SAFe in the Virtual World

By Darrell Ponzio

The Program Increment (PI) planning event is critical to the Scaled Agile Framework for Enterprise (SAFe). It is the crowning jewel of SAFe ceremonies, held in person in a large, well equipped conference room. IN a typical event, the outcomes of the prior PI are demonstrated, objectives of the upcoming PI are established, upcoming sprints are planned and scrum teams identify and resolve dependencies.  Being an in-person ceremony typically meant flying in many of the often hundred or more people to the established location prior to the ceremony – with all the trappings of corporate travel (hotel, meals, drinks, transportation, etc.).

There were good reasons for in-person attendance.  A basic tenant of SAFe PI planning is that there should be organic, unstructured conversation between peers and across scrum teams.  Another is that the planning process should be decidedly low-tech, using butcher paper and sticky notes for the prioritization, planning and sequencing of stories and features with yarn to link dependencies.  In person it must be.

Then COVID-19 happened.  Quite suddenly scaled agilists were left to figure out how to deliver a meaningful and effective PI planning event virtually.

Tools to Adapt

Fortunately, agilists are a creative lot.  They quickly deployed tools that had, until that time, been under-utilized or novelty applications.  The breakout room capabilities of Zoom and Webex, for instance, suddenly became critical in orchestrating the scrum team breakouts.  Whiteboard and sticky note applications like Smartsheet, Asana, Lucidchart and Mural (no endorsement of any) were central to real-time screen-to-screen collaboration.  These applications replicates activities like the real-world process of capturing dependencies on the program board.  Applications like Kahoot, Mentimeter and Myquiz enabled agile train leaders to get instant feedback from participants – including standard parts of the PI ceremony like the “Fist of Five.” Tools like Slack and Teams helped to enable real-time non-voice dialogue.  These apps also served to keep the agile team – a pool of over 100 people all sitting in their own homebound bubble – engaged and actively part of the process.  The standard bearers like Rally and Jira continued to be used, typically to manage features and stories at the scrum team level.  Based on interviews with agilists across the NEOS client base, we see that companies quickly adapted to the realities of 2020 and largely avoided delays, much less derailment, of their agile trains.

Continuing to Adapt

The most interesting feedback was the feeling that the virtual PI was the most effective to-date.

Wait….what??  How could that be?

For one, the ceremonies were exclusively focused on the planning with no time spent (some would say wasted) socializing.  Likewise, there was less open dialogue during retros, demos, and breakouts.  The loss of “group speak” to a carefully controlled “one at a time” cadence seemed to strip the PI event of its mojo.  While there was a sense of efficacy and expedience, the virtual execution of a PI planning event seems to have lost the bonding that comes from a fostered sense of togetherness.

In the end, the most important question is whether virtual PI planning events will enable delivery of the same business benefits that would have otherwise been delivered if the events were held in-person.  Feedback thus far is that there has been no negative impact to velocity or business benefits delivered.  In NEOS’ experience, the value of the increased efficiency is something to capture and repeat long term, but team building needs to be replaced in some manner. We recommend including free-chat sessions during some (but not all) breaks during the virtual PI event.  Including a lightly orchestrated non-work conversation (“What are your top 3 favorite movies?”  or “What is a place you would like to visit”) helps to get co-workers socializing easily without wandering into the mire of politics and religion.

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