100% utilization drives unpredictability.

—Don Reinertsen

Innovation and Planning Iteration

The Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration is a unique, dedicated iteration that occurs every PI. It provides an estimating buffer for meeting PI Objectives and dedicated time for innovation, continuing education, PI Planning, and Inspect and Adapt (I&A) events.

SAFe has an intense focus on continuous customer value delivery, and people are busy working on the Features they committed to during PI planning. Every Iteration counts and the teams are mostly ‘heads down,’ delivering near-term value. One iteration after another, the Solution advances in the market. The attention to solution delivery is intense and unrelenting.

Of course, a focus on one thing—delivery—can lead to a lack of focus on another—innovation. Given the constant urgency for delivery, there’s a risk that the tyranny of the urgent [1] will override any opportunity to innovate. To address this, SAFe provides dedicated Innovation and Planning iterations.


IP iterations provide a regular, cadence-based opportunity for every PI for teams to work on activities such as innovation and learning that are difficult to fit into a continuous, incremental value delivery pattern. Time is also needed for Inspect & Adapt, PI Planning, and the final preparations for cadence-based ART events. IP iterations fulfill another critical role by providing an estimating buffer for meeting PI objectives and enhancing the predictability of PI performance.

The benefits of consistently well-planned and executed IP iterations include the following:

  • Better predictability and flow
  • Increased employee engagement and reduced burn-out
  • Greater agility and resilience
  • Increased competitive advantage

The remainder of this article provides the specific activities that should be planned and supported during the IP iteration to maintain the health, proficiency, and effectiveness of the individuals and teams on the ART.

Allow Time for Innovation

Innovation culture is one of the Continuous Learning Culture dimensions, but finding time for innovation and change amid delivery deadlines can be difficult. To this end, many enterprises use IP iterations for research and design activities such as hackathons. There are two simple rules for hackathons:

  • People can work on whatever they want, with whomever they want, so long as the work reflects the mission of the company
  • The teams demo their work to others at the end of the hackathon

Hackathons allow the talented, creative individuals on the ART to explore their innovative ideas outside the usual constraints of their regular backlog and team construct. The learnings from hackathons routinely make their way into ART Backlogs and help drive innovations that directly benefit the business. They’re fun, too!

Dedicate Time to PI Events

Performing the I&A and PI planning during the IP iteration avoids a reduction in the velocity of the regular iterations. More importantly, since these events are held on a regular cadence and can be scheduled well in advance, their occurrence is better guaranteed.

Also, some just-in-time, last-responsible-moment ART and Solution Train backlog refinement and feature and capability elaboration during this period can significantly increase the productivity of the upcoming planning session.

Integrate the Complete Solution

The PI System Demo occurs at the end of each PI. It is the integrated presentation of the work of all teams on the train, done in a staging environment, which emulates production as closely as possible. For ARTs that are part of a Solution Train, the PI system demo feeds into the aggregate Solution Demo, which also takes place during the IP Iteration. It’s a more structured and formal affair, as it demonstrates the accumulation of all the features and capabilities developed throughout the entire PI for a Solution Train.

When a solution includes hardware (and other components), it’s harder to integrate end-to-end continuously, and full integration may be feasible only during the IP iteration. In these cases, it’s just common sense to plan for that.

Figure 1. Ensured integration points
Figure 1. Ensured integration points

However, the IP iteration should not be the only attempt to integrate the assets into the system. Full or partial integration happens throughout the PI (Figure 1), with a total solution integration occurring at least once per PI. This approach validates the assumptions early enough to respond to significant problems and risks within the PI.

Advance Development Infrastructure

Lean delivery puts increased pressure on the development infrastructure: new continuous integration environments require provisioning, new test automation frameworks must be implemented and maintained, Agile project management tooling must be adopted, upgrading or enhancing cross-team and train communications systems, and the list goes on. The improvement stories often come from the team’s Iteration Retrospective or Enablers.

We all understand that we must sharpen our tools from time to time; Agile teams are no different. Indeed, they have an even higher dependency on their working environments, so time must be spent continuously improving them. It’s often more efficient to improve infrastructure or perform a migration at a time when the teams aren’t in the midst of critical work.

Enable Continuous Learning

Employees at every level are lifelong learners. Changes in technology, as well as changes to method and practice, are routine; opportunities for continuing education, however, are far less frequent. Also, the initial move to Lean-Agile requires many new techniques and skills, including:

It isn’t easy for practitioners to keep their technical skills current. New technologies are being introduced more frequently than ever, which requires regular upskilling of the workforce. Investing in people who can work across multiple systems, domains, and languages creates a ‘T-shaped’ (deep skill in one area, working knowledge in many other areas) and even an ‘E-shaped’ (deep skill in more than one area) workforce. This expansion of the skills of the workforce gives the organization maximum agility and flexibility to deliver the most important backlog items. However, it isn’t easy to find time for this growth alongside the drive to provide new features constantly. IP iterations are a perfect time for this investment.

Making time for continuing education gives teams and leaders a welcome opportunity to learn and master new knowledge and skills. ARTs can use the IP iteration to launch and support Communities of Practice devoted to a broad range of topics. The net results benefit both the individual and the enterprise: employee mastery, job satisfaction, and velocity increase, and time-to-market decreases.

Use the Built-In Estimation Buffer As Needed

Lean flow teaches us that “100 percent utilization drives unpredictable results [2].” Planning everyone to total capacity does not allow people the ability to flex when problems inevitably occur. The result is unpredictability and delays in value delivery. As a countermeasure, the IP iteration offers a ‘guard band’ (or buffer) to prevent unfinished work from the current PI from carrying over to the following PI.

During PI planning, the ART does not plan features or stories for the IP iteration, providing a buffer (extra time) for the teams to adapt to unforeseen events. This buffer can offset delays resulting from dependencies, and other issues, increasing their ability to meet Team and ART PI Objectives. It substantially increases the predictability of the outcomes, which is extremely important to the business. However, routinely using that time for completing work is a failure pattern. Doing so defeats the primary purpose of the IP iteration, and innovation will likely suffer. Teams must ensure that this estimating guard band does not merely become a crutch.

A Sample IP Iteration Calendar

IP iterations take on a somewhat standard schedule and format. Figure 2 provides an example IP iteration calendar for an ART.

Figure 2. Example calendar for an IP iteration
Figure 2. Example calendar for an IP iteration


Learn More

[1] Hummell, Charles E. Tyranny of the Urgent. IPV Booklets, 2013.

[2] Reinertsen, Donald G. The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development. Celeritas Publishing, 2009.

[3] Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley, 2011.


Last update: 6 December 2022