly. These teams take the most up-to-date information and intelligence and iterate on the plan. Likely, this plan started with a conversation, moved to some sort of slide deck, then to the teams who practiced it using mock cities, sand tables, shoot houses, and other high-speed planing techniques—all to all be derailed by an IED, small arms fire, or chasing terrorists down an unexpected tunnel system. It makes me think of the famous quote often attributed to Dwight Eisenhower: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

In the military especially, we need Agile leaders who don’t get stuck by analysis paralysis, but rather who can prioritize, execute, and coach their team to get the job done. Aside from the life-and-death implications, the only big difference between working in the military and working in an Agile environment would be that Agile encourages working at a sustainable pace. We want to ensure predictability—always burning the midnight oil creates an unstable and unpredictable environment.

Within SAFe, Agile teams are the foundation of and critical to any Agile transformation. Fortunately, Agile roles translate easily for transitioning veterans in part because Agile teams are essentially a patrol. Using the basic makeup of a patrol, you have a radio transmitter operator (RTO), team leader, pointman, and the gunners on each side. 

From Boots to SAFe - A Veteran’s Career Move

The RTO is essentially the Scrum Master. This is the person who provides clear and concise communication organization-wide, and removes impediments for the Agile team if it can’t on its own. The Scrum Master has a wider role as well, but I’ll cover that later in this post. 

The pointman is most compared to the Product Owner. This person represents the customer on the team and helps the team prioritize its work, guiding it to deliver value that’s aligned with what customers want and with the organization’s goals. 

The remaining members of the patrol are considered the Agile team. Because they’re the folks with the intel on the ground, they know what needs to be done to achieve the mission—similar to what’s called the Program Increment (PI) Objectives in an Agile environment. The Agile team can take the priorities from the Product Owner, provide realistic feedback on what is actually achievable, and complete the mission. 

To be successful, Agile teams and fire teams need leaders who can put the team/mission/people above themselves. Leaders provide the intent, the motivation, and the way to get people on the team to act.

Frameworks

In military environments, leaders are responsible for defining the concept of the operation in time, space, purpose, and resources (ATP 3-21.8). The Operational Framework greatly supports that by defining associated vocabulary and a way to organize. 

In a civilian workplace, leaders are responsible for the same successful outcomes, especially in Agile environments. SAFe is one approach enterprises use to support their transformations and provide full transparency across the entire organization. There’s definitely a learning curve associated with SAFe, and understanding the colloquialisms and jargon is key to a veteran’s transition in any workplace.

To illustrate this, I labeled applicable areas of the SAFe Big Picture with common military terms. Use your mouse to zoom over each image for a closer look.

SAFe 5.0 for Lean Enterprise

The SAFe Big Picture has three configurations—Portfolio, Large Solution, and Essential. These translate to Division, Battalion, and Company levels. 

Within Essential SAFe, there are key positions on the left side of the Big Picture—the Agile Team (which consists of 5–11 people) and two specialty roles: the Scrum Master and the Product Owner. Correlating these to military roles, the team is the squad or team, the Scrum Master is the RTO, and the Product Owner is the pointman. 

SAFe 5.0 for Veterans

Also in Essential SAFe, above the Agile Team layer, are three additional roles: 

  • The System Architect/Engineer, which is your S2 or company-level intel shop
  • Product Management, which is your Company Commander
  • The Release Train Engineer, who’s in charge of keeping the Agile Release Train (ART) on the rails, closely relates to the Executive Officer (XO) 

Multiple Agile Teams are part of the ART, which is a company-sized element of people navigating the Agile world. The ART has many mandatory events. To kick off a Program Increment (PI) or deployment—which is a set duration of time, usually a quarter of the year—all members of the ART attend PI Planning. This is where all teams on the ART provide the PI Objectives to the company and plan each of their iterations. 

In the context of an Operation Order (OPORD) within the US Army, here’s how Agile works:

  1. Situation can be rolled into the PI Objectives
  2. Mission can be rolled into the PI Objectives
  3. Execution is how the Agile Team operates—it can use Scrum, XP, Kanban, Design Thinking, and other techniques to satisfy the Customer (taxpayers)
  4. Command & Control happens throughout the entire delivery pipeline by means of Daily Stand-ups, Scrum of Scrums, Product Owner Syncs, and other meetings, which focus on consistent communication and updates.
  5. The Sustainment phase of the OPORD directly relates to Built-In Quality and the Architectural Runway.

