How to make a success of virtual PI Planning

By Elizabeth Metzger, Steven Dry

Mar 18, 2021

Program Increment (PI) Planning, or Big Room Planning, is arguably one of the most valuable ceremonies for any organisation using Scaled Agile. These two-day planning sessions bring together a program team to plan their next 10-12 weeks of work. The giant planning board offers a massive visualisation of the timeline for value delivery, as well as interdependencies.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic created the biggest remote working experiment the world has ever seen, organisations struggled to bring together distributed teams for PI Planning. But with COVID-19 making face-to-face meetings of up to 150 people impossible, it became hard to see how PI Planning could continue. Yet, with the right planning, technology and facilitation, it is possible to lead successful virtual PI Planning by replicating the most value-adding aspects digitally.

Consolidate your program and sprint team boards onto a shared virtual whiteboard

A significant benefit of PI Planning is the centralised visualisation of work across teams. Whether you’re a team member browsing other teams’ boards during a break or a leader doing a walk-through, the program board and sprint team planning boards provide an overview of progress and the value being delivered.

In a virtual context, it’s important to recreate this centralised experience by bringing together the program board, sprint team planning boards, PI objectives and program risk board. To create the same level of transparency and co-creation of PI Planning, everyone needs to be able to edit this central view simultaneously. And they need to be able to quickly view the program backlog to make any clarifications.

Many shared visualisation tools and digital white board solutions exist. We chose Miro to facilitate PI Planning events for a large healthcare payer provider. Using their virtual collaboration space, we created a consolidated view of all team and program boards. Teams could seamlessly move between their sprint planning boards and the boards of other teams, helping us unlock the value of centralised visualisations of work.

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Enable participants to quickly find and move between sprint team conversations with virtual breakout rooms

Another significant benefit of PI Planning is the ability to quickly resolve dependencies with other teams through short, impromptu conversations. During in-person PI Planning, participants know exactly where to find their colleagues in case they need to have a conversation. In a virtual context, this becomes infinitely harder. Working with the same healthcare payer provider, we used individual, virtual conference rooms for each team, but this required each scrum master to know the dial-in information for all other teams. This configuration made it difficult to bring teams and team members together quickly to get answers, and random interruptions disrupted team conversations.

Recently, we discovered Sococo’s virtual meeting experience, which streamlines impromptu meetings between sprint teams. It works like an online co-working space – users see a floor plan broken into ‘rooms’ that they can join as they would in an office, taking them straight into the conversations with both audio and video. Almost instantly, participants can move between rooms and join different conversations, without leaving the platform or dialling into lots of meetings. And teams can shut the door to avoid interrupting work, although people can still ‘knock’ to request access.

Give your people the right support and resources to embrace remote PI Planning

For remote PI Planning to work effectively, your people will need great technology, the right training, a structured agenda and the opportunity to take a break.

When it comes to technology, each participant will need a functioning microphone and video. With up to 150 people video conferencing, you’ll also test the limits of your organisation’s wireless bandwidth. So, test all this with your IT department early, and improve both well in advance of PI Planning.

Using this technology in new ways also means you need to train your people. When running virtual big room planning for a health technology insurance company, we developed a step-by-step guide for basic tasks as well as a set of tips and tricks. We also ran virtual training sessions to introduce the process at least a week in advance.

PI Planning already has a relatively structured agenda, and it’s imperative you stick to it when working virtually. It’s much easier to get distracted when working remotely, which could see you miss crucial activities like Scrum of Scrums. A clear agenda will also let you plan breaks to keep motivation high. PI Planning involves long days that are traditionally energising as so many people are working towards the same goal. But when you’re sat in front of a computer, you need breaks to stretch your legs, get a snack or potentially care for family members who are also at home. That means it might make sense to extend PI Planning from two days to three days and offer a few hours at the end of each day for rejuvenation.

COVID-19 made Virtual PI Planning necessary. Keeping it will bring long-term benefits

During the unprecedented time of social distancing brought on by COVID-19, agile programmes have pivoted to launch virtual PI, or Big Room, Planning. Virtual white boards and coworking tools have facilitated the most valuable aspects of this event, and will more flexibility in the future.

As so many of us are forced to work remotely, leaders need to adjust to support their people.

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About the authors

Elizabeth Metzger PA healthcare expert Elizabeth balances quantitative analysis with strategic thinking to drive client success.
Steven Dry PA agile expert Part creative, part quantitative: Steve moves projects from ideation to implementation

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