6 PI Planning Tips for RTEs

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the 5 Things I Wish I’d Known before My First PI Planning video series for piplanning.io. Now, I’m reflecting on those tips and sharing them in this blog.

5 Things I Wish I'd Known before My First PI Planning video thumbnail

My journey with SAFe® started with SAFe 2.5. Since then, I’ve enjoyed coaching and mentoring other coaches and leaders. 

As an RTE, I’ve had the chance to facilitate PI planning and coach others to take over that role. While facilitating and coaching, I identified six key tips that created the smoothest PI planning experience for everyone. 

Here they are:

  • Communicate the core message
  • Plan social activities  
  • Be mindful of the start time
  • Prepare, don’t over-prepare
  • Cleary visualize features
  • Take care of basic needs

PI Planning Tip 1: Communicate the Core Message

In the standard agenda, the first half-day of PI planning focuses on the vision, desired deliverables for the PI, features, and architecture.

A screenshot of a standard PI Planning agenda

As the RTE, it’s important to check that the messages from management, including executives, are inspiring and motivational. These speeches should reflect on achievements from the previous PI, address the current state, and provide insight into the organization’s future, specifically how the organization will contribute to building that future in the next PI. 

It’s helpful to review and rehearse the message while supporting effective storytelling. Think of a traditional story arc. Assign you and your customers to a specific role and place in the story. Are you the hero or is the customer the hero while you’re the fairy godmother? What obstacles have you helped your customers overcome? What happy endings have you or your customers created? Sequencing your presentations in this way (if only loosely) will make it easier for your audience to connect with your organization’s purpose.     

One important ingredient of effective storytelling is an executive who knows the customer and the business. They can create a truly captivating story based on real experience in the field. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and share the story or problem you’re trying to solve from their perspective. This will capture the audience and show your people exactly what they helped create for your customer or will create in the upcoming PI. 

In summary, follow these pointers to create a core message that resonates with teams. 

  • Do a rehearsal beforehand to ensure smooth transitions between segments
  • Support storytelling from one presentation to the next
  • Share customer success stories or examples from the field
  • Invite executives who know the customer and business to present and tell the story

PI Planning Tip 2: Plan Social Activities

Between days one and two, organize an activity like a fox trail or a bowling night. This unstructured time allows people to connect, converse, and build relationships. 

However, it’s important to remember that there is still a second day of PI planning. Do not party too long!

Social activity ideas:  

  • Bowling night
  • Fox trail
  • Escape room 
  • Team dinners featuring local and international foods

If you don’t want to use outside work hours for social time, you can add icebreaker activities to the PI planning agenda. These are short, no more than 10-minute activities that allow people to learn about each other in a different context than work. However, it’s important to note that icebreaker activities don’t work in all cultural contexts, so use discretion when deciding whether or not to include them. 

Here are some quick icebreaker activities:

  • Chat surveys or questions: Use the survey tool that comes with online meeting applications like Google or Zoom to poll the group on things like their favorite candy 
  • Breakout groups/partners to answer a question or share favorites
  • Rapidfire, round robbin question and answer (better in smaller groups): Ask the group a series of “This or that” questions (for example, horror or mystery?)
  • Get to know you Bingo: Give everyone a card with different traits listed on it, like “Owns a dog” or “Has lived abroad;” during breaks, fill out your card with people who have those traits until someone shouts “Bingo” when they get five boxes checked in a row on their board

You can even get creative and pick an activity that matches your PI planning theme

Because virtual PI planning is here to stay, we need to get creative with social activities you can do from afar. Plan time for structured exchanges and organize remote socials.

During Covid, we had “blind dates” during lunch for those who did not want to eat alone. Participants were assigned to another teammate to dine with. This meant they socialized via video call during their lunch from the comfort of their own kitchens.  

Human interaction is important, and PI planning is a great opportunity to get everyone together, even virtually, to create relationships that make collaboration a seamless and enjoyable experience.

PI Planning Tip 3: Be Mindful of Start Time

During the first half day of PI planning, a lot of conversations take place. My SAFe experience is primarily in Europe, particularly Switzerland and Austria, where many people take public transportation to work. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of the start time. Beginning at 8:00 in the morning might not be suitable as people often travel by train or bus. Starting around 9:00 A.M. allows for a more feasible and effective schedule.

Additionally, it’s common for fatigue to set in during the first half day, potentially due to cultural factors. Different cultures practice different presentation methods. This means some cultures are more tolerant of longer presentations than others. 

To maintain high energy levels, it’s beneficial to keep some talks shorter and initiate breakouts earlier than the proposed agenda

My remote agenda is different than for on-site PI planning. In remote settings, you’ll need more breaks than you have for on-site PI planning. Plan these breaks. Ask your Scrum Masters/Team Coaches to insist on these breaks. I have 15-minute breaks on my agenda every 60 – 75 minutes. During these breaks, I ask people to stand up and leave their desks to walk around, drink water, and do something physical. Remind your Scrum Masters/Team Coaches to do the same in the breakouts.

PI Planning Tip 4: Prepare, Don’t Over-Prepare

When preparing for PI planning, there are two approaches: A) Going in without stories and focusing on known features, or B) Going in with all the stories. 

From my European experience, starting with fewer prepared stories yields better results.

Over-preparing with excessive detail can lead to wasted time. Imagine if each team spends three days preparing stories for their “assigned” features. They might then complain that two days of PI planning is wasted because they now have nothing to do. 

The real waste lies in excessive pre-planning. What happens if the dependencies aren’t properly identified? Or if the business owner asks to reduce scope during PI planning due to a competitor’s actions? Valuable time would be wasted if the work that took time to plan is then descoped or deprioritized. 

The magic of PI planning lies in the opportunity to learn together and collaborate closely.

PI Planning Tip 5: Visualize Features

It’s important to share planning progress while teams are working. Therefore, it’s good practice to visualize features so they’re accessible to the entire organization. 

There are different ways to visualize features based on whether you plan in-person or virtual. 

In-person

To track progress and provide visibility, pin the features on a board using multiple instances and colors. For example, use two blue slips and one gray slip—all pinned over each other. When a team selects a feature, they remove the blue slips and write their names on the gray slip on the board. 

This allows the RTE, Product Manager, or Business Owner to see the progress visually. The more gray slips, the greater the progress. It also helps the team members understand who is working on what and provides an overview. The blue slips can be kept in the team area, pinned to the iteration where the feature is finished, while the other blue slip goes to the ART planning board.

Virtual

You can accomplish this same goal without physical stickies if you’re working in a virtual environment.  

piplanning.io has a color-coding system for the feature stickies. Once a feature has been assigned to a team, it will change color. It will also list the name of the team assigned to the work.  

This is a simple and easy way to see which features have been planned and which haven’t.

A screenshot from piplanning.io's feature stickies
Feature stickies in piplanning.io

PI Planning Tip 6: Take Care of Basic Needs

Maintaining wellbeing is crucial for a productive session. 

As the saying goes, “A hungry bear makes no tricks,” or as participants in a German implementation training described it, “Ohne Mampf kein Kampf,” which translates to “No food, no fight.” 

It’s impossible to concentrate when you’re basic needs aren’t being met. Food, hydration, and bathroom breaks are essential for productive PI planning. 

Designate someone to organize snacks, coffee machines, water, brain food, and other refreshments to ensure everyone stays energized and focused during the sessions.

If you’re virtual, ensure there’s a lunch built into the schedule and breaks during long meetings, especially during the first day. Encourage people to take breaks as needed throughout.

Conclusion

Now that I have dozens of PI plannings under my belt, I can safely say these six tips will provide you with a strong event that provides the right amount of certainty to an uncertain and challenging, but rewarding, experience.

