Distributed PI Planning with SAFe
Note: This article is part of Extended SAFe Guidance and represents official SAFe content that cannot be accessed directly from the Big Picture. This article is a companion to Working Successfully in Agile with Remote Team Members.
Bringing everyone on an Agile Release Train (ART) together for PI Planning is a significant effort. While the Agile manifesto and SAFe highlight the benefits of face-to-face planning, organizations often need to run these events across multiple locations. The reasons for a distributed PI planning event can vary – it may be due to financial constraints, highly distributed teams, ample travel time and cost commitments, difficulties with visas, or even arbitrary travel restrictions. Regardless of the reasons, every organization adopting SAFe will benefit from having a plan in place for effectively conducting PI planning with geographically distributed participants.
This article combines guidance from our experiences and those of our customers, partners, and the SPCT community on successfully managing distributed PI planning. It focuses on the following six areas and shares tips within each one:
- Planning Locations: Determining the number of different locations needed
- PI Planning Agenda: Creating a PI planning agenda to accommodate multiple time zones
- Facilities: Ensuring the appropriate physical space to conduct the planning
- Working Agreements: Meeting the needs of the event attendees
- Tooling: Employing technology to support the different planning activities
- Facilitation: Executing a successful distributed PI planning event
Determining the number of planning locations is an essential first step. There are a few possible scenarios: Either the individual teams are collocated but distributed from other groups, or individuals on the teams are dispersed across different locations or working from home. The latter scenario adds another level of coordination and complexity. Organizations should seek to avoid this pattern and bring members of each team to a single location wherever possible.
In the first scenario, where each team is together but distributed from the other groups, efforts should still be made to consolidate the locations. Even something as simple as moving from two offices in two cities to one office in each town can create material benefits without incurring significant travel costs. The focus should be on bringing the teams that will have strong dependencies with one another together at a common location. However, even getting together multiple teams who may not have much overlapping work reduces the number of planning locations, lessens the feeling of isolation, and creates a shared experience for those taking part.
Some organizations with distributed teams have vital roles such as Business Owners, Product Management, and System Architecture in the ‘home’ location with the teams working remotely. Something that we have seen work well is to reverse the direction of travel and send these individuals to remote areas so they can be with the teams in person. Of course, the locations they attend can and should be rotated so that each team feels the benefits of having these stakeholders on hand for immediate resolution of questions.
SAFe Tip: The PI planning toolkit from the Scaled Agile community site includes a team roster. Use this to record the locations of the individuals on all the teams and include this in the handouts on day 1 of PI planning. Additionally, have details of the time differences across each location. This will be a critical reference when planning the technical and logistical support needed for the PI planning event.
PI Planning Agenda
Once the locations for PI planning have been determined, the planning agenda can be created. ‘Respect for People,’ one of the SAFe Core Values, reminds us that we should avoid asking the teams to work late into the night. Regardless of whether they are happy to do this, the quality of the plans will suffer if teams become sleep-deprived!!
Instead, we recommend creating a 2.5-day split agenda (further extended to 3 or more days as required) that accommodates various participating time zones. An extreme example of such an agenda across two locations, Delhi and Los Angeles, with a 12-hour time difference, is shown in Figure 1 below. (The PI planning toolkit contains an editable version of this agenda.)
PI Planning Day 1
As seen from the example above, the overlaps between time zones are carefully selected to facilitate live interaction at critical points in the agenda. Starting on the morning of day 1, everyone on the ART should attend the briefings remotely. Alignment is the goal of PI planning. If the teams are to work independently for a portion of the event, this alignment, and the questions raised and answered during the briefings to confirm understanding, are critical.
SAFe Tip: If it is impossible to have all the teams attend the briefings simultaneously, an alternative is to record and distribute them beforehand and then use a smaller portion of overlapping time for questions.
The planning process briefing from the RTE is also essential in this situation, as they will run through the working agreements and agreed-upon methods of communication and collaboration (more on this later).
PI Planning Day 2
Significant additions to the regular PI planning agenda are the team synchronization points. These are the overlapping times when the teams can work with key stakeholders and collaborate with the other teams in different time zones. Given the time zone restrictions, these synchronization points should be as long as possible.
