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PI planning in the time of COVID-19

Program Increment (PI) Planning is often hailed as the “secret sauce” of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). It is a big room event, where an entire Agile Release Train (ART) of up to 125 people comes together from various locations to align on strategy, iron out dependencies, and formulate a Program Board of features to be delivered over the next business quarter (usually 5 iterations followed by an Innovation and Planning Iteration). It is a mashup of people, practices, and tools, with the perfect balance of organization and chaos. The result? Pure magic: alignment, synergy, and confidence.

Scaled Agile advocates that this event be fully co-located whenever possible, but has long acknowledged the reality of distributed PI Planning, which extends to one or two remote locations. But how to handle dispersed PI Planning, where each individual is at a different location? How do you keep the synergies of the big room and team breakouts when no one is together? This is the challenge we currently face with the COVID-19 pandemic.

SAFe maintains that tooling is the backbone of distributed PI Planning and that when team members are dispersed rather than collocated, it adds a whole new level of complexity and coordination (See Distributed PI Planning with SAFe). Therefore, fully dispersed PI Planning requires even more reliance on tooling, pre-planning, and coordination. The RTE (Release Train Engineer) and Scrum Masters are vital to orchestrating this.

Keeping clear on the values and principles that unite us is helpful in this time of social distancing. As every agilist knows, we value individuals and interactions over processes and tools. With heightened reliance on tools, we must not forget that they are there to serve us — to connect individuals and enable interactions — not the other way around. We don’t need to get hung up on the tooling. We can use what’s already available to us at our company. It’s about the people and the planning, but luckily, there are tools that can help us.

This article assumes your organization is following SAFe, or at least conducting SAFe-like quarterly planning events, and using an EAP (Enterprise Agile Planning) tool like Jira Align, the top tool for supporting SAFe (Gartner, May 2019). Much as SAFe builds upon team level agile delivery and scales it to the program, solution, portfolio, and enterprise levels, so too Jira Align works in concert with the top team level agile tool, Jira Software, extending it to all levels of scale.

It also assumes you will use a video conferencing tool such as Zoom or WebEx, an instant messaging tool such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, and a collaboration tool such as Confluence. These are key to enabling interactions in a dispersed scenario.

Seven Tool Tips

The RTE, as the main facilitator of PI Planning, along with Scrum Masters and any others who provide logistical support will want to heed the following advice.

  1. Work with your internal tools team to ensure that there is a collaboration space for each agile team and the entire train.
  2. Keep all tools open, allowing the same ability to walk through teams’ collaboration spaces, view their boards, etc., that you’d have in real life.
  3. Ensure that there is a chat group or channel for each team, plus a Scrum Masters group, Product Owners group, Facilitators groups, etc. Keep channels open so people can pose questions to the groups. Have a page in Confluence with links to the team channels.
  4. Make sure everybody knows how to use the tools. Scrum Masters can be of service here.
  5. Ensure there are adequate licensing and bandwidth and that you’ve load tested the tools with the volume of people who will attend PI Planning. For example, invite people to play a 15-minute game via your video conferencing tool in order to load test and gain familiarity with it. A recent SAFe webinar on Remote PI Planning recommends community puzzles such as jigsawpuzzle.io for this purpose.
  6. Have dedicated technical support personnel. Participants who lose audio, for example, need to be able to message tech support. In addition to an open messaging channel for technical help, have a published process for escalation.
  7. Additionally, as the Scouts say, “Be Prepared” and have a Plan B for each tool in case it should fail for whatever reason. No tool is exempt from having a backup. For example, export data from your EAP or Agile Lifecycle Management (ALM) tool to spreadsheets each day and keep them as backups for the unlikely event of system downtime.

Pre-planning

Pre-planning is key for success in a dispersed scenario. The RTE and Scrum Masters should begin this well in advance, make appropriate modifications to the standard PI Planning format, and conduct a dry run to ensure smooth execution.

It’s helpful to first get a handle on where each person on the train is located geographically.  ART and team rosters with locations, contact info including mobile phone, and each person’s backup or proxy contact info need to be gathered and posted, for example, in Confluence. The RTE should distribute this information, along with other items as noted in the sections below, in advance of the event.

Pro tip: The PI Planning toolkit, available from the Scaled Agile community site, has an editable team roster.