In addition to these tips, here are some SAFe PI planning resources.

piplanning.io is the enterprise application SAFe teams use to facilitate PI Planning
Learn More

About Nikolaos Kaintantzis

Nikolaos has always been driven by improving people’s working lives. As a developer, he wrote UIs that made work easier. As an organizational developer, systemic coach, and SPCT, he has added skills to that ambitious endeavor. In partnership with organizations, he develops them so both the organization and all employees benefit.

Connect with Nikolaos on LinkedIn.

Your Guide to Writing Great Iteration and PI Objectives

Write PI objectives that get results using this guide

Agile is disciplined; not reckless.

Writing useful Iteration Goals and Planning Interval (PI) Objectives requires focus and discipline to achieve proper agility transformation. Bad objectives are one of the most common reasons organizations stop using them. This guide will help you write objectives that get results.

For simplicity, I will use “objectives” interchangeably when talking about iteration goals and PI objectives. Iteration goals are a scaled-down version of PI objectives, which means you can apply my guidance to both metric types.  

Why We Write Iteration and PI Objectives

Before you can write effective iteration and PI objectives, you must understand why we write them. It’s common for organizations to treat objectives as summaries of the features or stories teams commit to in the PI or iteration. But that is a misunderstanding of the objectives’ purpose.

Objectives represent the Agile Team’s commitment to delivery in the PI or iteration. They create a feedback loop from the business to the team. This loop ensures both parties understand the organizational vision:

  • Teams can confirm their understanding of the business’s desired outcomes
  • The business can clarify or further refine its value priorities

During an iteration or PI Planning, teams neither commit to all the features brought to PI Planning nor to whole features. So it’s important to understand what outcomes the features create. This gives everyone a chance to weigh in on those outcomes.

Agility Planning

How PI Objectives Support PI Planning

At PI Planning, the business gives its prioritized feature list to the Agile Release Train (ART). Then, teams on the ART sequence their stories and features based on their priorities and capacities.

During this process, teams will only commit to a subset of the business requests. PI objectives ensure teams commit to the proper subset of the business’s requests. Business value scores and conversations with business owners and key stakeholders also support team commitments.

Teams can then sequence stories and features into a delivery plan that leads to business outcomes. They communicate this plan through the objectives and summarize the business and technical goals in language the business understands. It’s much more than a summary of the planned work.

Another benefit of well-written objectives is they create an opportunity for alignment. Teams should be able to connect their features and stories to the highest value objectives. This makes it easier for the team(s) to see if they’re doing the most valuable work first. If not, they need to address priorities or technical dependencies.

How PI Objectives Are Evaluated by Business Owners

Besides understanding what objectives are for, we must also consider who objectives are for.

Teams write iteration and PI objectives for the Business Owners and key stakeholders. Teams do not write objectives for the Product Managers and Product Owners (POs) who manage the backlogs. The Product Managers and POs know what work they asked for.

Objectives communicate which business outcomes the team contributes to and why they matter. Teams then understand the deeper purpose behind their work, thus helping employee engagement. 

Business Owners evaluate PI objectives at the end of the PI to help the ART measure its performance and business value achieved. This helps determine ART predictability

One caveat to note: uncommitted objectives do not count towards a team’s predictability measure. Therefore, it’s important to write uncommitted objectives during PI planning to demonstrate that the team plans to complete the work but understands there are factors out of their control that may prevent them from delivering the value named in the objective. 

Near the end of PI planning, the Business Owners assign a business value to each PI objective. The business value is a number between 1 (lowest) and 10 (highest). Business Owners quantify the value of PI objectives through a conversation with the team. To determine the business value, they consider questions like

  • Is the work customer-facing?
  • Will the work improve future velocity and value delivery?
  • When will the value be delivered? 
  • How much of the organization will contribute to the objective?
  • How large will the impact be if the objective is not completed in the PI?

Once the PI is over, Business Owners assign Actual Business Value to the PI objectives. Actual Business Value is the amount of value that was delivered toward the objective in the PI.

For example, if one of your objectives was assigned a business value of 7, Business Owners will decide based on the team’s completed work how many of the 7 points were delivered. Like in PI planning, the scores are determined through conversations between the team and Business Owners. 

The structure of your PI objectives impacts how smoothly the Actual Business Value assignments go. Well-structured and clear objectives help Business Owners and teams easily measure what was delivered in the PI. The tips in the following sections outline how to write objectives Business Owners and teams will understand.

How to Write Meaningful Iteration and PI Objectives

Now that we’ve identified what objectives are and who they’re for, let’s inspect some PI objective examples from the field.

  • Implement Jenkins
  • Build 2 APIs
  • Build a database
  • Design a template

These examples do not effectively communicate the business outcomes the work produces. Additionally, these example objectives are written solely from the perspective of development or engineering teams and have no connection to why the work matters. If the objectives just restate the names of the features, they are a waste of time and energy.

Let’s review how to write objectives that create a meaningful connection between the technical work and the business.

First, all objectives should be S.M.A.R.T.

Specific: Be clear and specific so your goals are easier to understand.  Measurable: Measurable goals can be tracked and help you now when you're done. 
Achievable: Are there concrete steps within your control to getting it done?
Relevant: Does the work align to your values and long-term goals? 
Timely: An end date creates a clear time box in which to achieve the outcome or pivot.

Second, a good objective has five components that effectively communicate a business outcome and why it matters:

  • Activity: What will we be doing?
  • Scope: What are the boundaries of the work we will touch?
  • Beneficiary: Who is the intended recipient of the new work?
  • User Value: Why does this work matter to the new user?
  • Business Value: Why does this work matter to the business?

Examples of each component include:

  • Activity: Create, Implement, Define, Design, Enable, Modify, Etc.
  • Scope: App, API, Mobile, Web, Database, Dashboards, Etc.
  • Beneficiary: Customer, End-user, System Team, Mobile Users, Etc.
  • User Value: Faster, Better, Cheaper, Enhanced, New Features, Etc.
  • Business Value: Reduced Call Times, Increased Sales, Increased Data Efficacy, Reduced Loss to Fraud, Etc.

You can put these two steps together using the following formula.

PI Objective Formula
[Activity] + [Scope] so that [Beneficiary] have [User Value] to [Business Value]

Iteration and PI Objectives Examples from the Field

Here are a few examples of good iteration and PI objectives from three different contexts.

Financial services company example

  • Activity: Add
  • Scope: three new methods of e-payment
  • Beneficiary: so that mobile users with digital wallets
  • User Value: have an improved checkout experience
  • Business Value: to drive a three-percent revenue increase

“Add three new methods of e-payment so that mobile users with digital wallets have an improved checkout experience to drive a 3 percent revenue increase.”

Digital transformation team example

  • Activity: Create
  • Scope: an Agile Ways of Working guide
  • Beneficiary: so that {Company} employees
  • User Value: have clear guidance on implementing Agile behaviors
  • Business Value: to enable a faster flow of value with higher quality delivery

Create an Agile Ways of Working guide so that {Company} employees have clear guidance on implementing Agile behaviors to enable faster flow of value with higher quality delivery.”

An example from a team building a new customer data platform

  • Activity: Create
  • Scope: a single source of truth customer database
  • Beneficiary: so that customers who call us
  • User Value: have an improved customer experience
  • Business Value: with a 25 percent shorter time to resolution

“Create a single-source of truth customer database so that customers who call us have an improved customer experience with a 25 percent shorter time to resolution.”

Using the above approaches creates a powerful statement of business value. And it creates greater alignment between the teams’ work and business strategy. Tip: teams can write their objectives using the bulleted format to make them even clearer.

Find More Objectives Resources in SAFe® Studio

Iteration and PI objectives create feedback loops between the teams and the business. They also assess how well the team’s work aligns with organizational goals. When you understand this connection, you can improve your implementation of these objectives.

If you have objective-writing stories, good or bad, in your organization, share them with me. Together, we can improve this process for everyone.

