Planning is an important component of any agile methodology as we accumulate our backlog or planning goal and adapt to circumstances as the team moves forward. As we have seen historically, most software development methodologies have been built based on the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA model) which focuses mainly on planning, execution, inspection, and adaptation. This is undoubtedly a flow implicit in most agile methodologies/prescriptions as well. In this context, SAFe i.e., Scaled Agile Framework also forms its ceremonial structure around this model. Scaled Agile prescribes Program Increment planning abbreviated as PI planning as an essential ceremony; to the extent that, it is said if you are not doing PI planning you are not doing SAFe. So let us go into greater detail about Program Increment (PI) Planning in the sections that follow. To learn more about SAFe/others take up Agile Certification and stay updated.
What is PI Planning?
PI Planning is a key ceremony in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) that lays the groundwork for agile teams on a larger scale. It serves as an essential cadence for the Agile Release Train (ART) enabling coordination and collaboration to bring teams aboard to one common goal resulting in unified focus, execution and delivery.
To reiterate, this foundational ceremony is a pulse of the Agile Release Train (ART) which aligns all the teams on the ART to a shared mission, vision and plan which is an abstract principle of scaling agile at large.
“There is no magic in SAFe... except maybe for PI Planning.” ~ SAFe Authors
Why Is PI Planning Important?
SAFe PI planning is designed to help establish a common goal for large teams that can have hundreds of members. This can only be achieved when a strong structure is in place to encourage discipline, collective responsibility, and ongoing communication.
Let us take a scenario where hundreds of team members have to work on a project together while there has been no platform set up to bring them all aboard and everyone works on their team goals.
Now imagine as a scrum master, you had to reach out to a few teams to figure out the impacts on your backlog due to inbound/outbound flows:
- Would you be able to ask the other team to prioritize dependency or have your say?
- Would you be able to discuss with your product manager ahead of time what dependencies other teams may have on you?
- Would you be capable of syncing and communicating effectively with other teams?
- How would you deal with the last-minute changes for dependencies/blockers?
- How would you overcome typical software development/planning anti-patterns?
PI Planning provides a means to respond to this chaos by strengthening the ART that runs a structure within the organization. In particular, this ceremony is important as it:
- Contributes to transparency and progress.
- Fosters collaboration to achieve an established goal.
- Enhances communication between teams and team members.
- Cultivates a culture of trust, accountability, and collective responsibility within teams.
The Goal of Program Increment Planning
The implicit and important goal of any methodology or framework is to enable delivery and overcome process gaps. Likewise, PI planning in safe also aims to reduce chaos as we have seen above and bring the teams to a space where they can openly talk to each other, resolve impediments, reduce known gaps and achieve what they have committed to or even beyond.
SAFe propagates a form of rolling wave planning i.e., planning for short-term deliverables from agile teams, while trains assist in business planning and outcomes which culminate in enhanced alignment and trust between teams and business. In any form of agile development, both business and teams have to work in unison for reliable and predictable forecasting, and this is where PI planning primary output PI objective helps. PI objectives ensure clear alignment, realistic objectives, and limit on WIP as they evolve bottom-up with team discoveries during planning.
Regarding the other tangible results that PI planning seeks to achieve, this is detailed in the following paragraphs below. Looking to get certified? Talk to the experts today and go for KnowledgeHut Agile training.
Steps of Program Increment (PI) Planning
PI Planning is prescribed to be an ongoing ceremony. Each of its occurrences carries a planned agenda and value statement, but the key constituents of the event include:
- Prioritization of features for the PI ahead of the event
- 2-day activity per iteration to deliver an increment
- Ownership of events, activities, roles and responsibilities etched out in advance
- Readiness of all stakeholders across the impacted landscape to collaborate and contribute
- Collocation / Use of technology (AV) to facilitate face-to-face communication
- Product Management teams collaborate closely with development teams to enhance backlog
- Development teams own user story planning and estimating activities
- Engineers and UX team members validate planning activities
As the PI planning follows a fixed cadence based on the release plan, it is scheduled well in advance on the calendar. Following this discipline, the organization can reduce the cost of facilitating the instances of this event while also ensuring identified participants are well aware and can handle their other commitments to ensure a presence for these meetings.
