5 Things to Know before Your First PI Planning

Nov 13, 2019

Your first Program Increment (PI) Planning event is on the calendar, and you feel ready to kick-off your first Agile Release Train. It’s time to align the teams on their work for the next three months. No pressure here—PI Planning is only the most pivotal, face-to-face event in the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe).

Maybe you’re envisioning a perfect event, and you’ve got everything prepared…or do you? In my experience, regardless of the industry, there are a few unforeseen challenges in the first PI Planning that are completely manageable with a little effort upfront. Take a look at the list below and double-check your preparation; you’ve got this!


1. Refine the Backlog with the Teams

We know it’s important to have the top 10 or so features determined before PI Planning, but you know what’s even more important? For those features to be refined prior to the event. If the teams don’t see the features until PI Planning, then they won’t have time to ask all their questions and create necessary stories for each feature. Teams need time to digest the features and have their questions answered.

To refine the backlog effectively, the Product Manager (PM) must spend time with the team prior to PI Planning to explain what is needed from each feature and what business value will be achieved. The PM might have to go back to the business for clarification. The PM and the team should have a “definition of ready” for features, so each will be “ready” for PI Planning.

It’s common for teams to encounter features for the first time in PI Planning. I’ve seen unprepared teams get frustrated quickly as they try to create stories and size the effort without truly understanding the product that they need to build. The Product Managers get frustrated too, because they believe the features they wrote included everything the teams needed.

Remember that the communication between the PMs and teams is bidirectional. Each is learning from the other so that the product created for the customer is the right one with the highest business value. When the features are refined and the PMs and teams are in sync, then the iteration planning is effective with few unknowns identified.


2. Logistics, Logistics, Logistics

SAFe encourages that everyone be together for a face-to-face PI Planning, which requires a lot of thoughtful logistics. One challenge is that many companies don’t have regular access to a room that can hold 150 people working closely together. Having the planning event offsite helps reduce the interruptions from non-Planning work; however, if a non-attendee is unexpectedly needed, then it can be difficult to pull them in.

I worked with one ART who didn’t have all Train members onsite for their first PI Planning. They knew it wasn’t ideal, but thought video conferencing would be good enough. Unfortunately, with a 6-hour time difference and the general chaos of the event, the experience was very discouraging for the offsite team members. For their second PI Planning, everyone was in the same room and the results were much better.

In addition to the physical location, here is a checklist of seemingly small things that actually play a huge role in creating a smooth and successful PI Planning:

Logistics, Logistics, Logistics
  • Powerstrips, flipcharts, and stickies will be at a premium; it’s important to have enough of everything.
  • Create the program board ahead of time so that teams can immediately start posting information.
  • Good meals and snacks are a must! The intensity of the planning can be exhausting, and food is fuel. Please don’t forget that some people have dietary restrictions.
  • Keep team break-out areas in one large room to encourage cross-team collaboration. The room can get loud and chaotic, but proximity is beneficial.
  • Build in some fun. Some examples: make up a quiz of company trivia with prizes for the winners; encourage teams to wear T-shirts with their team logos; have each team pick a theme song and play it prior to them presenting their plans.


3. Business Leaders in Place

Leadership support is paramount to Agile and SAFe—it is the foundation of the SAFe House of Lean. The popular Leading SAFe course instills the “how-to’s” for all leaders on the SAFe journey. During PI Planning, business leaders have an opportunity to share their vision for the product, as well as offer their support and appreciation of what the teams are doing. Demonstrated leadership is absolutely crucial to the entire PI Planning event. The ART needs to hear the commitment from the business leaders to be assured that their work matters.

The greatest leaders I’ve encountered share their SAFe journey with the teams, learning right along with the ART and instilling confidence that they will be there along the way. Make sure your business leaders commit to being visible and available during the PI Planning event. Their encouragement and business context is critical to getting the ART off the ground successfully. The train wants and needs to hear from them directly.


4. Teams know the Business Value (why they are here)

Can everyone on the ART articulate the value that their team is providing to the business, as well as that of the entire train? What is the purpose of the ART, and who is the end customer?

Before the PI Planning event, everyone should be able to give a 60-second elevator speech that explains what they’re working on. This can be a major culture shift as individuals transition from a siloed environment with little visibility into the big picture to an Agile environment filled with transparency. As teams become autonomous, they must learn how their piece fits in with the bigger whole. Without this awareness and knowledge, there is a risk of redundant work or something falling through the cracks. For iteration planning to be productive and accurate, teams need to keep in mind their purpose on the ART. In some cases, having pictures of the end-user personas visible on their team boards helps the team keep the goal front and center.

Teams know the Business Value (why they are here)


5. The Systems Team Knows their Value

Systems Team doesn’t typically receive all their work from one ART. Some work comes from one ART, and the rest may come from other ARTs or parts of the organization. Because these various work sources do not attend one PI Planning session, a Systems Team won’t plan their next 10-12 weeks of work during this event. They are, however, included in PI Planning for a host of reasons. It’s important for them to understand those reasons so that their attendance is beneficial to both them and the ART.

The Systems Team is there to provide information to the ART on upcoming systems work and the general direction of the enterprise. Additionally, the Systems Team gains understanding of what the ART is doing and how they are going to do it. They also gather work requests from the ART teams. This two-way communication is critical for success. The Systems Team needs to proactively engage the individual teams to understand the needs and direction of the ART.

In my experience, I’ve seen the Systems Teams sitting off in the corner wondering why they are there and feeling unnecessary. Spend the time upfront to make sure everyone knows why the Systems Team is attending PI Planning.


In Conclusion

In Conclusion

Accomplishing your first PI Planning event is a rite of passage. You will learn new things, and hopefully the items above will help your event run a bit smoother. One thing to keep in mind is that everyone who participates in your PI Planning event has a shared experience. You will have built your tribe; everyone will be able to think back and remember the chaos, the intensity, the results, and yes, even the fun. Good luck! You are headed on a great journey.

Need additional help?

PI Planning can get messy! If you find yourself in a bind, then drop us a line. We’d love to help you with your first PI Planning, or wherever you are on your SAFe journey. Let us know your concerns, and we’ll set up with a consultation with an experienced SPC in your industry.


Written by Cathy McGraw


Cathy has 25+ years of experience in Application Development as a Software Engineer, Director of Application Development, and Scaled Agile Coach. As her career progressed, Cathy recognized her passion to help people and organizations mature in their careers and Agile journeys, and so for the last 10 years, she has been practicing and coaching Agile. As a SAFe-certified SPC, POPM, and SDP (DevOps) professional, Cathy has helped multiple companies initiate and deploy their Agile and DevOps practices. She has worked in numerous industries, including manufacturing, logistics, insurance, software development, broadcasting, utilities, and retail, where she has provided coaching and training for teams and executives.