Objective-writing resources in SAFe® Studio:

https://staging.scaledagile.com/tag/pi-planning/

About Saahil Panikar

Saahil is a SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT)

Saahil is a SAFe® Practice Consultant Trainer (SPCT) and certified Enterprise Business Agility Strategist. He is determined to help organizations extend their Agility beyond IT. He started his career as a Data Scientist, and Saahil is still passionate about the metrics behind successful transformations. As a former collegiate rugby player for the University of Florida, Saahil bleeds Orange and Blue and is a die-hard fan of Gator Football.

Connect with Saahil on LinkedIn

How To Run a Hybrid PI Planning Event

As we approach 2023, you’re probably mulling over your next PI Planning event. Will it be in person? Will it be remote? Will it be something in between? How will that look?

Before 2020, most organizations held PI Planning events in person, but COVID-19 forced an abrupt shift to remote/virtual events. However, in recent months it has become clear that many organizations have fundamentally changed, and a new hybrid format is necessary. This hybrid format brings many challenges around facilitation, tools, and collaboration.

We just held our first hybrid PI Planning event at Fred IT Group. I wrote this blog post based on that experience. In this post, I discuss the following:

  • The four types or formats of PI Planning
  • The main challenges of hybrid PI Planning
  • How we prepared for our first hybrid PI Planning event
  • My key learnings as the Release Train Engineer for our first hybrid event

PI Planning Four Different Ways

Before we go any further, it is essential to define the four types of PI Planning that are now commonly occurring: 

  • In-person PI Planning — Everyone on the Agile Release Train (ART) is in one location (collocated). The planning is done face-to-face, in “a big room”, using physical tools. This format was the recommended and most common format before COVID-19.
  • Distributed PI Planning (Scenario 1) — Teams are collocated but distributed from other teams on the ART. This scenario occurs when teams are based in different countries or states, and it is impractical for them to travel. 
  • Distributed PI Planning (Scenario 2) — Individuals are distributed, and there are no common or shared locations. Everyone joins remotely (typically from their homes), so facilitation is carried out using digital tools exclusively. This scenario is sometimes called remote, online, or virtual PI Planning. This format became prevalent in 2020 due to COVID-19.
  • Hybrid PI Planning — A subset of the attendees are located in the same place (a large meeting room). Other participants join remotely from individual locations (their homes). Teams may have a mix of in-person and remote attendees. Facilitation and tools are therefore needed to accommodate both types of participants throughout the event. Due to increased flexible working arrangements and remote-first hiring, hybrid PI Planning is likely to become increasingly common. 

Although they might seem similar, there are key differences between distributed (scenario 1) and hybrid PI Planning. In the distributed scenario, the ART is spread across a few locations only, with a facilitator at each. Teams with strong dependencies will ideally be collocated, so most key interactions are still in-person. In hybrid PI Planning, there is one group in a central location and individuals joining from dozens of remote locations. This context is much more complex as all interactions are potentially a mix of in-person and remote. Additionally, hybrid events carry a unique challenge around ensuring that the in-person subset (effectively the largest group) does not disproportionally dominate the event.

The Challenges of Hybrid PI Planning

We suspected that hybrid PI Planning would likely need to differ from the in-person and distributed events we had previously held. Some of the initial questions that we knew we would have to address were:  

  • How do we facilitate the event so as not to privilege people in the office over people at home? or vice versa? 
  • How do we create equal opportunities to participate? 
  • How do we help people returning to the office feel safe at their first large-scale work event in several years?
  • What are the challenges for people who have only attended fully remote, distributed PI Planning events?
  • What are the logistics of a hybrid event? 
  • What tools and equipment are needed? 
  • Do we use any physical tools? Or do we exclusively use digital tools?
  • How do we ensure that everyone can hear and be heard? And see and be seen?
  • Do teams do their breakout planning in the “big room”? Or do we need to provide physical breakout rooms? How do we help foster cross-team collaboration if the latter? 
  • How do we communicate expectations?
  • How do we support our team facilitators (Scrum Masters)?  

These questions are mainly looking to answer a broader one: How do we create an event that values and includes both in-person and online participants equally in a shared experience?

How We Prepared for Our First Hybrid PI Planning Event

Having established that hybrid PI Planning would involve unique challenges, we made some critical decisions and took the following steps to prepare.

Communication and alignment with the teams

Several weeks before the hybrid event, we held a meeting with the ART to share our plans and offer the team members a chance to ask questions or provide feedback. This pre-work helped us set expectations and create alignment. We also made and distributed an information pack, which contained information such as: 

  • Agenda
  • Floor plans and locations of the team breakout rooms
  • Instructions on how to use video conferencing equipment 
  • Facilitation tips 
Screenshots of agenda and floor plans from Fred IT's hybrid PI Planning information pack
Excerpt from the information pack (floor plans blurred for this blog post)

Collaboration tools

We decided to primarily use digital tools over physical ones. We knew our remote team members would not be able to see or contribute to physical boards. We used Miro for whiteboards, Mentimeter for polls (including confidence votes) and feedback, and MS Teams for calls.

A side-by-side comparison of a physical program board and digital program board
(Left) physical Program Board (Right) digital Program Board

Facilitation

In our Scrum Master Community of Practice, we ran a Futurespective workshop (AKA Pre-mortem Workshop) where we discussed what the worst and best hybrid PI Planning event would look and feel like. This helped our Scrum Masters anticipate issues, find solutions, and discuss the best outcomes.

Screenshot of Futurespective workshop: What would the worst hybrid PI Planning event look and feel like? What would the best hybrid PI Planning event look and feel like? Stick notes with answers below each question.
Futurespective workshop

Moving team breakouts out of the big room

During in-person PI Planning, the entire event usually takes place in a single big room. Given the hybrid setup, we realized this would not work well for the team breakout sessions. So we booked individual breakout rooms for each team instead. We then used the main room for sessions with the entire ART, such as the Business Context and Plan Reviews. 

A comparison of the big room setup and team breakout room setup
(Left) Big room setup (Right) Team breakout room

Testing equipment

We spent significant time testing the equipment in both the main and team breakout rooms before the event. We also had backup plans in case of equipment failure.

My Key Hybrid PI Planning Learnings as Release Train Engineer

The two days were pretty intense, and we learned a lot. We collected feedback throughout the event so that we could continually make adjustments. We collected in-person feedback on physical boards and remote feedback on a digital board. This ensured we understood the context of the feedback we received. Keep reading for some of our key learnings.

screenshots of both physical (with charts and stickies) and digital PI Planning retro feedback; what went well? what didn't go well? what could we do differently?
PI Planning event feedback

Quality of internet connection and audio/video

Two of the most important success factors for a hybrid event are a stable internet connection and clear sound and video. We had a great audio and video setup, but unfortunately, the internet connection was poor in our main room on day one. After receiving feedback from our online participants, we moved to a location with a better internet connection for day two.

Consider what you share on the screen

We discovered during the main group sessions that it was really important that both the in-person and remote participants could see:

  • The screen share
  • The chat window
  • The videos of the other participants 

If the chat window was not visible for in-person participants, they were not able to follow some of the conversations that were happening online.

We also realised it was important the online participants could see all the people in the room, not just the people presenting. Likewise, it was important for in-person participants to see the videos of the people online.

Microphone use and etiquette 

Most of us were not accustomed to using microphones and struggled to hold them consistently at an appropriate distance (myself included). In-person attendees needed occasional reminders to wait for a microphone to reach them before speaking so that online participants could hear them.

Nerves

It had been several years since most of us had attended a large-scale work event in person, and many people understandably felt quite nervous. We chose to acknowledge this in the opening address, which I think helped calm nerves and establish an appropriately supportive environment. 

The social benefit

One thing that was universally agreed on was that it was great to get a chance to meet or reconnect with all of our colleagues. We provided coffee, snacks, and lunch so people could spend their breaks socializing and not searching for food.

snacks from Fred IT's PI Planning
Time for a break

It takes a team

I learned that it takes a team to pull off a good large-scale hybrid event. If you are the RTE facilitating hybrid PI Planning, find people who can assist you with AV setup, office logistics, tech support, etc. It’s far too much for one person to attempt on their own.

