Interview with a Coach: Virtual SAFe® PI Planning

Apr 14, 2020

COVID-19 has been an unwelcome catalyst into fully remote teams, but making optimal use of technology to keep in lockstep with business agility is a powerful illustration of the agile mindset. Recently, a large financial services client pivoted in one week to a fully virtual SAFe® PI-Planning event with great success. ICON Coach Gillian Evans acted as Solution Train Engineer, and so we asked her some questions about what to consider in a virtual PI Planning.

First, let’s set the context. How large was the planning and how was it set up?

Gillian: The big room planning consisted of 2 trains made up of 12 Teams, about 180 people. Both trains planned together because, although there were limited interdependencies, we decided ‘big, virtual room planning’ was the optimal approach. We used Microsoft Teams to run planning, present content, chat and communicate. Multiple channels were used to meet and present core conference content, with specialist channels for Scrum of Scrums, and team breakouts. We obtained a separate tool to visualize PI Objectives, Program Board, dependencies and links for presenting draft and final plan reviews. Subject Matter Experts from the business, architects, and delivery managers were pulled into a channel via chat to facilitate or support teams. All channels were published to all participants so anyone could join a channel at any time to participate. Scrum Masters facilitated planning and played scribes, and product owners worked the story decomposition and PI Objectives definition with the teams. This model worked well for collaboration and content capture.

What is the most important tool for a virtual PI Planning?

Use any tool that can visualize the teams’ written PI Objectives, features, and dependencies. It’s crucial that teams get comfortable with the tool of choice beforehand. It’s also prudent to have a backup tool (resort to spreadsheets, smartsheets) in case collaboration tool access is interrupted. Have a plan, and a backup plan so work can continue if the network goes down or tool access is lost. We asked scrum masters to practice using the tools by pre-loading content before the PI event.

What else did you do to prepare?

We ensured the product team handed features to the teams 3 weeks before the PI Planning Event. This is a good practice, whether virtual or not; the teams socialized and familiarized themselves with the content. Pre-populating the content into the tool ahead of time saved time during the PI Planning Event itself for teams to focus on decomposition and dependency mapping.

Two additional readiness Scrum Of Scrums events were added before the PI Planning event. In the first, we discussed the context and content of the virtual planning and what to expect; we also reviewed the agenda which was revised to not only include the topics and times, but also the channels, and backup conference lines in case people lost network connectivity. In the second pre-PI Scrum of Scrums, we made sure all invites had been sent out and went over the checklist of all the technical communication and tool logistics. Everything was set up before the actual event, including teams testing channels for quality and speed. On the day, we launched seamlessly into the channels. Given some overseas groups had challenges with network bandwidth, we abandoned having video as part of the main channel collaboration as mitigation to channels choking on video streaming.

Additional people were added to the event to handle specific issues such as communications or specific tools, and we had 2 or 3 people as a sequential call so if the first person was busy, there were further people who could be called in to help.

Any challenges during the event?

Not really. We had a backup plan, and a backup plan to the backup plan. During the event, some of the teams’ channels dropped or slowed because of network/VPN issues. We had a plan in place for this. If they couldn’t access through the network, then they had a mechanism of sharing a spreadsheet and a phone call bridge and could continue that way until the network came back.

What went well with the virtual event?

Having a full virtual event flattened the playing field. Everyone had a common working agreement of who had the talking stick. There were no problems of people talking over each other and everyone was looking at the same presentation from the same vantage point.

One of the problems with in-person PI Planning is that some people are in the room while others are remote. It’s hard for the remote folks to realize through video the full extent of what the room is doing and experiencing. Remote people often lose context because they can’t hear what some people are saying or see what the people in the room are seeing. A full virtual event yields more value in communication and collaboration than an event that has people both in the room and remote.

What do you prefer—in person PI Planning or virtual PI Planning?

If you can get everyone in a room, you can’t beat that. But how often can you do that these days? There are always some people who are remote. I prefer virtual planning. By everyone doing virtual planning, everyone becomes more accessible. Everyone can hear everyone else and see everything from the same viewpoint. Also, you save money in hotels and travel time.

What are some lessons learned from this virtual PI Planning experience?

SMEs in high demand (e.g. architects, product managers) developed waiting lines for being pulled in to team channels. Having pre-set times when a specialist would come into the team channel (e.g. Product assigning Business Values to PI Objectives) would help with bottlenecks and wait times.

For enterprise organizations with geographically dispersed teams, there is no better, structured framework than SAFe for a seamless pivot to virtual planning.

Need virtual PI Planning or other remote guidance from people who’ve done it before?

Written by Gillian Evans


Gillian is an SPC and Agile Transformation Coach. For more than 20 years, she has helped clients improve how customers and stakeholders deliver value through the adoption and sustainment of Lean and Agile values, principles, and practices. Formally trained in multiple Lean/Agile methods, coaching, and change management practices, she works with leaders, teams, and individuals to solve business problems and institutionalize change. In the past few years, her accomplishments include helping multiple organizations adopt SAFe, launching trains and teams, and establishing internal coaching programs.