SAFe Tip: Ahead of these synchronization points, the teams should consider who they need to work with. They can use an online booking sheet’ document or a calendar to block out time with the individuals and teams they need to work with.
The draft plan review should also make use of the available overlapping time. This allows adherence to the presentation structure of PI Objectives, capacity and load, and risks and maintains the time box. The management review and problem-solving meeting may also involve individuals from different locations. With a distributed PI Planning event, extending the invitations to this meeting can be helpful to include at least one person working on-site with each team. This could be the Product Owner or Scrum Master/Team Coach if they are in the exact location as the team, but it could also be another team member. This approach ensures that no information ‘is lost’ due to the distributed nature of the planning.
PI Planning Day 3
The second team synchronization point includes the Business Owners assigning business value to the PI objectives. Again, using an online document with pre-determined time slots, around 10 mins each, for the teams to highlight when they want the Business Owners to contact them works well here.
The conclusion of planning, which includes the presentation of the final plans, confidence vote, and the risk ROAMing, should be done with all the teams present. Often the confidence vote for each group is taken ahead of time, and the Scrum Master communicates the results for that team to reduce the complexity of gathering this information in real-time. However, the combined ART confidence vote must be done together once all plans have been shared, with everyone visibly providing a ‘fist of five’ in front of their respective webcams. Of course, at the end of day 2, if the planning is running ahead of schedule, the RTE can adjust the agenda to allow the teams to finish earlier than planned. Commonly the PI planning retrospective is managed as an online activity in the days following the event, so the attendees aren’t kept any later than is necessary.
SAFe Tip: Whatever agenda you arrive at, one thing that must be done is circulate it well before the event. Not only do people need to clear their calendars they will also need to make the necessary arrangements outside of work, such as childcare and transportation.
The first consideration here is the breakout rooms. With collocated PI planning, the emphasis is on having everyone in the same room. This is usually not feasible when phone or video conferencing conversations need to take place, as the background noise can prevent clear communication between teams. Every location will need several breakout rooms set up and ready to go. A good starting point for the required rooms is one breakout room per team, one or two additional rooms for critical stakeholders to utilize, and a space for the Coach Sync. During the PI Planning event, all regular meetings should be cleared from these rooms.
SAFe Tip: Each breakout room should have a pre-prepared ‘contact list’ with the details of the other breakout rooms and who they are for. A set of video conferencing links within an online document makes this process even smoother. Consider also having a permanent computer set up in each room. This reduces the potential problems as people connect and disconnect different laptops during the day.
For those locations that are working late into the night, make sure that the appropriate arrangements have been made so that the lights, air conditioning, power, and other facilities will remain on after regular working hours. [Ed. You’d be surprised how often this is not the case!!] Similarly, for those starting earlier in the morning, ensure they can access the offices before a typical working day has begun.
Since many team members will be working late into the evening, consider organizing transportation to get them home after the event if the public transport they usually take is unavailable or if safety could be a concern. During the event, ensure food is provided, particularly for the teams working well into the evenings when other options may be limited.
Facilities and tech support are critical during all PI planning events, but even more so when the event relies heavily on remote communication channels. Ensure the individuals with these skills are dedicated to the event, with no other commitments during the 2.5 days, and there is no time when they are not reachable. This may require a group of individuals working in shifts. Have an open messaging channel for these individuals so teams can raise any issues and agree upon a process for escalation if there is a severe blocking issue.
Although tooling will be covered later, it is essential to emphasize the need to test the chosen technology ahead of the event. Critically, this test must be done with a representative ‘load’ on the system. A successful test of two people using a system does not reflect what happens when 100+ people use it concurrently during PI planning. Instead, run the tests in the previous weeks and enlist the help of employees across the organization to create a suitable load. Backup systems should also be available. Every tool that is used as the chance of failing just at the wrong moment – more often than not when the Business Owners are presenting the business context!!
