After COVID19: Learning and Preparation for SAFe® PI Planning

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Since 2007, I traveled weekly to my clients’ offices, where I trained, coached and supported teams using Agile, Lean and SAFe®. I embraced the value of face-to-face communication, never supporting teams remotely for longer than a week or two. And then…COVID19!

A brave new world!

As with most people who read this, the teams I support and I were disrupted. Suddenly, I had to meet the world from where I was, and meet my teams where they were—online. An agile coach’s number one responsibility: meet people where they are!  It is the only way to be the coach they need. It is a rule I have learned and lived by for many years.

So where were my teams in terms of work, and how could I meet them there?

When quarantine began, the teams on the Agile Release Train (ART) that I coach had just completed their second Program Increment (PI) Planning week. The teams were immature, in that their first PI had been extended by leadership. Only recently had a full-time Release Train Engineer (RTE) been hired to lead the ART. The teams’ agile and engineering practices were just beginning to be enabled. They were not fully engaged at the Program Level. Our Product Management Team needed to do a better job with preparing for PI Planning and working to sequence value into the delivery teams. They were generally working through a backlog that had become stale and bloated. This left them unfocused, working on too much and on outputs, not outcomes. However, I must note that they are highly motivated, exceptional individuals who are genuinely interested in doing the right thing and embracing change. I am lucky to get to work with them!

Since this time, we have worked 100% remotely, and this week is our regularly scheduled PI Planning. This first part in this series will cover the preparation for the 2-day remote PI Planning event, including an Inspect & Adapt (I&A) ceremony. I will discuss how we arranged for the teams to be as prepared as possible. In the following parts, I will discuss how the events unfolded (Part 2), and then a retrospective on how things went and what we learned (Part3). Hopefully, if you are reading this, you will find value in the challenges that you have in front of you or your teams.


Preparation for PI Planning- Actions Taken

Eisenhower is famously attributed with the statement, “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.” In other words, the real value is not the output of the planning, but learning from the act of planning. I believe in this paradigm and have often quoted this same saying (usually loosely) in many of my agile trainings.

My ART is currently operating on a 10-week increment. The increment started on March 5, 2020. On March 12, 2020, we went into an ordered lockdown. On March 13, our first Scrum of Scrum and Product Owner Synchronization coordination ceremonies were scheduled.

Previously, our ART had used a physical PI Board, a list of ART Risks and Program Objectives, to evaluate where we were, if we were on track, and where we needed to adjust. In a remote world, this was an example (only one!) of the changes immediately impacting our teams. It was the first symptom of how we needed to start adjusting and adapting.

After the meeting, we began to evaluate how to make Work in Process better and how to enable the teams to complete larger effort ceremonies and get value from them (See SAFe Principle #6). We took four major actions.


Action #1 – Enable a Virtual Program Board.

For this action, we needed new software to deliver a virtual program board that teams could collectively read, update, comment and collaborate around. It needed to trace Business Objectives to Milestones, to Features, to Dependencies.

  • Decision Background: Several drivers formed the basis for the decision…
  1. ‘The company had licensing agreements in place
  2. ‘Miro had built in template for a PI Board
  3. ‘Integration with ALM tooling

Quickly converting the physical board into a virtual board allowed us to begin a 2-fold effort to move forward. First, it allowed us to collaborate and rally around our plans. Second, it allowed us a planning platform to move into the next effort, the larger effort.


Action #2 – Enable a collaboration platform.

My client recently migrated from legacy Office Productivity Suite to the modern Office 365 Platform (O365). The primary tooling used for open collaboration was Webex, which left some opportunities on the table, so we considered other options.

  • Decision: After a short evaluation and several experiments using gamification, we decided to use Microsoft Teams‘. This platform enabled significant improvements over Webex and other tooling. Chief among them was the ability to create multiple meetings and breakout areas where people could jump quickly into and out of meetings. This made it easy for leadership, who might not be in the daily meetings, etc.


Action #3 – Enable our people.

