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25/100 - Mastering SAFe PI Planning: A Guide for New Project Managers and Scrum Masters

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a framework for scaling Agile principles and practices across multiple teams in large organizations. It integrates alignment, collaboration, and delivery mechanisms to ensure multiple agile teams work cohesively towards common goals. In SAFe, a Program Increment (PI) is a time-boxed planning interval during which an Agile Release Train (ART) delivers incremental value in the form of working software and systems. Typically lasting 8-12 weeks, PI provides a rhythm for planning, executing, and evaluating progress.


In the previous article we looked at 'Agile Release Planning: A Comprehensive Guide for Project Managers'. In this article, we will explore SAFe PI Planning in detail through below sections:


What is PI Planning?

PI planning is a critical event in SAFe where all team members align to the ART’s mission and vision. It involves setting objectives, discussing features and user stories, and addressing dependencies and risks. The goal is to leave with a clear roadmap for the upcoming PI.


Agenda of PI planning

The agenda for a Program Increment (PI) planning event in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is designed to facilitate alignment, collaboration, and planning among all members of the Agile Release Train (ART). A typical two-day PI planning agenda might look like this:


Day 1

Morning Session

  1. Welcome and Introduction (30 minutes)

    • Opening remarks by the facilitator or Release Train Engineer (RTE).

    • Overview of the PI planning process and objectives.

  2. Business Context (30 minutes)

    • Presentation by business or product leadership.

    • Outlining the market, customer needs, and business objectives.

  3. Product/Solution Vision and Roadmap (60 minutes)

    • Presentation by the Product Management team.

    • Discussing the vision, roadmap, and key features expected in the upcoming PI.

  4. Architecture Vision and Development Practices (30 minutes)

    • Presentation by System Architect/Engineering.

    • Sharing technical vision, architectural guidelines, and development practices.

  5. Planning Context and Lunch (60 minutes)

    • RTE presents planning context, PI objectives, and planning process.

    • Teams start discussing initial thoughts over lunch.


Afternoon Session

  1. Team Breakouts (3-4 hours)

    • Teams discuss the features and stories they can commit to.

    • Identification of dependencies, risks, and draft plans.

  2. Draft Plan Review (1 hour)

    • Teams present draft plans to other teams.

    • Feedback, identification of cross-team dependencies, and risks.

  3. Management Review and Problem-Solving (60-90 minutes)

    • RTE, Product Management, and other stakeholders review draft plans.

    • Addressing major risks or impediments.


Day 2

Morning Session

  1. Planning Adjustments (1-2 hours)

    • Teams adjust their plans based on Day 1 feedback.

    • Refining story estimates and sprint plans.

  2. Team Breakouts for Final Plan Preparation (2 hours)

    • Finalizing team plans and objectives.

    • Preparing for confidence vote.


Afternoon Session

  1. Final Plan Review and Commitment (1 hour)

    • Teams present their final plans.

    • Review and confirmation of objectives and program risks.

  2. Confidence Vote (30 minutes)

    • All team members participate in a 'fist of five' confidence vote.

    • Address any concerns if confidence is low.

  3. Risks and ROAMing (1 hour)

    • Identify, classify, and plan mitigation for remaining risks.

    • Categorize risks as Resolved, Owned, Accepted, or Mitigated (ROAM).

  4. Plan Reconfirmation and Retrospective (1 hour)

    • Finalize and reconfirm the commitment to the PI plan.

    • Quick retrospective on the PI Planning process.

  5. Closing and Moving Forward (30 minutes)

    • Final comments from RTE or executive sponsors.

    • Discuss the next steps and actions post-PI Planning.


This agenda is a standard guideline and can be adjusted based on the specific needs and context of the organization and its Agile Release Train. When incorporating Program Increment (PI) Planning, it's important to remember that the standard agenda and processes outlined by the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) are a starting point and not a rigid set of rules. The essence of Agile is adaptability, and this holds true for PI Planning as well. Teams should feel empowered to tailor the PI Planning agenda to better fit their unique program needs, culture, and context, ensuring that the process serves to enhance, rather than hinder, their Agile journey.


PI Planning Preparation


Before diving into Program Increment (PI) planning in a SAFe environment, there are several essential pre-work activities that need to be completed to ensure a smooth and effective planning session. These pre-work activities are crucial for aligning teams, setting clear objectives, and laying the groundwork for successful collaboration. Here’s a list of key pre-work activities:

 

1. Context Setting and Preparation

  • Educate Participants: Ensure all participants, especially those new to SAFe, understand the PI planning process, its importance, and their roles.

