Online PI Planning for Distributed Teams in Enterprise Level Company

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PI plannings are an integral part of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), even more so for big enterprises with teams distributed across multiple locations and time zones. In the business context, this means that the teams, alongside business owners and stakeholders, determine the scope of the project as well as its business value, discuss risks and dependencies, and plan out in detail their work for the next PI. 

The client would hold PI planning events in London, bringing together sometimes up to two hundred people from all around Europe and spending the whole of two days planning, establishing cross-team relationships, and not to forget having fun. However, in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis and complete ban on travel, we were presented with a new challenge to overcome. 

Online SAFe PI Planning Event Preparation

Up until a week before the PI planning, we didn’t know to what extent it would have to be transferred into online mode. At first, we thought that only the client would be connected, and all the teams would be in the office. We had already sent our boards to the print shop when the news about the quarantine hit us. We had to think fast to come up with a solution. And just like that, within one week we switched to complete online mode.

Sofiya Savka, Service Delivery Manager at Symphony Solutions

A lot of effort went into the preparation of the online PI planning, which was a major factor in its success, allowing for smooth collaboration across all locations. It was a challenge in and of itself, as the remote teams had to be flexible and adapt to the situation with the news regarding the quarantine changing by the hour.   

When talking about what exactly was done, first of all, there was a checklist compiled of all the things necessary for the PI planning event. There needed to be an online alternative to whatever would usually be readily available offline – boards and artefacts, rooms for team breakouts, teamwork and face-to-face communication. Then the teams decided on who would be responsible for moderating the meetings, how to organize all the calls.  

Luckily, there were online tools available that could be easily integrated with apps which agile teams use for project management or communication. Some needed minor adjustments, to set them up for the online event. For instance, a separate channel of communication was created for each individual team, as well as chats for product owners and business analysts. There was a list of virtual “rooms” so that you could easily navigate between team chats and be kept in the picture. Then there was the agenda with all the major meetings scheduled ahead of time.  

Online PI Planning Agenda and How it happened 

The PI planning event took place over two days and followed the agenda that was sent out to all the teams ahead of time.  

Agenda

Day 1: Draft Plans, MS Teams, and Big Agile

The first day of the PI planning started with an introductory word from the business owners, followed by the Strategy and Vision presentation, and an overview of the logistics of the day. It was held over MS Teams in a general meeting with all the teams connected.  

The next six hours were dedicated to team breakouts which shifted to individual MS Teams channels. Each team worked with the program backlog, breaking down features into user stories, planning out the future sprints, constituting the Program Increment, and setting feature delivery dates for all the tasks. 

A new addition in the online PI planning was the introduction of the Big Agile tool, which was integrated with Jira and allowed to work with all the individual team projects on one program board. The managers and product owners added all the features, PI objectives and priorities to the board.  

Every two hours there would be a Scrum of Scrums meeting, a scaled agile practice allowing the Scrum Masters of all the teams to communicate their dependencies, check if everything was going according to plan, track the features being added to the general board in Big Agile.  

Our tech lead made a separate board for us where we could filter the user stories and tickets by features and priorities. We could sort everything out by epics and sprints, add labels. It was very convenient. You could just open an epic and see right away what needed to be done, all the feature delivery dates. Then you’d evaluate your capacity in each given sprint and make changes if necessary.

Ruslan Grygorchuk, Scrum Master at Symphony Solutions

The teams drafted the future sprints by the end of the first day. During the review meeting, the drafts were presented to the business owners and stakeholders who asked their questions and adjusted priorities.  

Day 2: Final Plan, Presentation, and Vision for the Future

The next day was dedicated to finishing up the draft plans, double-checking everything and making some last-minute changes according to the approved priorities. There was another program board presentation for teams who’d adjusted their plans, but for the most part, the main chunk of the planning was done on the first day. 

The online PI Planning was even more efficient than the offline event. Our team managed to plan everything on the first day. We didn’t have that many dependencies, so there was no need to re-evaluate the plan. We were done in just one day and on the second day simply joined the general meetings.

Sofiia Naida, Scrum Master at Symphony Solutions

The Gallery walk was realized in the form of a presentation, containing all the PI objectives, with upper management and stakeholders determining the business value for the project in alignment with the clients strategic vision in the given business context.  

Lastly, the teams looked at the potential program risks and assigned the owners to each blocker. The PI planning ended with a confidence vote, to see if everyone involved was on board with the plan and ready to commit to the scope of work, defined for the upcoming PI. 