Step 1: PI Planning Preparation
The PI Planning ceremony involves certain pre and post-event steps along with an organized agenda for the core ceremony itself to ensure that the time spent to align teams and stakeholders is well-utilized and outcomes of organizing this foundational activity are achieved. The planning event acts like an all in
Among the pre-steps (aka Pre-PI planning event) are major areas such as:
Coordinating and communicating with stakeholders and teams
Having a set of pre-defined roles and responsibilities, aligning team members, leadership and stakeholders across the organization, and setting expectations regarding their contribution will help evolve the backlog throughout the increment.
Step 2: Readiness of the Organization
This involves having strategic alignment among participants, stakeholders and business/application owners. The impact tier/change impact matrix should be drafted and clarified. This can be achieved by:
- Understanding Planning Scope and Context - Has the scope (product, system, technology domain) of the planning process been understood? Do we know which teams need to plan together?
- Business Alignment – Have the priorities been discussed and agreed upon among business owners?
- Agile Teams – Most importantly, do we have Agile teams set up? Do they comprise dedicated team members and have the Scrum Master and Product Owner for each teen been identified?
Step 3: Readiness of Content
This is an important pre-requisite step to ensure a clear vision and context, also supporting which the right stakeholders are available and can join. To achieve this, there needs to be:
- Executive Briefing - that speaks about the current business landscape/context
- Product Vision Briefings – created by the product management team listing the top 10 features of the Program Backlog
- Architecture Vision Briefings – A representation of new enables, features and Nonfunctional requirements made by the architects (CTO / Enterprise Architect/System Architect)
Step 4: Readiness of the Facility
It involves creating an environment virtual/physical for distributed/collocated teams to collaborate. It also includes investment in the required technical infrastructure. Key criteria include:
- Locations: The site/location for the planning event must be prepared in advance
- Technology and Tools: Access to infrastructure/tools to help drive the meeting
- Communication Channels: Primary/secondary AV equipment and presentation tools
PI Planning is an essential ceremony complementing the ART events and completing the train tracks to ensure a full-circular flow across the organization/teams.
Step 5: PI Planning Agenda
Every PI Planning event follows a standard 2-day agenda with activities structured and outlined for each day to ensure the essence of the meeting is successfully achieved and outcomes met as defined. It is important to note that though it is supposed to be a 2-day event, it may depend upon the flexibility of each organization depending on its teams and set-up that may define the timeline for this event.
A standard planning event follows the below template/structure:
Business Context – The respective application/business owners talk about the as-is and to-be business state, discuss the portfolio vision, and state how the solutions outlined will cater to consumer demands.
Product/Solution Vision – Product Managers talk about the new features, takeaways from previous PI sessions, and upcoming milestone/release plans.
Architecture Vision and Development practices – The System Architect may present upcoming vision/features and development leads/managers may also talk about dev best practices along with CI CD changes being proposed in the forthcoming PI.
Planning Context and Lunch – Presentation by the RTE on the planning process and the desired outcomes.
Team Breakouts – Teams discuss, estimate capacity, and plan the sprints into the draft plans – which are made visible to all, each iteration at a time.
Draft Plan Review – Teams discuss the key planning outcomes, PI objectives, risks, assumptions and dependencies. Key stakeholders involve and provide input in this strictly timeboxed activity.
Management review and problem-solving – Adjustments to the draft plan to overcome constraints and dependencies or negotiate changes in scope, cost, or agreements to make planning adjustments by the management.
Planning Adjustments: Post management review which concludes Day 1, Management proposes adjustments to scope, resources, plans, etc. which are taken into account.
Team Breakouts: Teams finalize business objectives to be achieved in the PI, and respective owners assign business value (BV).
Final Plan Review and Lunch: All teams are given slots in which they present their plans to the group along with their risks and impediments. Business Owners review the plans and propose adjustments or accept the plan in which case, the team brings out their PI Objective sheet for everyone to view.
Program Risks: Risks brought up are discussed and categorized per the ROAM technique i.e.