  • Communicate the Agenda: Distribute the PI planning agenda well in advance to all participants. 

2. Align on Business Context

  • Executive Briefings: Conduct briefings with executives and key stakeholders to align on business goals and strategic objectives.

  • Market and Customer Insights: Gather recent market, customer, and competitor insights to inform planning priorities.  

3. Review and Update Roadmaps and Architectural Vision

  • Product Roadmap Review: Update the product roadmap to reflect current business objectives and product strategies.

  • Architectural Alignment: Ensure that the architectural vision and any necessary architectural enablers are identified and understood. 

4. Logistics and Technical Setup

  • Venue Preparation: If the planning is in-person, secure and set up a large room with enough space for all teams. For virtual events, ensure robust video conferencing and collaboration tools are in place.

  • Technical Tools Setup: Set up and test any digital boards or tools for backlog management, voting, and collaboration.

5. Team Readiness and Capacity Planning

  • Ensure Team Stability: Teams should be stable before PI planning with all key roles filled.

  • Pre-PI Planning Meetings: Conduct pre-PI planning meetings with scrum masters, product owners, and other key roles to align on objectives and discuss any concerns.

  • Team Capacities: Each team should have a clear understanding of their capacity for the upcoming PI.

6. Stakeholder Engagement

  • Stakeholder Identification: Identify all necessary stakeholders who should participate or be informed about the PI planning.

  • Stakeholder Briefing: Brief stakeholders on their roles and expectations during the PI planning event.

 

Completing these pre-work activities helps create a foundation for a productive and aligned PI planning event, ensuring all participants are prepared, informed, and ready to contribute effectively.


Inputs and Outputs of a PI Planning Meeting

Here's a concise overview of the inputs and outputs of Program Increment (PI) planning:


Inputs to PI Planning:

  1. Vision and Roadmaps: Product and Solution vision, roadmaps, and features.

  2. Backlogs: Program and Team backlogs including features, enablers, and stories.

  3. Strategic Objectives: Organizational and business strategy objectives.

  4. Capacity and Velocity Data: Historical team velocity and capacity data for accurate planning.

  5. Architectural Guidance: Existing architecture and upcoming architectural changes or requirements.

  6. Market and Customer Insights: Latest market analysis, customer feedback, and competitive information.

  7. Performance Metrics: Past PI performance metrics for continuous improvement.

  8. Resource Availability: Team members' availability and other resource constraints.

  9. Risk Analysis: Identified risks and impediments from previous iterations or PI.

 

Outputs of PI Planning: 

  1. PI Objectives: Agreed-upon, prioritized objectives for the PI, both business and technical.

  2. Program Board: Visual representation of the plan showing dependencies and milestones.

  3. Team PI Plans: Specific plans for each team including iterations, stories, and tasks.

  4. Risk Management Plan: Identified risks with mitigation strategies (ROAM).

  5. Resource Adjustments: Decisions regarding changes in resource allocation or team configurations.

  6. Confidence Vote: A ‘fist of five’ confidence vote determining the commitment level of teams.

  7. PI Planning Retrospective and Action Items: Feedback from PI planning and agreed-upon action items for improvement.

  8. Stakeholder Commitment: Obtained buy-in and commitment from stakeholders on the PI plan.

  9. Communication Plan: Plan for communicating the outcomes of PI planning to relevant stakeholders.

  10. Reworked Backlogs: Updated program and team backlogs reflecting the outcomes of PI planning.


PI Planning Other Considerations

In addition to the key aspects already discussed, there are several other crucial elements that a Release Train Engineer (RTE) or Scrum Master should be aware of to effectively facilitate PI Planning:

 

Integration with Continuous Delivery Pipeline: Understanding how PI Planning integrates with the organization's Continuous Delivery Pipeline is vital. This includes how features and stories planned during PI are moved through the development stages, including integration, deployment, release, and validation. Awareness of DevOps practices and tools can significantly enhance the efficiency of delivering increments.

 

Financial and Budgetary Considerations: RTEs and Scrum Masters should have an understanding of budgetary constraints and financial considerations impacting the PI. This includes how funding is allocated across teams and features, and how changes in PI planning might affect the budget.