Before adopting Miro, we believed that people would quickly embrace and adapt to using this virtual tool. We never considered a learning curve. It was jarring for some people to go from ‘walking to a board and moving a post-it note’ to hand-eye coordination and inherent understanding that when you grab a virtual post-it, you might also move the entire board around!

Physical PI Board vs Virtual PI Board

In my next post, I will review the outcomes from Days 1 & 2 of PI Planning, as well as the Inspect & Adapt ceremony. I will tie the ‘enable people’ part of the outcomes where they succeeded or failed. In the meantime, here is a downloadable reference sheet I produced and shared previously in a blog post.


Action #4 – Gamify!

One of my early observations was the ‘confirmation bias‘ in remote teams—they were not challenging each other to try, learn, and change. The disruption pushed people to safe spaces and isolation. Their largest reach was strictly at the team level. When interacting with the RTE, they did not experiment and relied on the RTE to provide any needed change. This was a noticeable change from the office.

We decided to combat the passivity by creating a fun learning environment. In my next post, I will detail some of the specific actions and outcomes around creating a fun online learning environment. I’ll share what we did, how it impacted the teams (short-term and long-term), as well as any observations from the event, things I might change, and how I might adjust our approach.


What can we gain from preparation?

‘From these four actions, we developed the following hypothesis: By having fun and enabling critical tooling so that our teams can conduct themselves as if they were ‘in the room/face to face,’ we can achieve a successful outcome from our Inspect & Adapt ceremony and maintain the 2.5 day cadence.’
‘By embracing empiricism, we could run a series of small, fun experiments, reinforce core< Agile and Lean Principles, and prepare our teams to excel.

Until my next post, stay safe! I look forward to reporting back soon.

Finally, take care of your people in these trying times. They are still the very best asset you have in your organization!


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In this next section, I provide some additional preparation details, as well as what went well and where there were challenges. Before we begin, I want to remind everyone of our hypothesis:

By having fun and enabling critical tooling so that our teams can conduct themselves as if they were ‘in the room/face to face,’ we can achieve a successful outcome from our Inspect & Adapt ceremony and maintain the 2.5 day cadence. By embracing empiricism, we could run a series of small, fun experiments, reinforce core Agile and Lean Principles, and prepare our teams to excel!

Inspect & Adapt (I&A) – Observations

Our I&A was a half day that consisted of:

  1. System Increment Demo and Business Value Assessment
  2. Quantitative Metrics
  3. Problem Solving Workshop

All went very well! In this short interactive session with 80+ people on a Miro board, we had limited validation of the hypothesis; however, we learned that the teams could work without interruptions from each other, navigate effectively into breakout sessions, and deliver the desired outcome of each of the ceremonies.

Biggest lesson learned: Create an Agenda, including links to the objects in the Miro Board, lists of participants and links to rejoin/find the meetings.

It helps to post the Agenda in the following places:

  1. In Microsoft (MS) Teams, or your collaboration meeting tooling
  2. In the email invites
  3. On the Miro Board. Just make it easy to find! Here is a sample agenda (all personal and client information has been removed):
PI Planning Agenda


Enabling a Collaboration Tool – Decisions Made

To support our ART before the event, we had to adjust to MS Teams. Initially, it was rolled out as part of Office 365, but there was no plan to align the ARTs in a common way. With the entire organization forced to work remotely, the MS Teams rollout accelerated, resulting in a change and a new tool for many folks.

To support our work, planning, and fun, we decided to make MS Teams our essential daily collaboration tool. We organized and leveraged the MS Teams Architecture to support open collaboration and transparency. The picture below demonstrates how we structured MS Teams.

MS Teams example

If MS Teams is your current tool but you are unfamiliar with its underlying architecture, then it will be worth some research. The backend is a SharePoint server that enables file storage, search, communications and integrations with calendars, and other critical tooling that enables many core activities on an Agile Release Train.

When we decided to go all in with MS Teams, a series of additional ‘Centralized Decisions’ paved the way for really unlocking some efficiencies, which easily have delivered more than the Return on Investment in reuse, productivity, and open collaboration.


