Conducting Remote Program Increment (PI) Planning: 4 Critical Steps for Release Train Engineers

We all have a checklist we use to prepare for a virtual Program Increment (PI) Planning. It may include activities such as setting up the tool, setting up a virtual meeting, holding timebox and taking breaks every hour. Indeed, it may seem that the work to prepare is endless. In talking to Release Train Engineers (RTE) over the past two weeks, the impression is clear that it’s easy to get distracted and focused more on checklists rather than the outcomes of a virtual PI Planning.

The outcomes of a successful virtual PI Planning is achieving alignment of 125 to 150 people (all working remotely from their home office) on a common vision and backlog of priorities for the next 10 to 12 weeks. Reaching this successful alignment requires more than just ticking off a checklist of activities. It requires a laser sharp focus on the outcomes, and not necessarily outputs, of the PI Planning session.

Below are a few ideas to help us keep our eyes on the proverbial ball:

Delegate to Be Prepared

The RTE should not be micro-managing this event. Rather, the RTE should accept the facts that they are vulnerable and that the success of the PI Planning does not exclusively fall on his/her shoulders. The PI Planning implementation will require co-facilitators, Scrum Masters, and possibly an agile coach to help support the preparation and facilitation of the session. The mandate for an RTE is to provide the vision of what is needed, coordinate to ensure the right people are in the right space, at the right time, for the right conversation, including the delegation of the following activities:

  • Virtual Meeting/Communication set up (Zoom, Slack, Virtual Boards, etc.)
  • Agile Management Tool (Jira, Jira Align, VersionOne/CollabNet, etc.)
  • Meeting Facilitation
  • Written communication

Do Your Job

Knowing who is accountable for what and holding each other accountable is critical to the success of a virtual Pl Planning and Release Train execution. When done in person, accountability can be achieved through collaboration and natural teaming, which may be lost when going virtual.

Regardless of whether this is the RTE’s first or tenth PI Planning, this is an opportunity to deliver a refresher on accountability and deep-dive workshop on such topics as agile, DevOps, and product training.

When working remotely, it is important to verify that previously established accountability is still being followed. Also, it is critical to establish working agreements across teams to better understand how to operate together and ensure that all teams and release trains are aligned to the delivery operating model.

Self-organizing teams are still a desirable thing, but in a virtual setting, ensuring common cadence and constant synchronization is critical. Common agreement and a structure that enables self-organization is essential to the early and frequent delivery of value.

Provide Context

As managers, we know we need to provide our knowledge workers with the competency and context to do their work, particularly when working remotely. A Virtual PI Planning is the perfect vehicle to provide competency and context to teams working on a release train.

A common anti-pattern is shortening the first part of PI Planning under the assumption that participants are well aware of the business context and are ready to dive into features and architecture. This could indeed be detrimental to the success of a virtual PI Planning.

These recommendations should be followed for the early part of the first day of a virtual PI Planning:

  • Select the busiest and most critical Business Owner (a stakeholder from the C-suite) to discuss the business context. They should be reminded that the format will be very similar to a quarterly town hall.
  • Make a big splash out of the vision and roadmap review. The product management team should be involved in devising creative ways to keep participants engaged and motivated about the product. – e.g. Role play scenarios from your customers, etc.
  • Spend more time than usual on feature review – detail out the feature value and acceptance criteria, show the architecture and encourage interactive Q&A
  • Provide the teams with new skill sets and competencies to enable them to successfully complete the work in the Program Increment

Respect the Release Train Participants

These are trying and stressful times. Many people are stuck at home, their significant other also working at home, their kids trying to study virtually, and pets baffled as to why the humans are hanging out at home so much. RTEs should remember to be empathetic. Ideally, they would
conduct pre-sessions so people can prepare for the meeting, use multiple communication channels to send advance notice, ensure understanding and encourage one on one meetings with participants.

During the session remember to bring laughter, reduce stress, and take regular breaks augmented with interactive games. Respect everyone’s humanness and remember to focus on the outcomes, not the checklist of things that should go perfect, because they will not.

Happy PI Planning!

Virtual PI Planning

The RTE's Guide to Remote Delivery

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Dan Teixeira, SPCT - Enterprise Agile Consultant
Dan Teixeira, SPCT - Enterprise Agile Consultant