"There is no magic in SAFe… except maybe for PI Planning"

The year 2020 has brought us a sudden and unexpected turn of events, putting the whole world in a new situation. Coronavirus had said “Testing!” and verified organizations’ readiness to adapt. Some have passed this exam, some have had to quickly find a way to mitigate the impact of new circumstances.  As Arla Foods is quite good at dealing with new challenges, we were the former.

When first emotions had calmed down and we had managed to sort out the top priority tasks we realized PI planning was right behind the corner. This is challenging and exhausting event, regardless of the kind, if it’s physical or remote. But easy peasy, in Arla we have been practicing virtual PI plannings even before it was in style.

Read the article below to check out some of the best practices I’ve been using for PI plannings in my teams. Try to use them if you are facing difficulties with arranging your first virtual PI planning. If it’s not your first rodeo, I still recommend you check what I’ve gathered after working as a Scrum Master in SAFe for almost 2 years. Who knows, maybe you will spot what you can improve in your team.

1. Prepare detailed agenda 

The first and probably the most important thing is to have clear agenda communicated to the team and stakeholders. Two days might seem like a lot of time but once you realize you need to squeeze in draft and final plan reviews in the two days respectively, there’s not much time left for the planning itself.

Thus, first step is to agree what should be deliverables after each day of PI planning and schedule agenda, so that it is achievable. Then, think if there is anybody from different team or department that you need to invite to your meetings and schedule calls. They need to fit not only your team’s agenda but also others. Remember: PI planning is the time when teams from one train gather all together, so you need to consider people might be busy with other activities.

This is the case also for Business Owners (BOs). Depending on the structure, BOs might or might not be playing their role for more than one team. In that case, this is extremely important to point out at which point of the day you need your BO to join, so that you can finalize your plan before it becomes official commitment.

And remember, you are not the only one doing this. Reach out to other Scrum Masters from the train to prepare agenda together. After all, you are not competitors – you are working on one common goal and this is important to help and respect each other.

2. Book calendars 

Even if PI planning and preparations to it keep your eyes awake for weeks before it actually happens, it might not be so obvious to your stakeholders. Business Owners might be requested to join many different teams, you may need people from different organizational units to join for discussion around particular epic, or simply you have resources allocated to your team just part time and they don’t prioritize PI planning over other activities. This is very important especially if you need some high-level managers to join your calls and they are usually very busy and in the best case, if you don’t book them soon enough, they might only point out some representatives to support them.

Referring also to paragraph one and keeping clear agenda: if you know teams have dependencies and need to visualize them – book the calendar. If you see teams have common features to deliver and need to discuss them – book the calendar. If you see your Business Owner is getting busy these days – book the calendar. My lesson learnt – do not wait until last call before the PI planning, the sooner you do it, the more confident you can feel your PI planning will go smoothly.


3. Arrange pre-planning sessions

PI planning is just a two-day event, and from the definition it is mainly to ensure proper communication between multiple teams developing one product. Therefore, it is extremely important for teams to come well prepared and aware of the topics they will have to align on. In Digital Services and Infrastructure train (DSI), we have decided to dedicate last sprint (which lasts a weekof preceding PI to pre-planning sessions. The team has a chance to really dig into details of features planned for next three months, start analyzing them and catch any uncertainties or dependencies to other teams. Thanks to that, PI planning serves communication, alignment and clear understanding of what we want to achieve.

4. Communicate clearly 

Sounds obvious? You couldn’t be more wrong. PI planning is very dynamic event and communication is bigger challenge than you can imagine. Exactly like concerts or big gigs  many people participating creates effect of scale. What can go wrong? Agenda can change, people might be called into ad hoc meetings or you can simply decide to do the team split, so that team members can focus on brainstorming on their tasks and you need to coordinate it all.  All of the above can result in a mess and confusions. Thus, this is very important to clearly communicate to your team and stakeholders what you are going to do now, what will be the next steps, what time you meet or which call to join. Not only by updating the agenda and sharing it with the team, but also in small steps like e.g. MS Teams meeting chat. You will be surprised how helpful it can be.

5. Don’t forget about the retrospective! 

Day 2 is over? Objectives agreed with Business Owners and plan validated with the team? Good job, PI planning almost done! This is the time to wrap up and summarize the last two days of very intense work of the whole team. That’s what retrospective has been founded for. Many Agile practitioners say it is the most important ceremony, because it gives a chance to look back and discuss in detail what went well and the team wants to continue doing that during your next PI planning, as well as where you failed, so you just drop it permanently. In that way, the PI planning will become less stressful not only to you, but all the people involved.

My suggestion, go one step further. Set up the retro board even before PI planning starts and share it with the team, so that they can put their feedback on it while PI planning is ongoing. This gives you a great chance to capture people’s emotions and frustrations on the fly. At the end of PI planning, you will have a chance to get back to those situations and reconsider what actually happened and what reactions it triggered.

The above ideas work really well in my environment, so feel free to steal with pride. And remember – there is always room for improvement.


 The article was written by Anna Migdal – Scrum Master at Arla GSS.