- Resolved – Risk is no longer valid
- Owned – An ART member takes ownership as the risk cannot be resolved on the PI Planning ceremony
- Accepted – Potential problem which has to be accepted without any choice
- Mitigated – Plan is identified to reduce the impact of the risk
Trust/Confidence Vote: Each time, does a “Fist of Five” voting – if the average is 3 fingers or more, management accepts the commitment. Those with less than 3 fingers should speak up, which may bring additional concerns/risks to adjust planning. The process is repeated till all concerns are listed and confidence is achieved.
Plan Rework: Teams look for opportunities to adjust plans to ensure clear alignment and commitment to achieve a high confidence level.
Planning Retrospective and moving forward – The RTE leads the retrospective to capture best practices, lessons learned, and key action items/objectives. Moving forward, steps for the next session are outlined which include:
- Planning room clean-up
- Revisiting Team and ART event calendars
- Deciding the agile ceremonies location and timings (Stand up in particular)
- Logging objectives and stories of the PI from the sheets to an Agile Management tool
- Collating individual team PI objectives into a consolidated program PI objectives list – which eventually will be used by the Product Management team to update the roadmap and forecast for the next 2 PIs.
Post-planning activities (aka Post-PI planning event)
- Teams leave the PI Planning with the key outcomes being – PI Objectives, Iteration plans, pre-populated iteration backlog, and individual team-level risks.
- Teams adjust their plans during their iteration planning with the finer nitty-gritty and go into ART execution.
- RTE who acts as the Chief Scrum Master takes over the program board actively following up on the dependencies and action items, guiding various teams to prioritize predecessors.
- Social/Informal connection among team members serves as a bonding activity to facilitate better connection and collaboration.
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PI Planning Example
A program board representation from a PI planning instance showcasing features and dependencies among iterations/teams.
Business Benefits of PI Planning
PI planning delivers many business benefits, including:
- Facilitating face-to-face communications among team members
- Aligning teams towards a unified and supportive model for the ART
- Cascading goals vis business context, vision, PI objectives
- Improving collaboration to reduce WIP/Wait times
- Fostering a culture of transparency, trust and team building
- Enabling quick decision-making capabilities
Remote PI Planning Challenges
The popular Agile Manifesto states that face-to-face communication is the best form of communication. However, in the case of teams spread across various geographies/continents, this seldom is a possibility in which case the impetus of having a virtual PI planning for distributed teams is the only solution. It is important to note that due to the tightly-coupled structure of the event, all participants must be available and fully attentive throughout the duration.
Some of the common challenges and solutions for teams include:
- Monotony due to the length and business/technical context of the discussions
- Tip: Include ice-breaker sessions and roleplays to get better input and participation
- Attentively – Participants may lose track and focus on other activities at hand
- Tip: Ensure videos are enabled, participants are asked to be in a silent set-up and everyone can voice their thoughts one at a time to ensure collaboration
- Trust Factor – Team members may shy away from a larger setup and not collaborate effectively as required
- Tip: Break up teams into smaller groups, foster creative thinking and problem solving
- Technology – Issues with AV equipment, connectivity
- Tip: Do a dry-run among the smaller groups, ensure technology issues are weeded out at least a couple of days before the event and have an IT team on standby to support any hassles.
- Time constraints – Context discussions may go overboard than the planned time, resulting in time constraints for all the following activities
- Tip: Strictly timebox discussions and have a timer ticking on both sides of the room for everyone to be attentive to the clock when presenting their points
- Backlog Ordering – It may so happen that with inputs from teams/stakeholders backlog may undergo reordering and require fast-paced reprioritization
- Tip: Ensure close collaboration and review of features beforehand and take into account dependencies/support to be provided while aligning backlog.
Planning is a key ceremony for any activity and so is PI Planning for SAFe. PI Planning can be a daunting event with so many parties and says involved, but there is no event as collaborative as this to help build better software. It enables teams to get ahead of routine issues, address dependencies and build software in a unified method taking into account organizational strategies and goals.
At any level of SAFe and even in a hybrid setup, PI Planning forms the indispensable foundation to start with and hence, organizers and facilitators must give importance to advancing technology to enable teams to collaborate and contribute from any part of the globe. An event of such caliber not only helps the team share inputs but builds an environment of trust and bonding, which helps the team execute faster by reaching out to the right person(s) for the right question(s) thereby enabling smooth execution and faster development. Go for best Agile certification to further enhance your learning.