 

Stakeholder Management and Communication: Effective communication and stakeholder management are key. This involves not just during the event itself but also in pre- and post-PI Planning activities. It’s important to keep stakeholders informed and engaged, ensuring their needs and expectations are aligned with the PI objectives.

 

Change Management: PI Planning often results in changes that affect teams and the wider organization. Understanding change management principles can help in smoothly transitioning teams to new ways of working, addressing resistance, and ensuring continuous improvement.

 

Team Dynamics and Conflict Resolution: Given the collaborative and intense nature of PI Planning, RTEs and Scrum Masters should be adept at managing team dynamics. This includes recognizing and resolving conflicts, facilitating healthy discussions, and promoting a positive and productive environment.

 

Training and Continuous Learning: PI Planning is a complex process and teams may need ongoing training and support. RTEs and Scrum Masters should facilitate this continuous learning, helping teams stay up-to-date with SAFe practices, Agile methodologies, and technical skills relevant to their roles.

 

Feedback Mechanisms: Establishing effective feedback mechanisms to gather insights from teams and stakeholders during and after PI Planning is crucial for continuous improvement. This feedback should be actively used to refine future PI Planning sessions.

 

A new RTE or Scrum Master should approach PI Planning with a mindset geared towards continuous learning and improvement, staying agile and adaptable to the unique challenges and dynamics of their specific organization and teams.


Differences between Sprint Planning, Release Planning and PI Planning

Here's a table summarizing the key differences between Sprint Planning, Release Planning, and PI (Program Increment) Planning in the context of Agile and SAFe methodologies:

Aspect

Sprint Planning

Release Planning

PI Planning

Scope

Focuses on planning work for a single sprint, typically 2-4 weeks.

Involves planning the release of a product over multiple sprints. (Other than patch/minor releases)

Covers multiple sprints within a Program Increment, usually 8-12 weeks.

Objective

To define what can be delivered in the upcoming sprint and how.

To set expectations for a product release including features and timelines.

To align multiple teams on a shared vision and objectives for the upcoming PI.

Participants

Scrum team (Developers, Scrum Master, Product Owner).

Cross-functional teams, product management, stakeholders.

All members of the Agile Release Train (ART), including teams, RTE, product and system architects.

Focus

Task breakdown, effort estimation, and sprint goal setting.

Feature prioritization, product roadmap alignment, milestones and releases.

Feature prioritization, dependency management, objectives setting for ART.

Frequency

At the beginning of each sprint.

Varies, often at regular intervals, such as 45 days, quarterly etc

At the beginning of each Program Increment.

Outcome

Sprint backlog, defined sprint goals, and task assignments.

A high-level plan for the product release including timelines and major features.

PI objectives, committed program backlog, identified risks and dependencies.

Methodology

Central to Scrum and other Agile frameworks.

Common in Agile environments but not exclusive to Agile.

Specific to the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe).

Note: Refer these blogs on Sprint Planning and Release Planning for more insights.


Understanding these differences helps teams and organizations to choose the appropriate planning technique based on their project's size, complexity, and required level of coordination.


Recommended Readings


Coming up in the next blog - 'Project Planning for Innovation Projects'.

Note 1: This blog is part of a 100 Days of Learning Series on Web3 Project Management frameworks and best practices published on Program Strategy HQ. For more details on the 100 days of blogging campaign check out Blog 0.


Note 2: Reach out to info@programstrategyhq for any queries.


Note 3: Program Strategy HQ Disclaimer for Reference.


References

  1. Scaled Agile, Inc. (n.d.). PI Planning. [online] Available at: https://scaledagileframework.com/pi-planning/ 

  2. Easy Agile. (2023). The Ultimate Guide to PI Planning [2023 SAFe Edition]. [online] Available at: https://www.easyagile.com/blog/the-ultimate-guide-to-pi-planning-2023-safe-edition/ 

  3. Avion. (n.d.). The Definitive Guide To PI Planning. Tips & Guidance. [online] Available at: https://www.avion.io/blog/pi-planning/

  4. Leading Agile. (n.d.). PI Planning. [online] Available at: https://www.leadingagile.com/guide/agile-at-scale/pi-planning/ 

  5. Scaled Agile Framework. (n.d.). Distributed PI Planning with SAFe. [online] Available at: https://scaledagileframework.com/distributed-pi-planning/ 

  6. Scaled Agile Framework. (n.d.). Advanced Topic – Distributed PI Planning with SAFe. [online] Available at: https://scaledagileframework.com/advanced-topics/ 

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