Scrum Masters, it’s important to keep track of where people are, not just physically, but emotionally. In this challenging time, it is important to remember 4 Bs: Be of service, be flexible, be responsive, and be understanding. Working remotely is new to many people, and there are the added challenges of children in the workspace, cabin fever, and excessive screen time among others. Team members, please also check in on the wellbeing of your Scrum Masters.

Questions for Scrum Masters to ponder include: How does a 3 or 4-hour team breakout work when dispersed? How can Scrum Masters check the energy of the team?

RTEs, for the context briefings on Day 1, plan to have three facilitators per presentation: the presenter, a chat moderator to field questions, and dedicated tech support.

Working Agreements

Working agreements will require modification to account for a variety of factors. Latency may necessitate allowing time for what you say to reach remote locations. Items such as “Pause after speaking,” “Raise your hand,” and “Pass the mic to the next speaker” may need to be added. Here are a few sample items from SAFe:

In the big room, you can see what people are doing, whether they are in a conversation, eating, or if they stepped out. Therefore the use of status updates might be added to the agreements so people can visualize what going on.

An important point that might be added too is “Keep cameras on.” Not only does this help keep people focused, but it supports Principle 6 of the Agile Manifesto: “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Another possible addition is to “Take turns monitoring the team channel,” in order to ensure swift responses to questions. On this topic, it might be agreed that a standard tool such as WebEx will be used for main events, while teams can use what they prefer, such as Slack or Hangouts, for their breakouts, as long as the channels are open and posted in Confluence.

The RTE’s planning briefing on Day 1 is important for reviewing working agreements and agreed upon communication methods.

The Agenda

The PI Planning agenda will need to be adjusted for time zones and to make the most out of collaborative time together. Avoid having people stay up all night and commit to objectives while sleep deprived. In other words, no 4:00 AM confidence vote!

It is also recommended to stretch the agenda out to 3 or 4 shorter days because it’s hard for people to focus when looking at a screen for many hours on end. Plan breaks of at least 5 to 10-minutes each hour and account for meal breaks in different time zones. Scrum Masters can work more closely with any individuals who are unable to attend certain parts of the agenda.

In a distributed scenario, SAFe recommends adding team synchronization points to the agenda. Teams can use an online booking sheet or calendar to schedule time with individuals and teams they need to work with during these sync points. The second sync point allows for Business Owners to assign business value to PI objectives. Again, use an online method to schedule time (10 minutes recommended) with the appropriate Business Owners.

Don’t forget to build in time for fun! For example, plan a remote social after Day 1. Lastly, the RTE should circulate the agenda in advance.

Here is an example SAFe provides for distributed PI Planning across two time zones (Los Angels and Delhi), stretched over three days:

 

 

Pro tip: The PI Planning toolkit, available from the Scaled Agile community site, has an editable version of this agenda.

Context Briefings

The first part of Day 1 establishes the business context, product vision including the top prioritized features, architecture vision, and development practices for the upcoming PI. The RTE should distribute briefing presentations in advance so people can follow along even if audio becomes garbled. Better yet, pre-record and distribute the presentations ahead of time and use a shorter window of availability for questions. Scrum Masters can schedule time with their teams to review the recordings and note questions to be brought to the virtual big room. This approach streamlines the schedule and reduces complexity.

Pro tip: The PI Planning toolkit, available from the Scaled Agile community site, has editable briefing presentation templates. The Product Manager may want to include a roadmap exported from Jira Align.

Team Breakouts – First & Second

Teams begin the first breakout by estimating their capacity for each Iteration based on their historical velocity (visible in either Jira Align or Jira Software) and availability, factoring in things like holidays, vacations, and training.

Teams then identify and size the backlog items likely needed to realize the top prioritized features and begin loading them into upcoming iterations. This can be done in Jira Sofware or in various ways within Jira Align. Perhaps the best way is to use Jira Align’s “Backlog Kanban – Sprint View.” This allows stories and tasks to be dragged from the unassigned backlog on the right into the different iteration columns on the left, which show the total story points loaded into the iteration next to the team’s average velocity for the previous 5 iterations. This is a good visual indicator of how realistic the load is for each iteration. Note that an override button allows teams to overwrite average velocity with the capacity figures they derived based on availability and other factors.

 

 

Full details on this approach are available in an Atlassian Community article by Rob Phillips. Note: team level users of Jira Software are considered “integrated users” of Jira Align, which allows their data from Software to sync with Align and for them to access Align’s team level functionality such as the above Backlog Kanban – Sprint View.