Some Decisions Made around MS Teams:
  • Every Team Ceremony is published in the MS Teams Channel Calendar.
  • All Ceremonies are in MS Teams, excluding when MS Teams is down (note: we have had no downtime since we started working remotely). Our backup is WebEx.
  • All MS Team and System Demos are recorded and published via Stream.
  • All Increment Readouts are now recorded in MS Teams. They had previously been recorded on cell phones and uploaded, which often took hours due to restrictions on corporate policy on uploads.
Benefits & Outcomes
  • Enabled Communications
    • The Agile Teams are using MS Teams as frequently as they would meet ‘face to face’ in the office for phone calls, video meetings and ad hoc collaboration activities.
  • Increased Productivity
    • Due to internal changes, it is not a 1:1 comparison but worst case there was a 22% increase in productivity, in the best case it was as much as 56%
    • I would at least partially credit this to ‘seamless’ communications available on Teams between Chat, Calls, Video Conferencing and general Information sharing.
    • The Increment started before COVID and the ART was forced to work remotely, and still there was a significant productivity increase.
    • The teams realigned after the previous PI, so many teams were new, had new members, or had been realigned.
    • Added a new Scrum Master and new team members during the increment. MS Teams was their primary way of ‘meeting’ their teammates.
  • Increased Efficiency
    • The simplification of one tool with transparent access to its information, ease of use, optimized reuse and consolidated information access meant team members did not need to search to find pass codes, meeting updates, etc. They went to their channels and information was consolidated in a single place; ART information was likewise consolidated. If a team member missed a demo, they viewed it in Stream.
    • Product Management could ‘attend’ every Iteration Review & System Demo and give feedback because they could view all the contents in a single day and make adjustments before the next iteration began. Previously, their time had been split between multiple events due to the number of teams on the ART. Prior to the Demo, Product Management culled most of their presentation for Business Value scoring from the video recordings of their Iteration Demos, and where needed extended or performed additional demonstrations. Their presentations were also shared via Miro Boards if someone was interested in viewing them but could not attend the event.
  • We provided dedicated training and coaching to the Scrum Masters and Product Owners using MS Teams.
  • We held ART-wide virtual Happy Hours and had team challenges, games and other activities that required:
    • Moving From one meeting to another and back
    • Interacting in an MS Team environment while simultaneously interacting with other tools
    • Explaining the organization of the MS Teams structure
    • Providing recorded training content for additional features within MS Teams
    • Publishing recordings via MS Teams & Stream, with tagging for search capabilities
    • Exposing barriers to optimized MS Teams experiments (faulty headsets, equipment policy restrictions etc)
  • Began utilizing Yammer for amplifying the recorded content throughout the company, engaging the wider Stakeholder group more frequently and visibly.


Enabling the Virtual Program Board and Our People – Decisions Made

As previously mentioned, we decided on Miro to use as our planning platform. The reasons listed were discussed in my previous post. Much of the learning about how to enable our teams came fromusing Miro early on to migrate our physical board during the PI in execution

The big decisions here were around preparation of our teams. As a coach working with a new RTE, I decided to assist in materials setup and preparation for the actual events. I created/customized templates within Miro and provided training/support, as well as game design for the learning activities used in Miro. I created games, contests and activities to ensure that core capabilities were developed. I ran several workshops, as I prepared my RTE to deliver similar workshops. He excelled and was a fantastic leader!