Tips and Resources for Release Train Engineers Facilitating Hybrid PI Planning

Facilitating PI Planning as a hybrid event is a lot of work, particularly the first time around, but it is definitely worth trying. Although we are still learning, my key takeaways so far are:

  • Be intentional in how you design and facilitate the event, and do not underestimate the work required.
  • Expect to learn a lot and to make adjustments and improvements as you go.
  • Make sure you focus on both perspectives, in-person and online. Be extra mindful of the experience you are not having!
  • While we still value flexible working arrangements, the communal and social benefits of coming together for PI Planning are real, tangible, and significant. 

Additional Resources

Resources for SAFe® Community members

About Tom Boswell

Tom Boswell is an Enterprise Agile Coach

Tom Boswell is an Enterprise Agile Coach and certified SPC and RTE. He has worked at multiple organizations using SAFe, coaching at the team, program, and enterprise levels. He is passionate about lifelong learning, helping others grow, empowering teams, and co-creating more meaningful workplaces. Connect with Tom on LinkedIn or at www.tomboswell.com.

Facilitation Tips to Excel at the RTE Role – Agility Planning

Release Train Engineer

I spend most of my time in the Release Train Engineer (RTE) role facilitating groups from all levels of the organization.

When I facilitate poorly, people notice, and the Agile Release Train (ART) struggles to align on objectives and mitigate risks.

When I facilitate well, meetings blend into daily work, and the ART runs smoothly.

In this blog post, I focus on facilitation tips and tools that have worked for me in agility planning with three ceremonies that RTEs facilitate:

  • PI Planning
  • Scrum of Scrums (SoS)
  • System Demo

Let’s take a look at how I prepare for and facilitate each.

Release Train Engineer

Prepare for the RTE Role in PI Planning

PI Planning is the most important event the RTE role facilitates. A well-run PI Planning aligns the ART to:

  • strategy
  • business context
  • priorities

It creates the space for tough conversations about dependencies and tradeoffs. Teams have the autonomy to plan to achieve the desired value delivery within their capacity.

How to prepare for a successful PI Planning

It’s helpful for me to think about PI Planning preparation in the following sections.

Organization

This includes the tools and tips I use to stay organized before and during PI Planning.

Book calendars in advance

If you want 125 people available at the same time in the same location, you need to get dates on the calendar a year ahead of PI Planning. When I have not met this criterion, key stakeholders miss the event due to scheduling conflicts.

ART Readiness Workbook

We use an updated version of the readiness checklist in the ART Readiness Workbook. The SAFe® PI Planning Toolkit on the SAFe Community Platform includes this checklist.

It includes everything we need to prepare our teams and ARTs for PI Planning, from the program backlog to video call links. We’ve started calling it “the dream” because it keeps us so organized that the event runs like a dream.

Content

This is how I think about the information I want to convey during PI Planning.

Business context

Work with leaders to prepare a strong business context presentation. As a facilitator, it’s my job to ensure the connection from strategy to execution is clear. That connection starts with the business context.

As an RTE, I work with our leaders to paint the picture of:

  • Our progress so far
  • Our priorities moving forward
  • What we want to do with those priorities
  • Why it matters

A motivating message will resonate with people and set the tone for the event.

Note: Leaders can be your GM for the business unit or CEO for smaller organizations.

Product strategy

The product strategy connects the business context to the prioritized backlog. It shows the research, customer feedback, and PI roadmap that will achieve our strategic themes.

This means RTEs work with the head of product to create a presentation that encourages engagement with the content. It should also include plenty of time for Q&A.

I know I’m successful when, in the Q&A, team members make clear connections between the product strategy and top features in the program backlog.

Prioritized program backlog

Our product team prepares early for the upcoming PI by:

  • Understanding customer needs and desired outcomes
  • Defining, sizing, and prioritizing features

This process gives teams plenty of time to understand priorities. It also helps them understand how to do the work and which features to pull first. If I have done a good job of facilitating through the business context and product strategy, the teams will have confidence in the backlog. They’ll also understand how to engage with it to achieve the most value in the PI.

Space

How you set up impacts how your teams engage and where they focus during planning.

Virtual

Release Train Engineer

We use the Virtual PI Planning Collaborate template for virtual PI planning. This template allows us to set up all the things we would have on the walls if we were in person in one easy-to-use online location. It cuts down on logistical questions during PI Planning and allows people to focus on their tasks.

In-person

We spend a lot of time thinking about tables, breakout rooms, and supplies:

  • Does all the in-room tech work?
  • Are there clear instructions for how to use it in the room?
  • Are there snacks and fidget toys on the table for idle hands?
  • Plenty of sticky notes in different colors with pens and markers?

The less time people spend looking for supplies or troubleshooting tech, the more engaged and focused they will be.

Snacks and fun

Whether in person or virtual, planning for snacks and fun is crucial. We send out a theme for planning in advance. We also provide engagement ideas like:

  • costumes
  • virtual backgrounds
  • table decorations

In-person, we plan for snacks and catering; virtually, we send meal kits or snack boxes to people’s homes. Themes bring fun and create camaraderie and empathy that make difficult conversations easier. Snacks keep people focused and stave off the hangry moments.

How to facilitate a successful PI Planning

No matter how well you prepare and set up, facilitation will be tricky, and there will be many twists and turns. Here are my top tips for facilitating successful PI Planning.

Use a detailed facilitator’s agenda

We write a script and annotate every transition, timebox, and tool used. As a facilitator, I plan out:

  • How long to give each team for read-out, Q&A, and transition to the next team
  • Who will present on which screen and from where, and so on

Scripting this prevents worry in the moment and allows us to focus on active facilitation.

Know your end goal so you can pivot

These down-to-the-minute agendas will go off the rails at some point. It may be because a meaningful conversation runs past the timebox. Or we need to discuss a risk or de-scoping in real-time. With a detailed facilitator’s plan, we can adjust in the moment and still achieve our goal.

Embrace crucial conversations

PI Planning includes difficult trade-offs, scoping conversations, and cross-team dependencies and risks. Emotions are high, and the content is high stakes. We must model and facilitate embracing these conversations in productive ways. As a facilitator, I ensure these conversations are happening by coaching people through them.

When people come to me with problems and risks they want me to solve, it is often something they can solve themselves with a crucial conversation. I coach them to use:

  • “I” statements
  • Clear, transparent communication

The pain caused by avoidance or indirect communication is always worth this time and effort. For more detailed PI Planning facilitation guides and templates, check out the SAFe PI Planning toolkit. Find it on the PI Planning SAFe Community Platform page.

Release Train Engineer

Prepare for the RTE Role in Scrum of Scrums

After PI Planning, it’s essential to manage dependencies in a clear and consistent way. The RTE role helps create clear visibility on impediments to and progress toward our objectives.

For the ART, Scrum of Scrums (SoS) acts like a train-level stand-up. As an RTE, preparing well for SoS ensures we get the right outcomes. Facilitating well ensures it does not become a status meeting.

How to prepare for a successful SoS

Here are my tips and tricks for preparing a successful SoS in the RTE role.

Agenda and purpose

It’s important to provide a clear and visible agenda and purpose for SoS. This enables all the teams in the ART to prepare and show up with the right information to work dependencies and remove impediments.

Visuals to help review dependencies and progress toward objectives

We use the program board we built in SAFe Collaborate at PI Planning during SoS. We also use an iteration-by-iteration cross-team dependency board in our ALM tool.

Knowing we will use these in advance gives a clear place for everyone to prepare for the event. It also creates a visible place for dependencies and risks.

Representation from every team

Schedules can make it hard for every Scrum Master or team representative to attend SoS, but it must be a priority.

When Scrum Masters don’t represent their teams at SoS, questions go unanswered, and dependencies are harder to manage or make visible.