Tools used for remote PI Planning

  • Jira is the number one tool for project management and team collaboration, widely used as a way to introduce scaled agile principles in project execution. Agile teams are already using it daily to manage epics and features, keep a program backlog, and track their stories and tasks in each sprint. It’s visual, intuitive and easy to use. In Jira, you can see the whole scope of the work that needs to be done, know what your teammates are working on and see all the dependencies and blockers right away. If used correctly, Jira allows you to organize your workload and always be exactly on track with your tasks.  
  • Big Agile came into play as this is a tool that can be integrated with multiple Jira projects. It gives the complete picture on all levels, accumulating Jira projects from all the teams involved in PI planning and summarizing them into one program board. In real-time, teams can determine the PI objectives, plan for the upcoming sprints and manage dependencies across all teams. In the previous PI planning, Big Agile has already been considered as a tool to keep track of the results of the planning. However, with the need to transfer the PI planning event to online mode in its entirety, the teams ended up using the full functionality of the tool, which proved to be very effective and time-saving. 
  • MS Teams is a platform for team communication in chats and video meetings, with a multitude of other useful features and integrations, which can pretty much be the starting point of your every working day. Having used it before as a hub for teamwork, now MS Teams is even more relevant to help keep the teams in touch and aware of the current processes within the team and across the company. It was only natural to use it for video calls and meetings in the PI planning as every Symphonian is already an active MS Teams user (or should be, for that matter). For this PI planning, individual MS Teams channels were created for each team, that were used for conducting team breakout sessions.  
  • Voting Poker is a web application, introduced as a replacement for the confidence vote that usually takes place at the end of the PI planning and is aimed at determining how confident the teams are for the upcoming Program Increment and if the results are satisfactory, what concerns may be raised in regards to the successful implementation of the project plans.  

Post PI Planning 

All in all, the online PI Planning event was a success. With diligence and dedication, all the teams managed to coordinate their efforts and communicate effectively, even when separated by distance and circumstances.  

It’s been great working online. All the PI objectives were in plain sight at all times, we took turns speaking, everything was done orderly. There was no chaos whatsoever. It’s probably because we all understood the importance of cooperating to make it all happen. The client gave us his feedback that everything went by smoothly, we were fast and efficient, and exceeded his expectations.

Mykola Shandra, Scrum Master at Symphony Solutions

SAFe PI Planning for Distributed Teams

Why Plan at All?

PI planning is short for Program Increment planning. It’s an indispensable part of SAFe, aimed at bringing together distributed teams across all locations in a face-to-face event, aligning the vision of all the teams on the Agile Release Train (ART) and preparing them for the upcoming PI. In two days, the teams plan their work according to business goals and the PI objectives, decide what needs to be done in the next six to seven sprints, determine their priorities, and discuss risks and dependencies.  

When conducting PI planning with SAFe for distributed teams, it’s preferable to bring all the teams to one location. If teams are dispersed across different locations, you need to account for differences in time zones, it makes the arrangements more complicated, and as a rule, we try to avoid all unnecessary complexity.  

It’s common for the teams to travel to one destination for the duration of the PI planning event. However, resorting to online means of communication like calls and video-conferences during a PI planning isn’t completely unheard of. This can happen for a variety of reasons: difficulties with obtaining visas, financial constraints, travel restrictions, inability to coordinate transportation of large teams across multiple locations. Organizing and conducting PI planning completely in online mode is more relevant now than ever, with the restrictions and even complete travel bans in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis.  

With the need to abruptly transfer the PI planning to online mode, the teams faced with a new challenge and had to think and act fast. At the same time, it was a chance to prove that SAFe PI planning could be done in such dire circumstances and that it can be not much different from an offline event.  

PI Planning Online: Pros and Cons

So, as you can see, there’s no need in discussing the need for a PI planning as per se, however, how you are going to conduct it may result in an array of challenges to overcome. Having successfully accomplished a remote PI planning, we can reflect on the experience. 

Pros  

  • With proper pre-planning, remote PI Planning is just as efficient as offline events  
  • Fewer distractions. Easier to focus on work.  
  • Everyone is involved in the planning. When oncall, people don’t talk over one another and take turns to present their parts.  
  • It’s convenient to have all PI objectives summarized in a presentation.  
  • Teams have access to the program board all the time. They can see the whole scope of work, all the features and dependencies.  
  • Easy to follow the agenda and make sure you take everything into account.  
  • Using online tools made the planning process easier and more efficient – all the changes can be added online, no need to walk up to a board and fidget with sticky notes.  
  • Pre-planning alongside using online tools made for a faster and easier planning for the upcoming PI.  
  • No expenses for transportation, accommodation, catering. Everyone is working remotely from the comfort of their home.  

Cons  

  • The more teams are involved in PI planning, the more complicated it becomes.  
  • It may be hard to coordinate teams with many dependencies.  
  • You couldn’t clearly see the program risks from the board.
  • If calls and meetings aren’t planned on the agenda, it may be difficult to get all the people on the call. 
  • No way to step aside to have a quick word with someone, every call needs to be agreed on or scheduled. 
  • Harder to conduct confidence vote with remote teams. 
  • Everything felt very casual, no after-party. 

Lessons Learned

Looking back at the conducted event and the PI plan that it resulted in, we can draw a conclusion:  

  • A bit of preparation goes a long way.  
  • It’s important to find the right tools that suit your needs.  
  • Collaboration and communication are of highest priority when working towards a common goal. 

Of course, we’re not looking to completely replace a collocated PI planning. Being burdened by the current situation, we were happy to find a workaround and successfully carry it out. However, nothing can be quite the same as working side-by-side with your colleagues. 

Interpersonal communication gives you a sense of belonging with other teams. You’re not only following out a plan but feel a strong responsibility to people, you’ve built quality connections with. This is a completely different level of professional relations that cannot be achieved solely through means of online communication. 

All teams went to great effort to prepare the remote SAFe PI Planning. With a bit of quick wit and flexibility, the planning was conducted without a hitch and the teams are well-prepared for their next PI planning. 

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