Benefits & Outcomes
  • Enabled Core Capabilities – The Agile Teams engaged in several learning sessions that enabled and accelerated their use of Miro, Mural and MS Teams. Games included:
    • Identify your teammates’ baby pictures
    • Trivia
    • Build a picture
    • Complete a process
    • ‘Seek and Find’ on a board
    • Work within a team environment
    • Team Happy Hours
    • Open Sandbox for learning
    • Separate Product Owner and Scrum Master training for advanced skills
  • Increased Efficiency – The teams became incredibly effective. Their feedback was that using the virtual tools enabled better productivity, team cohesion and planning due to the ability to quickly see the ‘whole’ picture, as well as their piece of the picture throughout the planning process.
  • Increased Team Cohesion – A side effect of these activities was that the teams actually began to know more about each other and learned higher trust and established better relationships. This was especially interesting, as a large number of key roles were new hires, including several people who have never met their teammates face to face.
  • Supporting reusable utilities – In addition to the referenced learning, we also looked to optimize the use of the tools by creating reusable utilities that enabled faster content creation in Miro and other planning utilities.
  • Team Happiness – The team enjoyed the use of the tools and commented about using the tools going forward. They generally responded very positively to the events and their ability to finish planning in less time than previous events.

To bring the plan together, we decided to create a backup tool for each and every activity. The use of the custom utilities enabled us to quickly adjust if the primary tooling failed. The sample chart below outlines our plan. Additionally, the RTE and I conducted several partial walkthroughs and prepared to have me monitor all ceremonies and provide direct feedback to the RTE about issues, as well as troubleshoot any issues that arose around access, tooling and setup.

PI Planning Scenarios



By the final walkthrough of the plan, my RTE was confident and prepared. Each team member completed a checklist, creating specific set-up steps within the planning tools. These steps not only ensured that they knew how to do each task, but also provided them with explicit instructions that left an audit trail, allowing the RTE and I to ensure they could complete the tasks.

We were ready, and we knew it!

In summary: We made a plan based on our hypothesis, putting in place and running specific experiments. We learned from them and used the outcomes to adjust where needed. Because we applied empiricism, we felt that we achieved what we had set out to do.

In the next and final section, I will share some details from the retrospective and observations of the event. Until then, take care of your people in these trying times. They are still the very best asset you have in your organization!


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Retrospective: The Process

For the conclusion of this series, I will apply lessons learned and use the proven After-Action Review method. Developed by the military and widely adopted by many industries, an After-Action Review is a structured review process for evaluating:

  • What we intended to accomplish
  • What happened
  • Why it happened and what was learned
  • How to improve moving forward

In order to be true to the process and to remind readers what we were attempting to do (our strategy), our original hypothesis is restated here (what did we intend to do?):

By having fun and enabling critical tooling so that our teams can conduct themselves as if they were ‘in the room/face to face,’ we can achieve a successful outcome from our Inspect & Adapt ceremony and maintain the 2.5 day cadence. By embracing empiricism, we could run a series of small, fun experiments, reinforce core Agile and Lean Principles, and prepare our teams to excel!


Retrospective: What Happened

So how did we execute relative to our strategy? What did we do? The Release Train Engineer (RTE) and I developed a strategy of using gamification to introduce new tools and methods to the team. Our goals were to:

  1. Develop several key skills
  2. Introduce new tools
  3. Strengthen team cohesion

To achieve these goals, we outlined the skills and built team-based games and competition, then scheduled learning times, including:

  1. Team-based Training
  2. Team Happy Hours
  3. Individual Learning Opportunities


Retrospective: Why it Happened

When we evaluated our situation, we looked at several things:

  1. Time to prepare
  2. Things that needed to be accomplished
  3. Separating teams learning
  4. Target key roles (Scrum Masters (SM) & Product Owners (PO))
  5. Setting a good cadence

The table below outlines our plan of action, including objectives (outcomes sought) for each group, and the cadence, as well as our observations from putting the objectives in place. Note: By reviewing the cadence, you can scale this to meet your timeline.

Objective Target Group Cadence Observations
Introduce MS Teams SM







Using MS Teams daily enabled the teams to gain comfort with key, basic functionality and enabled better transparency about the teams’ work (see Part II)

Using MS Teams weekly, in our Scrum of Scrums and PO Sync, as well as targeted training with these leadership groups.

We scheduled biweekly Happy Hours with games to develop the team cohesion, and to expose the teams to using breakout rooms, and other advanced features in MS Teams.