How to facilitate a successful SoS

Once I’ve prepared for SoS, here’s how I facilitate smoothly in the RTE role.

Pre-fill items in shared notes so you can spend time discussing risks, dependencies, and releases

A single, visible place for all SoS notes allows teams to add updates before the meeting. It allows others to review and show up to SoS ready to ask questions or share related information.

Ask questions that go beyond status updates to uncover dependencies

Ask clarifying questions about the work and related data in the ALM tool. Asking for visuals or links to related documents ensures everyone understands.

Mix up your questions each time. This prevents automatic responses and encourages thinking about the work from new angles.

Invite guests and people new to the company

This orients new people to your organization to your process for managing dependencies and risks. It also shows them where to find the information they may need about other teams’ work.

Check out the SoS Facilitator’s guide on the ART Events page of the SAFe Community Platform to improve your SoS facilitation.

Release Train Engineer

Prepare for the RTE Role in System Demo

The System Demo is the flashiest of ceremonies the RTE role facilitates. It’s when the teams get to show off the work they’ve completed during the iteration (or PI if it’s the PI system demo).

How to prepare for a successful system demo

Because System Demo is about showing off the work of the ARTs, it’s important that I prepare them for a smooth experience.

Prepare presenters in advance

I provide a timebox and share my agenda deck two days before the demo. Participants to leave a “live demo” slide if they plan to share their screens during the event.

Then I meet with speakers half an hour before the demo. We test the timing of presentations, handoffs, and technology. This ensures a smooth delivery.

Create a reusable template

Using a template that follows the same pattern makes it easy to prepare topics. The topics I select show the progress toward our objectives and strategic themes.

A familiar template and standard format will make preparations easy and calm the nerves of those not used to presenting.

Build in time for Q&A and space for the conversation to continue past the timebox

While the demo of the end-to-end solution is critical, it is as important that stakeholders have the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

We often only have time for a few questions, so we create a thread in our company messaging app for more questions and discussions.

How to facilitate a successful system demo

Once I prepare everyone, facilitating a successful system demo is pretty straightforward. Here are a few essential tips.

Open the meeting with purpose and expectations

I always take the first few minutes of the system demo to remind everyone why we are there. I also remind them of their role in ensuring we meet the purpose:

  • Paying close attention
  • Asking questions
  • Giving feedback
  • Looking for ways what they saw affects or improves their work

Connect demo topics to objectives and strategic themes

I structure the agenda by grouping demos by strategic theme. As part of the agenda overview, I discuss each theme and how each demo will connect to the theme and the team’s objective.

Embrace silence

The group often hesitates to speak up when there are over 100 people on a call or in a room, including key stakeholders and customers.

As a facilitator, I open the floor to questions and feedback. Or I ask questions and then count to 10 in my head. This can feel like an eternity of silence that you want to fill. But nine times out of ten, right toward the end of the silence, someone will come forward with a question. If you don’t allow for silence, you will lose much of that engagement.

Looking for more tips and tricks? Check out:

Conclusion and Additional Resources

The RTE role of preparing for and facilitating ART-level events impacts the ART’s ability to:

  • Connect strategy to execution
  • Manage risks and dependencies
  • Understand the end-to-end value delivered during the PI

Preparing ourselves and others in advance removes in-the-moment confusion. It also increases understanding and transparency.

We create space to pivot and shift in the moment while achieving desired outcomes.

Coaching and modeling crucial conversations means more productive team engagement and outcomes.

I hope this blog post has inspired you to explore new ways to approach facilitating your events. To help you on your journey:

About Lieschen Gargano Quilling

Lieschen Gargano is a Release Train Engineer

Lieschen Gargano is a Release Train Engineer and conflict guru – thanks in part to her master’s degree in conflict resolution. As the RTE for the development value stream at Scaled Agile, Lieschen loves cultivating new ideas and approaches to Agile to keep things fresh and engaging. She also has a passion for developing practices for happy teams of teams across the full business value stream.

View all posts by Lieschen Gargano Quilling

Large Solution Refinement: Paving the Super-Highway of Value Delivery

This post is the second in a series about success patterns for large solutions. Read the first post here.

Backlog refinement is integral to the Scrum process because it prevents surprises and maintains flow in iterative development. Regular backlog review ensures the backlog is ready for iteration planning. An Agile team understands how much they still need to refine the backlog items before the next iteration planning and beyond.

When applying SAFe® to large, complex, cyber-physical systems, you must expand backlog refinement to include more viewpoints. The complexity of a large solution is rarely fully comprehended by one or a few individuals, and the size of the large solution exacerbates the impact of risks that can escape into large solution planning.

So how do we find the balance between overpreparation, which limits ownership and innovation by the solution builders, and under-refinement, which can undermine the solution and the flow of value delivery?

To answer these questions, we adapted the following success patterns for large solution backlog refinement.

Use the Dispatcher Clause

The dispatcher principle guides large solution refinement by preventing the premature dispatch of requirements to Agile Release Trains (ARTs), solution areas, or Agile teams. Premature dispatching can cause risks like:

• Misalignment in the development of different solution components
• Missed opportunities for economies of scale across organizational constructs
• Sub-optimization of lower priority solution features

In contrast, making the right trade-off decisions at the right level drives holistic and innovative solutions.

Key stakeholder viewpoints that are often overlooked include marketing, compliance, customer support, and finance. Ensuring these voices are heard during refinement work can prevent issues that might remain undetected until late in the solution roadmap.

For complex solutions, we discovered that a planning conference is more effective than pre-and post-PI Planning events alone. This event mimics a PI Planning event and is intended to align upcoming PI work across ARTs and solution areas. To keep the conference focused and productive, it should only include representatives from the participating ARTs. We will cover specific planning conference details in a later blog post.

The goal of the planning conference is to provide a boundary for the large solution refinement work. Preparation for key decisions that can be made in the planning conference should be part of the refinement work. But making key decisions is part of the planning conference. However, key stakeholder inputs that cannot be reasonably gathered during the planning conference should be included in the refinement work.

For example, in Figure one, a review of the key behavior-driven development (BDD) demo and testing scenarios by a customer advisory board is valuable input in refinement. The customer advisory board will not attend the two-day planning conference, so their advance input provides guardrails on the backlog work that’s considered.

Agree on the Definition of Ready

The definition of the readiness (DoR) criteria for a large solution backlog is often multidimensional. Consider, for example, the architectural dimension of the solution. The architecture defines the high-level solution components and how they interact to provide value. The choice of components is relevant to system architects in the contributing ARTs and stakeholders in at least these areas:

• User experience
• Compliance
• Internal audit and standards
• Corporate reuse
• Finance  

Advancing the backlog item—a Capability or an Epic—through the stages of readiness often requires review and refinement from the various stakeholders.

Figure one is an example Definition of Ready Maturity Model. It shows the solution dimensions that must be refined in preparation for the solution backlog. Levels zero to five show how readiness can advance within each dimension. The horizontal contour lines show that progression to the intermediate stages of readiness is often a combination of different levels in each dimension.

Applying SAFe for Agility
Figure 1. Definition of Ready Maturity Model example

This delineation is helpful when monitoring the progression of a backlog item to intermediate readiness stages on a Kanban board.

The key to balancing over-preparation and under-refinement is to distinguish between work that an ART or solution area can complete independently without a high risk of rework. For example, final costs could be prohibitively high without a Lean business case to scope the solution. Another common high-risk impact of under-refinement is unacceptable usability caused by the siloed implementation of Features by the ARTs.

The Priority BDD and Test Scenarios in Figure one represent how features are used harmoniously. These scenarios provide guardrails to help ARTs prioritize and demonstrate parts of the overall solution without significant rework of a PI.

Identifying the dimensions, levels, and progression of readiness is a powerful organizational skill for building a large solution.

Leverage Refinement Crews

Regular large solution refinement is necessary to ensure readiness. The complexity of a large solution warrants greater effort and participation than Solution Management can cover. And the number of key decisions grows in direct proportion to the size of a solution.