The double diamonds representing Design Thinking on the Big Picture basically represent sand-table planning and shoot house for the actual mission. Design Thinking allows team members to diverge and converge thinking to release the right product at the right time. 

On the bottom right of the Big Picture is the SAFe Program Consultant (SPC)—the change agent who leads all levels of an organization through a Lean-Agile transformation at scale by training, coaching, facilitating, and mentoring. This servant leader plays a critical role by applying expert knowledge of SAFe, and most closely aligns to a Warrant Officer.

Why SAFe?

One of the biggest reasons to go from boots to SAFe is the doors it can open. There are more than 300 Scaled Agile partners, and countless veteran-friendly enterprises undergoing agile transformations—including government contractors and U.S. government entities. As a veteran, once you understand the terminology, your opportunities in the Agile space as a Scrum Master, Product Owner, Agile Coach, Release Train Engineer, SPC (and many others) are virtually endless.

Get started: paying for SAFe Certifications

Taking a SAFe course and earning a certification are the first steps toward jump-starting your career in the Agile space. And there are ways for veterans to get financial assistance.

VR & E program

Through eBenefits associated with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), eligible Veterans and Service members can apply for either Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) benefits or Education/Career Counseling. It’s simple to apply; just follow these steps on the VA website:

VR & E program
  • Log into your eBenefits account.
  • Select “Additional Benefits” from your dashboard.
  • Select “Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program.” Be sure to read the program information, update your contact information, and apply for either the “Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program” or “Education/Career Counseling.”
  • If you’re deemed eligible, you’ll be invited to attend an in-person orientation session at the nearest VA Regional Office.

Servicemembers with a disability that began or became worse during active duty and who haven’t yet received a service-connected disability (SCD) rating, don’t need to wait to apply (see VA Form 28-0588 for further instructions). Additionally, ill or injured Servicemembers who haven’t yet received an SCD rating don’t need to wait to apply. Servicemembers expecting a discharge other than dishonorable and who possess a VA memorandum or Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) rating of 20 percent or more—as well as Servicemembers currently going through a Physical Evaluation Board—may be eligible to receive VR&E services.

Just ask

Many of our 300+ Scaled Agile partners that provide SAFe training also offer military discounts. All you need to do is lean forward in the foxhole and send an email to these trainers to find out. Remember, you can catch more bees with honey, so be nice and polite when asking for a discount.

Check out these other helpful links to learn more about SAFe, courses, certification, and partners:

About Clint Gershenson

Clint Gershenson

As a Scrum Master for the Learning and Certification team at Scaled Agile, Clint thrives at enhancing capabilities across teams by combining his expertise as an Agile coach at multiple technical companies with his experiences as a 10-year U.S. Army veteran. He’s also a family man who’s had the pleasure of watching Frozen 200+ times and the Grinch 100+ times with his young son and daughter.

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Next: Join Me at the 2020 Virtual European SAFe® Summit

Scrum Master Stories: Resolving Conflict

Scrum Master Stories

I’m the scrum master for the marketing team at Scaled Agile. In the time that I’ve been here, we went from one team to two, and now three, adding new roles along the way.

What I find most useful in my everyday work are my conflict resolution skills. Communication, vulnerability, working through challenges—these all take a lot of time and effort. Being able to coach it and stick through it with teams on their journey to innovation is where we as scrum masters have a chance to shine.

Conflict isn’t just about fighting and yelling; it’s about collaborating and understanding different perspectives, so that the team can come up with something nobody’s ever thought of before—and Agile is so much of that, too. 

In a past life on a team I worked with, there were conflicts between people who had been on the team for a long time and people who were newer, but were very advanced in their skills and fields. Figuring out how to collaborate and how to share those ideas without forcing one path or another was really challenging. When we’re experiencing that and struggling to find our place, we often want to avoid having that hard, one-on-one conversation.

So, I did some one-on-one coaching with the people who were struggling and got them to a point where they understood I didn’t want to step in for them; I wanted them to have the confidence to talk to each other and build trust. I coached both of them on what it means to be vulnerable. It’s actually opening up and showing your team that you’re human and that you can collaborate. They were then able to solve the problem themselves and worked together for a long time afterwards very successfully. They started having those conversations more openly—and not just between the two of them but between the whole team and others they worked with regularly.