Introduce Miro, Mural Virtual Collaboration Tools SM



Daily/ Every other Day







Using MS Teams & Miro (Mural) for collaboration regularly enabled the SMs & POs to gain comfort with key, basic functionality and enabled better visibility & Risk Management (SoS & PO Sync)

Transparency about the teams’ work and coordination. Used MS Teams weekly in our training with these leadership groups. It enabled breakout functionality and recording and MS Stream utilization.

The scheduled Happy Hours with games required Team to interact with breakout rooms, video content and interactions with Miro, Mural and Mentimeter.  These activities taught key skills in a fun way.

Custom Utilities and Processes SM



As needed There were a number of additional skills and utilities that we built and designed to make work flow faster and smoother. Our Application Lifecycle Management tool is Rally, and we did not have API Integration in place. We also designed several processes that enabled efficient use of time and made people comfortable and confident.



Retrospective: Other Findings

The main learnings and adjustments made were around optimizations and tailoring the learning to the groups we were working with. We observed positive iterations, and the feedback reaffirmed the purpose for our strategy. We witnessed the teams working better and making their own adjustments, while also seeking out optimizations. They became increasingly interested in challenging our games and demonstrated interest in learning more advanced techniques.

After the PI Planning, we conducted a few retrospectives. The first was an instant retrospective at the conclusion of the 2.5 days of activity in the form of a Word Cloud.

PI Planning Word Cloud

The second was a survey-based retrospective, allowing for more detailed data collection to enhance our feedback loop. There was also an open feedback option after each rating, which is the second Word Cloud.

PI Planning Survey Retrospective
PI Planning Word Cloud



Adapting the Strategy

How will we refine our execution for a better outcome and repeat our successes?

The feedback (as shown above) was mostly very positive. I believe our biggest learning was that we should’ve enlisted our teams more openly to design their best work environment. For next time: Create the hypothesis around the outcomes we seek, then unleash the teams’ creative talents to find the best way to learn and design in a continuous loop!

Some additional minor adjustments might be made around timing and coordination. Based on our situation, we could have done a better job on aligning in a sequential learning model. We also could have communicated our intentions better and ensured that people understood how to prepare for the sessions. However, I believe that, in large part, gamifying the exercises offset the learning and made it a fun trial-and-error experience.

In the end, I was more than pleased with the outcomes of the exercises. More importantly, I observed an immature Agile Release Train bond, excel, and mature, even exceeding the expectations of the Scaled Agile, Inc approach of extending the PI Planning to more days, not the same or less days.

The teams’ feedback was about keeping the virtual tools, moving away from physical boards and rooms for space—it was all about collaboration optimization.

I expect that moving forward, the key learning of the teams will be that they CAN and SHOULD challenge the status quo. In the end, they became believers of empiricism and embraced the risk-taking of continuous improvement and learning. It was wonderful to watch teams mature quickly and embrace things it often takes other teams years to achieve!


Final Thoughts

If you can unleash your very best asset, your people, and meet them where they are, the likelihood of achieving your goals is higher than beyond your expectations. It is truly unleashing the power of the agile mindset and developing lifelong learners, masters of the hypothesis-driven method.

I hope you enjoyed the journey with me and my teams. It has been a powerful reminder of the power of the human spirit to not only succeed, but exceed!

Embrace your people, meet them where they are, empower them to drive forward, protect them, and provide for them to embrace manageable risks. Then enjoy their achievements and encourage them to do better next time!

Thanks for coming along on the journey!

Until next time!

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Written by Travis Reed


Travis is currently on his third career, drawing his passion for helping Organizational Leaders implement ‘Good Change’ in their organizations using Agile, Lean, and other practices. He has led multiple Enterprise-wide Re-engineering efforts within the context of Digital Transformation, Agile Transformation, and efforts in Lean/Lean Six Sigma. His energy and passion are powered by his experience in System and Software Development and Support for over 25 years, as well as the problems he encountered and the learnings he developed. He retains multiple industry certifications including SAFe Program Consultant, Certified Discipline Agilist, Enterprise Business Agility Strategist, and Lego Serious Master Strategist.