Our experience shows that roughly 10 percent of those who participate in large solution development should participate in a regular refinement cadence. If the total participation is 450 people, then 45 representatives from across ARTs or solution areas should set aside time for weekly refinement iterations.

Backlog refinement for a large solution requires more capacity than a typical backlog refinement session. The refinement crews determine a cadence of planning, executing, and demonstrating the refinement work. One-week iterations, for example, help drive focus on refinement to ensure readiness.

We also discovered that refinement crews of six to eight people should swarm refinement work within iterations. These groups are usually created based on individual skills and their representation within stakeholder groups. Alignment with crews and dimensions or skillsets is determined during the planning of refinement iterations. The goal is always to move the funnel item to the next refinement maturity level in the next iteration.

Our experience says that each refinement crew requires at least three to four core participants. The other crew members can come from stakeholder organizations outside the Solution Train.

Readiness progress must be reviewed on a regular cadence with solution train progress. Progress can be represented in the Solution Kanban between the Funnel and Backlog stages, as shown in Figure two. In our example, these stages replace the Analyzing state provided as a starting point in SAFe.

Applying SAFe for Agility
Figure 2. Refinement Stages in Solution Kanban

The organization must also allow each refinement step to vary over time, as it makes sense for the solution. For example, as the development of the solution progresses toward a releasable version, the architecture should stabilize. Therefore the readiness of the backlog item in the architecture dimension should progress very quickly, if not skip some readiness steps. As solutions approach a major release, the contributors’ capacity can shift from readiness to execution of the current release or readiness for the next release.

Because refinement happens in a regular cadence of iterations, weekly, for example, the refinement crews should be empowered to make these decisions in refinement iteration planning.

Employ Dynamic Agility

So is there a definitive template of dimensions with levels and a step-by-step process for determining the DoR? Not quite. And we don’t think that a prescriptive process is best for most organizations.

Instead, we advocate for using the organizational skill of dynamic agility.

As the size and complexity of a solution grow, so do the number and type of variables: compliance type, hardware types, skills required, size of the development organization, size of the enterprise/business, specialization of customer types, and so on. This complexity is augmented by company culture challenges, workforce turnover, and technology advancements in emerging industries.

Individuals’ motivation and innovation suffer when they get lost in the morass of complexity. When things don’t get done, more employees are added to help fix the problem. This workforce growth only magnifies the complexity again.

In contrast, the organizational skill of dynamic agility stimulates autonomy, mastery, and purpose for individuals within teams, teams-of-teams, and large solutions.

Consider the House of Dynamic Agility represented in Figure three.

Applying SAFe for Agility
Figure 3. House of Dynamic Agility

How can dynamic agility be applied to large solution refinement? DoR identification and maintenance of its dimensions and levels happen through a regular cadence of the right events. How often should these occur, for how long, and who should attend? What elements will represent and communicate the DoR? What roles are best suited to own and facilitate the management and use of DoR over time? How will collaboration across the organization happen most efficiently for maximum benefit? These questions are best determined in the context of the large solution.

Conclusion

Large solutions require a balance of preparation and execution to achieve an optimal flow of value. Conducting backlog refinement in preparation for a large solution planning conference and PI Planning lets decomposed work items be implemented without risk of rework. Avoiding over-specification in refinement allows ARTs to innovate and accomplish within the guardrails of refinement. Enabling large solutions to leverage dynamic agility builds ownership, collaboration, and efficiency in a large-scale endeavor.

Look for the next post in our series, coming soon.

About Cindy VanEpps, Project & Team, Inc.

Cindy VanEpps -  SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT)

From crafting space shuttle flight design and mission control software at Johnson Space Center to roles including software developer, technical lead, development manager, consultant, and solution developer, Cindy has an extensive repertoire of skills and experience. As a SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) and Model-based Systems Engineering (MBSE) expert, her thought leadership, teaching, and consulting rely on pragmatism in the application of Agile practices.

About Wolfgang Brandhuber, Project & Team, Inc.

Chief Scrum Master, and Agile Head Coach in various Agile environments

Dr. Wolfgang Brandhuber has been a Scrum Developer, Product Owner, Scrum Master, Chief Scrum Master, and Agile Head Coach in various Agile environments. His passion is large solutions. Since the advent of the large solution level in the Scaled Agile Framework in 2016, he has set up and helped solution trains improve their complex systems. During his 18 years as a professional consultant, he worked over 16 of those in the Agile world and more than nine years with SAFe. Among other certifications, he is a certified SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT), a Kanban University Trainer (AKT), and an Agility Health Trainer (AHT).

About Malte Kumlehn, Project & Team, Inc.

Malte Kumlehn, Project & Team, Inc.

Malte helps deliver complex ecosystems, people, Cloud, AI, and data-powered digital transformations toward business agility. He pioneers intelligent operating models for portfolios with large solutions as a SAFe® Fellow, advisory board member, and executive advisor in this field. He guides executives in developing the most challenging competencies that allow them to deliver breakthrough results through Lean-Agile at scale. His experience has been published by Accenture, Gartner, and the Swiss Association for Quality over the last ten years.

Learn more about Project & Team.

PI Planning—Plan to Discover the Next PI – Improving SAFe Journey

Note: This is the third post in the Practice Makes Permanent series. Read the first post here and the second post here. You can watch my webinar on PI Planning here.

Is your SAFe® implementation slowing? Has the energy and enthusiasm faded and it feels like just one more process change? Maybe you’re just not seeing the value you expected? That’s OK because PI Planning presents significant opportunities for your relentless improvement of the SAFe journey.

If you’ve read the previous posts in this series, you know that the right kind of SAFe practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. And you know that using creative tension will help you find the right outlook to discover new opportunities and foster relentless improvement. The reality is that many Agile Release Trains (ARTs) have a distorted view of PI Planning—they see it as a readout of the already created plan or a time to direct teams toward a plan rather than the discovery session it’s intended to be. This makes it a great place to get your implementation back on track. PI Planning is an opportunity to discover the plan for the next PI. Discovery is exciting, it’s engaging, and it’s about learning.

Through my years of teaching and implementing SAFe, I’ve identified key practices to help organizations successfully discover a plan for the upcoming PI. My goal in providing these tips and techniques is to give you practical ideas on how to revolutionize your PI Planning and improve the quality of your plans.

Consider these key practices to make PI Planning a discovery session:

  • Breadth vs. depth planning
  • Good objectives start early
  • Iteration plans from PI Planning are “what if?” scenarios
  • Raise the levels evenly
  • Preconceived is pre-committed—limit pre-PI Planning

Breadth vs. Depth Planning

During PI Planning, the Agile teams are instrumental in converting the ART vision and roadmap into team-committed objectives while discovering the risks, dependencies, and delivery goals for the PI.

The anti-pattern

A very common anti-pattern in PI Planning is when teams focus on one iteration at a time, attempting to create a solid plan for iteration one, followed by a deep dive in iteration two, and so on. This is dangerous because we’re not seeing the big picture of the whole PI. And often we get to the draft plan review, and the teams don’t have a high-level, end-to-end plan, which is critical for the management (adjustment) review and problem-solving activity.

Additionally, because teams have gone iteration by iteration, concentrating on creating and loading stories, they haven’t collaborated sufficiently on with other teams on dependencies. This can potentially lead to radical plan changes during team breakouts on day two.

Implement breadth vs. depth

This is where breadth vs depth comes in. Encourage your teams to think across the whole PI and create a very high-level plan within the first 60–90 minutes of the first breakout session. This will include initial starter objectives, the discovery of some initial dependencies on other teams, high-level goals for each iteration, and some initial stories (perhaps slotted into an iteration). These activities give teams a broad, overall approach.

Now, they can use the remaining time in the breakout to improve the depth by:

  • Discovering more stories
  • Identifying more dependencies
  • Refining objectives
  • Identifying and (perhaps) mitigating more risks

This breadth vs. depth strategy ensures that there’s always a draft plan to review and helps teams align on the approach and effort distribution.