Working agreements serve several purposes. They create a set of norms that determine how the teams want to work together to be most productive. They also allow the facilitators to hold attendees to these pre-agreed guidelines and the teams to hold themselves and each other accountable. And, of course, they are refined iteratively – the feedback from a previous event feeds into an improved set of working agreements for the next event.
Although we would encourage all PI planning events to have a set of working agreements, they are a must when running distributed PI planning. Often events begin with reserved time to formulate these working agreements. Still, given the scale of this event, it is recommended to start with a seeded list (some of the working arrangements may require preparation), perhaps allowing some time for additional items to be added. Figure 2 shows some example working agreements:
The first working agreement in this example is the most critical and often the most problematic habit to form. Remember, as soon as anyone talks without a microphone, all other participants in other locations will be removed from the conversation. Other working agreements might include the facilitator repeating each question to ensure the remote sites heard it. Pausing for questions after each presentation and proactively asking the different sites if they have anything they would like to add is highly recommended. Have webcams always turned on so people can see and hear each other? And, of course, respect the time boxes – given the concessions to extend the working day, teams need to have appropriate breaks and start and end at the agreed-upon times.
SAFe Tip: Evolve working agreements iteratively. If something is not working or a team requests a new working agreement, add it and communicate it.
Tooling is the cornerstone of distributed PI planning, and several different types of tools are required in combination to support the activities. Although the specific choice of tools will vary widely from organization to organization, the different tooling categories are explored below.
1. Information Storage and Distribution
Throughout the event, there will be information that the teams need to access. This could range from the briefing slides from the morning of day 1 to photographs of the ART planning board to the Coach Sync information radiator. Agree ahead of time where this information will be stored online and include sub-folders for each team and a general all-hands folder. This will also support groups in sharing information. Make sure everyone in the event has the appropriate permissions to read and write to the agreed locations. Consider an internal intranet or portal site with all the relevant links teams need throughout the event for easy access.
2. Instant Messaging and Group Chat
Although face-to-face communication via webcams is good for more extended conversations, more regular snippets of information need to be continuously passed between teams and individuals to resolve questions quickly as they arise. An instant messaging tool should be employed, preferably with a group chat functionality. Ahead of the event, groups for each team should be created within the messaging tool along with other groups such as a Scrum Master/Team Coaches group, a Product Owners group, a Facilitators group, and others. Being able to drop a question into one of these groups increases the likelihood of a swift response.
SAFe Tip: An excellent addition to the working agreements is that someone in each of these chat groups takes turns continuously monitoring these information channels.
3. Video Conferencing
Video conferencing will be heavily used during the event. Choose a tool that will meet your expected number of concurrent users requirements. As mentioned, have a document that everyone can access with pre-prepared links for connecting to the video conference channel for specific breakout rooms. Although usually an electronics-by-exception event, every attendee in the distributed PI planning should have their laptop available, if not always on. That way, if they receive a notification for a breakout conversation with someone from another team, little preparation is required.
One additional way of employing video conferencing that we have come across is to ‘point’ the webcam at a source of information, such as an ART planning board, whiteboard, or projection screen. Our experience is that the fidelity of the image is insufficient for this use case. The collaboration tools described below are often better suited in this instance.
Extensively test the video and audio technology in a dress rehearsal with all remote locations before the event. While individual components may technically work, other environmental factors may result in a poor participant experience. There is no substitute for real people experiencing the visual, auditory, and ease of use of the total experience to ensure that the technology will support and not detract from the effectiveness of PI Planning. For example, low-cost webcams and microphones are often inadequate to create the intended interactive experience.
SAFe Tip: If possible, have two video conference connections from the primary planning room. One to show the person currently speaking and another to show the event attendees. This ensures that all the teams can see each other.
4. Collaboration Tools
A set of tools have emerged that support cross-team collaboration, many from companies that are Scaled Agile Platform partners. These tools often mimic online whiteboards where users can create templates and design a shared collaborative space. We have observed teams and ARTs using these tools to develop team planning boards, capture PI objectives and ROAMing risks, and document the outputs from the Coach Sync. No team collaboration space should be locked, so other teams can ‘drop in’ like they would walk past another team’s boards during a co-located event.