During the breakout, teams also add the features and associated dependencies to the program board. In a real-life big room, sticky notes and string make features and dependencies tangible on the program board. Yet companies, especially larger ones, have long been using Jira Align’s program board during in-person PI Planning. One reason is that it saves time entering physical board data into the tool. Another is that Jira Align’s dependency functionality enforces a contract between teams that is documented, trackable to resolution, and provides visualizations that can serve as inputs to the Management Review and Problem Solving session. For example, a plethora of dependencies upon a single team may warrant redistribution of team members to reduce knowledge silos.

The Jira Align program board visualizes the target delivery iterations of features and dependencies and is used throughout the PI to track status. For example red means an item is blocked and orange signifies scheduling issues. As Product Owners write stories for features, those features (shown as rectangles) will land in their teams’ swimlane. Features with no associated stories at the time of PI Planning can be shown in the unassigned column to the left of the iteration columns. Teams can then target an iteration for these features even if stories aren’t yet written.

Unlike a physical board with red strings for dependencies, which can get cluttered, Jira Align represents dependencies by showing chevron symbols in the swimlanes of teams upon which others (including teams from other ARTs) depend. However, if strings are what you’d like to see, try the dependency wheel, one of several visualizations Jira Align offers:

This view has helped organizations adjust their ART structures to reduce dependencies and improve delivery flow.

Cross-team collaboration is key, therefore the approach for dependency conversations might be added to the working agreements. Walking across the big room or to a breakout room is easy, but how to handle conversations virtually? Are other teams allowed to drop into team breakouts or should they schedule time with them first? One recommendation is to post “office hours” when other teams may drop by. Another is to use SAFe’s recommend team synchronization points. In this case, remember to schedule time in advance. The common courtesies of in-person PI Planning still hold. Be sure to have a conversation before entering a dependency in Jira Align, where it will be tracked until resolution.

As the breakout progresses, it’s helpful to keep in mind the outputs that each team will communicate during the draft and final plan reviews:

We’ve discussed capacity and load. Let’s now consider the teams’ PI objectives, which the RTE later synthesizes into Program Objectives. Teams add these to Jira Align, where they appear as hexagons above the team swimlanes on the Program Board, and link them to any associated features. Business Owners determine each objective’s business value on a scale of 1 to 10 and add it to Jira Align. Key results could also be added, although SAFe currently only recommends OKRs for higher-level strategic themes. Teams and the RTE can filter a listing of their objectives for presentation or export.

Lastly, let’s consider how teams can handle risks.

Program Risks

During breaks, teams identify program-level risks and impediments that could impact their ability to meet their objectives. These are reviewed openly and honestly together as an ART, facilitated by the RTE, and categorized as follows onto a ROAM board, available in Jira Align:

  • Resolved – The teams agree that the issue is no longer a concern.
  • Owned – Someone on the train takes ownership of the item since it cannot be resolved at the meeting.
  • Accepted – Some risks are just facts or potential problems that must be understood and accepted.
  • Mitigated – Teams can identify a plan to reduce the impact of an item.

 

 

After the final plan review and ROAMing of risks, the teams and ART are ready for their confidence vote.

Confidence Vote

Scrum Masters can gather their teams’ confidence votes in advance to reduce the complexity of gathering it in real-time, then all teams communicate their votes live for the combined ART confidence vote via fist of five in front of their webcams.

 

Planning Retrospective

Finally, the RTE leads a brief retrospective for the PI planning event to capture what went well, what didn’t, and what can be done better next time. This can be done online in the days following the event to shorten the schedule and give teams a rest. Consider gathering information in advance using a tool like Survey Monkey to enable a shorter, more productive online meeting.

Closing Thoughts

The agile community’s response to COVID-19, both in practices and tools, is emergent. We continue to uncover better ways to plan and deliver efficiently and effectively while geographically dispersed. We welcome your feedback and lessons learned in the effort to relentlessly improve. Note too that Scaled Agile and Atlassian have created sites that will be updated as practices improve through inspecting and adapting. See COVID-19: Adapting the SAFe® Way and the Atlassian Community’s Virtual/Remote PI Planning Best Practices and FAQ. If you’d like assistance implementing Atlassian tools to support your remote teamwork, feel free to reach out to Valiantys, Atlassian Partner of the Year 2019, Services.

 

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