Here’s a quick recap of the key principles of breadth vs. depth:

  • Start with a high-level, end-to-end plan that’s full of holes.
  • As time permits, go back and fill in those gaps.
  • Focus on “based on what we currently know, this is our plan. However, we know we have more to learn to fill in some gaps.”
  • Raise the water level evenly. Create some story placeholders, which will generate some objectives, which will raise some dependencies, which will identify more stories, which will update objectives, and so on.

Apply SAFe® Principle #3: Assume variability; preserve options. Start with minimal constraints and a high-level approach and add details as they emerge.

Good Objectives Start Early

Team objectives are one of the key outputs of the planning effort. Objectives are a team’s opportunity to say:

“Hey, ART leadership, we saw the vision, we saw the roadmap from the top x features. Here’s our contribution to the success of the ART for this PI.”

This is a powerful opportunity to engage SAFe Principle #8 and SAFe Principle #9 and is a critical component to ensuring alignment.

Many teams struggle with understanding objectives because they’re not used to being asked, “What can you contribute to our success?” Instead, they’re used to being told “this is what needs to be done.” I like to explain objectives with an analogy.

Team objectives

Imagine you’ve just read a really powerful, thought-changing book (such as Donald Reinertsen’s Principles of Product Development Flow). Most likely you’ve read the book chapter by chapter. You want to share the power of that book with your friend, and you’ll probably share highlights and key areas and concepts from your perspective. Now, another friend reads the same book and shares their key takeaways from their perspective. While there may be similarities in key concepts (for example, Economic Sequencing) each perspective may pick up on different areas and ideas that were key to them but that maybe didn’t stand out to you.

The chapters in the book are the features. All the teams read the features and come away with their key areas and contributions. These are the team objectives. Some teams may have shared contributions across the ART (Program Objectives), but many will have specific contributions unique to their own team (Team Objectives).

Start early, iterate often

So, how do you achieve these powerful objectives within PI Planning? That’s where the phrase “good objectives start early” comes in. Objectives should start as early thoughts and concepts and grow in clarity and alignment as the breakout continues.

These are the key principles to successfully writing objectives:

  • Start writing objectives early in the first breakout.
  • Don’t wait until you have ‘perfect’ objectives; perfect is the enemy of good.
  • As you learn more about the plan during the breakout conversations, potential objectives will emerge. Write these down, no matter how incomplete they are.
  • As you learn more about the objective through further planning-fueled learning, update the objectives.
  • Don’t try to start with SMART objectives, work toward them.

Iteration Plans from PI Planning Are What-If Scenarios

A common issue that limits the self-organization aspect of SAFe Agile teams is the mistaken belief that teams are creating iteration plans that must be locked in and committed to. This is a highly critical point: teams do not commit to iteration plans in PI Planning. They’re committing to the objectives they discover, and to the Program Board, which identifies when they believe they can deliver on the features and what dependencies are needed to deliver. When teams have the false belief that they’re going to be held accountable for plans for four iterations in sequence, they become nervous, realizing they can’t really know exactly what will be needed for each iteration. They believe they’re being held to a mini-waterfall approach. Actually, the opposite is true.

We ask teams to create iteration plans so that they can discover the objectives they want to commit to, discover the significant dependencies needed to deliver the features they pull in and discover the risks that may threaten the plan. The plan they create is one of many possible ways they can deliver, and many of the details of the actual plan will surface as they execute that plan. In my experience, the specific iteration plans the teams create are about 60-percent accurate. As long as we have the significant dependencies and risks identified, that level of accuracy is good enough to get started.

Key principles around the what-if scenario approach:

  • Teams do not commit to iteration plans. They commit to objectives and the Program Board’s dependencies and Feature deliveries.
  • Teams create iteration plans to unearth dependencies, discover objectives, and learn how to deliver to the business.
  • The iteration plans will almost certainly change as we iterate through the Program Increment. Understanding that we are only identifying one of many possible scenarios to deliver on these objectives helps the teams focus on what’s important.

Raise the Levels Evenly

Closely associated with the breadth vs. depth concept is ensuring you have a good balance of focus on each component of the Draft Plan Review. Following SAFe Principle #4, we want to shorten our Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) cycles to increase the pace of learning. If you think of each key area of focus in the team breakout, we have:

  • Creating, sizing, prioritizing user stories and enabler stories
  • Identifying and improving team objectives
  • Identifying and attempting to mitigate risks
  • Discovering, discussing, and gaining commitment to cross-team dependencies
  • Updating the Program Board as we discover new feature delivery and dependency aspects in the emerging plan

Consider each of these areas as buckets to fill. We don’t want to fill one bucket to the top and then go to the next. Instead, we want to evenly bring up the level on all buckets together. That means we want the teams to generate some stories, which can lead to updated objectives, which can lead to new risks identified or mitigated, leading to new commitments with other teams, and leading to updates to the Program Board. This order is not rigid, there’s nothing wrong with discovering a dependency, adding some stories to cover this dependency, and then updating Program Board. The idea is to make sure that we are keeping the levels (amount of recorded information) approximately even across all the buckets.

safe for business

These are the key principles to raising the levels evenly:

  • Don’t try to create a full iteration-by-iteration plan too early.
  • Use the energy and knowledge from adding to one bucket to add to the next bucket.
  • At regular intervals, step back and review the levels in each bucket. Are these relatively evenly filled? If not, do we need to revert to focus on a particular bucket?
  • At key points, review the entire plan we have created so far. Do we see major gaps? Dangerous assumptions? Note: a great time to do this is about five minutes before the next Scrum of Scrums team breakout. It provides a really clear view of the current progress that will help us identify any systemic issues in our planning process.

Preconceived Is Precommitted—Limit Pre-PI Planning

Before we start PI Planning, we need the right level of readiness. But too much can lose the discovery aspect of PI Planning. Finding that balance is a learning journey, but there are key elements to balance.

Too much pre-PI Planning:

  • Takes away from the current PI effort. The focus should be on this PI’s objectives, not pre-planning for the next.
  • Locks into a plan that is not well-informed. PI Planning is about learning, not perfecting. The best objectives come from shared learning during PI Planning.
  • Damages the team-of-teams culture in the ART.

Too little pre-PI Planning:

  • Leaves the teams anxious
  • Can waste time in PI Planning trying to answer foundational questions

The right balance of PI Planning:

  • Allows teams to ask intelligent questions during the morning briefings. The test I apply is to verify: are the questions probing and refining (good) or are they high level and more about initial alignment (not so good).
  • Ensures we have the right people in the room. For this PI’s features, we may need other shared services and assistance. Knowing this in advance helps us extend invites to the right people.
  • Sets the stage for PDCA-based learning cycles during PI Planning. When teams come into PI Planning thinking they already have the right plan, it leads to a fixed mindset for the next PI, which blocks the true discovery needed. We want the team of teams (ART) to iterate through these PDCA cycles together as they discover the plan.

I use a very simple approach—called the five-sticky rule—to help teams understand a good starting point for the level of pre-planning needed. Each team is encouraged to bring five sticky notes into PI Planning that represent potential stories. This requires the team to do enough discovery around the features, vision, and other elements needed in the next PI but keeps them from creating a deep-dive plan that loses the discovery aspect. Please note that the five-sticky rule is more of a guideline than a rule and can be adjusted as needed.

These are the key principles to finding a balance of pre-planning:

  • Prepare to create the plan, don’t pre-create the plan
  • Look for intelligent, informed questions during the briefings
  • Beware of a fixed mindset view of the plan coming into PI Planning

PI Planning is one of the Ten Critical Success Factors to achieve transformational progress with SAFe. By applying the above ideas, you can make it the dynamic, engaging, energetic event it’s intended to be. So, go make your PI Planning a discovery session!

Check back soon for the next post in the series.