I love this article about vulnerability and bringing human connection into the workplace. Just remember to lean into conflicts of all shapes and sizes, and recognize that it’s a journey, much like the team formation lifecycle, that cannot be rushed or avoided.

About Lieschen Gargano Quilling

Lieschen Gargano is an Agile coach

Lieschen Gargano is an Agile coach and conflict guru—thanks in part to her master’s degree in conflict resolution. As the scrum master for the marketing team at Scaled Agile, Lieschen loves cultivating new ideas and approaches to Agile to keep things fresh and exciting. She also has a passion for developing best practices for happy teams to deliver value in both development and non-technical environments. Fun fact? “I’m the only person I know of who’s been a scrum master and a scrum half on a rugby team.”

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Next: Your Burning Questions: PI Planning

Your Burning Questions: PI Planning at an Agile Organization

At the end of the regular episodes in our biweekly SAFe® Business Agility podcast, we answer questions submitted by listeners. In this post, we feature two on the topic of PI Planning, one of which is especially relevant for anyone working at an Agile organization that has restricted travel to limit exposure to the coronavirus.

What’s the best way to conduct PI planning with remote employees?

PI Planning

For many companies with a remote workforce, especially those with a global presence, conducting PI planning can be a challenge. While face to face is always best, it’s not always possible or financially feasible. There are some things you can do if you’re faced with this dilemma.

First, whenever you have remote team members, whether it’s during PI planning or other work-related activities, it’s important to pick times that work for everyone. This means finding meeting times where overlap may exist between work hours for local team members and work hours for remote team members. It can be difficult, but it’s possible.

When work hours don’t overlap, consider times that are a compromise for everyone. That often means some members will end up working late while others will begin their day earlier than their usual start time. Try to keep the compromise to less than four hours either way. Anything more and team members may not be at their best.

That said, one thing that you shouldn’t compromise on is trying to keep whole teams together. For example, don’t have the scrum master in one location and the product owner in another. Keep them all participating together if possible.

Next, let’s discuss how to accommodate remote team members during the PI planning event. While Scaled Agile is a tool-agnostic company, we do have some Gold partners that offer some very helpful tools. One of them, piplanning.io, has a great tool that runs on multiple different platforms that people can use to share information around PI planning. 

Also, think about how to address other logistical challenges, like how to keep remote team members engaged when the room is noisy or during a breakout session. We’ve found that it’s helpful to assign a room buddy to a remote team member. The room buddy is responsible for making sure that the remote team member has everything they need to be an active participant in the session.

It’s important to remember that preparation will take longer with remote PI planning. There’s a lot to consider and you may have to make some tradeoffs. However you end up solving this challenge, make sure to always be respectful of your team members—it’s one of the core pillars of Lean.

Fast forward more than three years and a move to another company, I’m still part of a number of informal learning networks with many of my colleagues from that organization. Every time we learn something new that we feel would be beneficial to the others in the network, we share it. And we learn more every time we share in these moments.   

In this video,  the teams at Travelport share how they successfully coordinated PI Planning across three different time zones, and the benefits that they realized.

For even more details read this advanced topic – tips on distributed PI Planning.

Why is it important to assign business value during PI Planning and how is it helpful to the business?

One of SAFe’s core values is alignment. . Another is transparency, which is critical in an organization’s execution phase. PI Planning and assigning business value is an important component of that. Assigning business value isn’t necessarily about prioritizing things, changing your directions, or shifting responsibility. It’s simply the business owners telling you what they feel is most important, and aligning around that. The business owners may not understand all of the technical nuances that go into building a product but that’s OK. But they do understand why teams are building the product and why their customers want it. The ability to communicate that to the teams that are doing the development work—whether hardware, software, cyber-physical systems, or a business solution—is paramount.

PI Planning

Assigning business value is symbiotic. And Agile is about bridging the silos between the business and IT. When you have those silos, oftentimes the business floods IT with requests. Getting the business owners to assign that business value is that hard prioritization work, and something IT teams can use to ask, “Do we understand your priorities, are we doing things in the right order, and is this of the highest value to our customer?”

Predictability is another important element and there’s a tool in our PI Planning toolkit called the PI predictability measurement that uses the assignment of business value to measure the predictability. That helps you answer the critical question, “Did we do the things that we said we would?” This is a critical part of why companies use SAFe if they want to improve their predictability.