In managing the ART planning board, we have observed several patterns. Suppose the number of locations is minimal, perhaps 2 or 3. In that case, many organizations choose to replicate a physical board across the different locations, kept up to date by the facilitators at each site (more on that shortly). However, we often see collaboration tools also used to replicate this artifact. Indeed, the popularity of PI Planning has led to the creation of dedicated ART planning board tools that combine the best of both worlds – a touch screen providing the tactile experience of moving sticky notes around with the requisite connectivity that ensures data is shared across all sites. Remember that the same rules apply – a conversation is needed before putting something in another team’s swim lane on the ART planning board.
5. Agile Lifecycle Management (ALM) Tools
Regardless of whether the organization is doing distributed PI planning, many employ ALM tools to manage the complexity and scale of their development processes. In addition, these tools are an integral part of their Continuous Delivery Pipeline and connect with other devices in an automated fashion, providing the required level of traceability.
Many of these tools include some of the collaboration capabilities mentioned previously and are, therefore, a great addition to a distributed PI planning event. One word of caution: PI planning is focused on developing a high-level plan. When entering data directly into an ALM tool, be mindful of the mandatory fields you may be required to complete or the different steps to go through to model different planning scenarios. This additional data entry overhead may distract from the more significant intent of the PI planning event. If at all possible, these details should be completed after PI Planning. Finding the right balance is essential.
Facilitating the Event
Successful facilitation of a distributed PI planning event takes practice, and each event is an opportunity to learn and improve for the next one. However, some standard guidelines that act as a good starting point has emerged.
Facilitators at Each Location
The first is to have a named facilitator at each location. In some circumstances, each facilitator will manage large groups of people, with multiple presentations from each site. In other situations, it may be a Scrum Master/Team Coach sitting with the remote team. It could also be a team member if the Scrum Master/Team Coach is remote. The facilitator needs to share the team experience and feel their challenges when an audio line is terrible, or multiple conversations make it difficult to understand. When this happens, they can take the appropriate actions to resolve it.
SAFe Tip: Open a group chat to escalate the challenges they have identified quickly or the team has raised with them. This group should constantly be monitoring and communicating with each other.
It is often the case that a ‘home’ location has most of the attendees with a smaller number distributed. If this is the case, requiring the RTE to facilitate the event and monitor requests and issues from the other external facilitators is too much cognitive load for one person. Have 1 or 2 additional people dedicated to assisting the RTE at this primary location. While the RTE is supporting the local execution of the event, the others are constantly monitoring the interactions of the remote teams and identifying where they can provide help.
SAFe Tip: One organization we have observed doing distributed PI Planning staffed a support desk at each location. The people at this desk were not part of the ART and were 100% focused on supporting the teams. Each desk had its backchannel to its counterparts at each location.
With the additional complexity distributed PI planning brings, some prior alignment around these processes pays off. The RTE should work with the Scrum Master/Team Coaches in the lead-up to the event to clarify all the activities above and do a dry-run of the event, considering some of the different scenarios that might arise and the steps that should be taken to resolve them. The Scrum Master/Team Coaches play a critical role during these distributed PI planning events and need to be completely clear on the process, know how to use the tools effectively, and understand the locations of every team.
SAFe Tip: Scrum Master/Team Coaches should stay abreast of the different locations of the teams both at the beginning of planning and as the groups disperse into their breakout rooms. Tracking down the right people at the right time is one of the biggest challenges with distributed planning.
Although bringing everyone together delivers excellent benefits, not only in terms of the plans that are created but also in creating and deepening relationships, the reality today is that many organizations have ARTs that include teams distributed around the globe. Many organizations have demonstrated that these same benefits can be achieved with prior preparation and additional considerations. Indeed, continually adapting and improving our systems of work is an ongoing endeavor that we are all committed to. This article has summarized some of these success patterns employed to significant effect.
We would like to thank our customers, partners, and the SPCT community for continuing to share their ideas and experiences on distributed PI planning. As new patterns and recommendations emerge, we will continue to add them to this article. In the meantime, you can continue discussing distributed PI planning in the online SAFe community forums.
Last Updated: 9 March 2023