About Dwayne Stroman

Dwayne is an Enterprise Transformation Coach and Trainer and SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer

Dwayne is an Enterprise Transformation Coach and Trainer and SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) with more than 20 years of experience. He is ultra-passionate about helping large organizations learn how to build the right products and deliver optimal value through learning and customer validation. Dwayne uses his SPCT role to help several Fortune 100 companies, as well as many growing companies in finance, retail, healthcare, and logistics, realize the benefits of a Lean-Agile mindset. Connect with Dwayne on LinkedIn.

Creating Your PI Backlog Content – Agility Planning

Glenn Smith and Darren Wilmshurst with Radtac, a Scaled Agile Partner, co-wrote this blog post. 

At the conclusion of Program Increment (PI) Planning, we’re always reminded of something one of our colleagues always says. There’s much to celebrate because we’ve created a set of committed plans. But we first have to complete a retrospective of the PI Planning event (cue groans from everyone in the room) and we “start preparing tomorrow” for the next PI (more groans).

Moreover, the critical path for any PI Planning is the creation of the content, suitably refined and prioritized. Without this, we can’t do any planning! But what does this look like in practice? 

This blog post is aimed at coaches who need to think about the content preparation for the next PI. By that we mean SAFe® Program Consultants (SPCs) supporting the Agile Release Train (ART) and Release Train Engineers (RTEs). But more importantly, Product Management (PM) and System Architects (SA) need to create, refine, prioritize, and socialize the content supported by Product Owners (POs) and Business Owners (BOs). We will explore each of these roles in turn during the course of this post. 

The traditional siloed hierarchy of organizations can engender a ‘this isn’t my job’ attitude. Yet many people and roles need to work together to create a compelling backlog that delivers economic benefits and satisfies your customers.

The visual model below is a high-level view of the intensity of the preparation activity for each of these roles. It isn’t meant to represent the number of hours. That is, high intensity does not mean 100 percent of your time, we just expect more time spent on preparation while recognizing that there will be other things to be done.

PI Backlog Content
Preparation intensity for specific roles.

You will also notice that there is a significant spike in preparation during the Innovation and Planning (IP) Sprint for PM, BOs, POs, and the Teams. This is when PI Planning happens.

Product Management and System Architect

PM and the SA will follow a similar pattern to each other, as their roles are two sides of the same coin—one focused on the outward market and the other technically oriented. They are going to be collaborating and working closely to make sure their respected needs are met and the right balance of the work is correctly scheduled.

Crafting backlog items for an ART, whether they are Business Features or Enabler Features, follow a pattern of Creating, Refining, Prioritising, and Socialising. While overly simplistic, each step could follow the first four iterations of a PI. In the first half of the PI, expect PM and the SA to be looking to the future. This will include looking at upcoming Epics, decomposing existing Epics, and the ART roadmap and associated Architecture Runway.

A common pattern is to see poorly defined Features with weak benefit hypothesis statements and acceptance criteria. It shouldn’t be overlooked how much effort this takes to do well. This is because the work involved isn’t just writing them down in your Agile Lifecycle Management tooling, but working with BOs, talking to a wider stakeholder cohort, including customers, and reviewing market trends. Improving their own understanding of the value proposition and scope enables people on the ART to more easily deliver against it. Through the PI, their effort tapers as other cohorts take the backlog content and prepare for PI Planning.

Business Owners

BOs are key stakeholders and critical friends of the ART. As such, they gradually experience an increasing demand on their time to support creating backlog content throughout the PI—with the most involvement happening during PI Planning. As a cohort, BOs are available when needed by the likes of PM, and actively participate in the System Demos every iteration. Here, they not only get to see the progress of delivery but give feedback to help PM and the POs inspect and adapt the backlog.

We recommend that prioritization be a ‘little and often’ affair. And as it is a team sport, BOs must attend these sessions (these are the little spikes on the BO line in the model).

Product Owners

In a scaled environment, POs serve both the team and the train. In the initial periods of the PI, as you might expect, the PO has both a team execution focus and needs to support PM with Feature creation and refinement. As the content starts to get in better shape for the upcoming PI Planning, PO involvement increases, but with a shift in focus to Feature elaboration and decomposition into drafting user stories to later socialize with the team.

The Team

Through most of the PI, the team is execution-focused, although on hand for those ad hoc, short whiteboard sessions with PM, SAs, and POs. Larger demands on the team’s time should be scheduled like any other demand on their time—after all, work is work! This will be done through the use of exploration enablers in a future PI, or spikes and innovation activities that occur during the IP iteration. Either way, the outcome is gaining knowledge that reduces the uncertainty of future work.

The team’s involvement, however, peaks during the IP iteration when the POs socialize the upcoming backlog of work—the Features and the draft stories they have created. It is during the preparation for PI Planning that the team takes time to understand what is needed and answer questions that need “I’ll look in the code” to find out.

Release Train Engineer and Scrum Master

Hey wait, you didn’t forget about the RTE and Scrum Master (SM), did you? Surely they are just facilitators, we hear you say, what do they have to do with backlog items? But let’s think about this. As facilitators at the train or team level, they are key advocates for the improvement of flow and value delivery. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect them to create improvement items that require effort from the teams during the PI. And we know that anything that requires effort from the teams should be planned accordingly.

The items that the RTE and SM will bring to the table for inclusion will likely come from team retrospectives, the Inspect and Adapt problem-solving workshop, or from insight gained from activities like the SAFe® DevOps course.

Creating Content During PI Planning

During each PI Planning session, PM presents the vision, which highlights the proposed features of the solution, along with any relevant upcoming Milestones. While some may feel that at this point in the proceedings the content creation is over for PM, there is actually still work to do. During the planning, there will likely be scope negotiations and prioritization calls needed as the teams get deeper into understanding and scheduling in their breakout sessions.

Similarly, the BOs have a role in adaptive content creation too. Beyond providing the business context in the briefings, they will work with the team to discuss the needed outcomes from the work. And they’ll support PM and the SAs in adapting the scope from what was originally crafted—because tradeoffs need to be made during planning. Discussions with the teams during the assignment of Business Value could influence what gets produced in the upcoming PI too.

While the POs and the Teams need to sequence and plan their stories to maximize economic results, there will almost certainly be variability of scope that will need to be accommodated as new information emerges. This will involve further elaboration, negotiation, planning, and reworking of the content during PI Planning.

In addition, the model shouldn’t be followed religiously, but used to identify who, when, and by how much focus the different roles on the train need to spend to make this happen. While putting an emphasis on the quality of the backlog items is going to help your ART, it alone won’t fix your delivery problems but will act as a key enabler in doing so. 

It is important to give a government health warning at this stage: context is king! While we have given our view on the preparation activities and the intensity, your context will provide a different reflection. In fact, when creating this post, we both had a slightly different approach for prioritization based on our respective experiences. Neither is right or wrong but a reflection on the clients that we have worked with. So please treat the model we have created as a ‘mental model’ and something you can use with your trains to frame a discussion. 

The pattern, while broadly accurate, will change in some situations, particularly if you are preparing for a training launch and this is your first PI. Here, the cadence may be condensed and more focused, but this will be guided by the quality of the backlog content you already have.

A final thought and back to our colleague who says that “PI Planning starts tomorrow.” So does PI Execution. There’s no point in making a team committed to the plans that you have created and then not executing on them. Otherwise, what was the point of PI Planning in the first place?

If we’ve piqued your interest, check out this post about changing a feature in the middle of the PI. It’s a question we always get asked when we teach the Implementing SAFe® class.

About Glenn

Glenn Smith is SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT), SPC, and RTE working for Radtac as a consultant and trainer out of the UK. He is a techie at heart, now with a people and process focus supporting organizations globally to improve how they operate in a Lean-Agile way. You will find him regularly talking at conferences and writing about his experiences to share his knowledge.

Share:

Back to: All Blog Posts

Next: We’re Giving More Than a Donation for Pride Month