If you haven’t heard the SAFe Business Agility podcast before or want to listen to new and previous episodes, check it out.

If you’ve got a question for us to answer on air, please send it to podcast@scaledagile.com.

Happy listening!

About Melissa Reeve

Melissa Reeve is the Vice President of Marketing at Scaled Agile

Melissa Reeve is the Vice President of Marketing at Scaled Agile, Inc. In this role, she guides the marketing team, helping people better understand Scaled Agile, the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and its mission. Melissa received her bachelor of arts degree, magna cum laude, from Washington University in St. Louis. She currently resides in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, chickens and dogs.

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Have Fun During PI Planning

PI planning is a vital component of SAFe®, and the meeting can be an intense experience. Sitting in one big room for two full days, with potentially over 100 team members across the organization, can be taxing. Once the breakout sessions begin, the environment can become stressful for some.

The importance and complexity of the work to be done and the pressure of time can make these sessions challenging. Adding to the stress, there are often many conversations going on at the same time, causing the volume in the room to grow increasingly louder until people are yelling just to talk. All of this adds up to people feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed, causing them to grow weary and disengage. With the high cost and critical nature of these sessions, it’s imperative that organizations keep team members engaged and productive.

PI Planning

Because the stakes are so high, you want to use all the best practices available to you in order to maximize valuable time. Our experience has taught us that making your PI planning events fun can turn the stress of a two-day planning event into excitement about what’s ahead. Setting up a lively environment primes your audience for engagement and creativity.

First, we start all of our PI planning sessions with 10 minutes of gratitude. We take the time to encourage planning members to acknowledge and appreciate other team members. Using a mic runner, we have an open mic and find that once the praise gets started, our 10 minutes goes pretty fast, leaving everyone smiling, primed for positivity and ready to get down to business.

Next, we use a chosen theme and incorporate it into slides, written materials, props in the room, snacks, and even stickers, toys, games, and prizes. If you need ideas for your own theme, do some online research for themed parties. Recently, we used an Oktoberfest theme where team members dressed up in traditional costumes, like lederhosen and dirndls. We passed out beer steins (without beer of course) for drinking, and had snacks including pretzels and mustard (be sure to offer gluten-free snacks too). We put up Oktoberfest flags, props, and background scenes—we even had an Oktoberfest backdrop and created a photo booth that the teams enjoyed using.

I’ve learned through trial and error that themes need to be relevant to the times, relatable to the audience, and provide an environment that people want to experience and be a part of.

For example, it’s not enough to say that your theme is “baseball” without also providing the environment to give people an opportunity to interact with the theme. This includes setting expectations in advance, especially if you are asking people to take risks like wearing costumes or using props in front of their coworkers.

It helps with engag

It helps with engagement if the PI planning event organizers and release train engineers (RTE) serve as models, participating in the theme as a way of making it safe for others. Our RTE wore lederhosen and our CEO and founder wore Bavarian hats during the vision statement portion of PI planning.

PI Planning

Another idea is to include games or gamify aspects of PI Planning. Word Bingo is a fun way to keep people engaged over the two long days. Hand out cards with some common and not-so-common words that are likely to be said (or intentionally said) throughout the planning. You could have a single winner, but even better, everyone can get a prize once their card is complete. Prizes should be simple but fun, like themed socks or small desk toys. Treasure hunts and scavenger hunts are other fun ways to get people working together. Give each team member a list of things to find or do, like visit another team to find program risks and dependencies and determine whether or not they impact the plan being created. This gets teams talking to each other, improving relationships, and finding common goals.

Since we started bringing fun into our PI planning processes, I’ve heard more laughter, I’ve felt the positive energy in the room increase, and I’ve seen teams improve how they work together. People seem more energized and less drained by the end of the event. Contrary to what you might think, incorporating fun doesn’t take up more time and make the sessions last longer. In fact, the sessions are more inclusive, engaging, and productive, with better outcomes and fewer surprises down the road. I encourage you to give it a try.

About Deb Choate

Deb Choate is a scrum master at Scaled Agile

Deb Choate is a scrum master at Scaled Agile with loads of experience leading and supporting successful SAFe transformations, technical teams, and projects. She’s passionate about applying her background in psychology and neuroscience to create high-performing Agile teams, environments, and cultures.

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Next: A Framework, Not a Prescription