Empiricism in the Age of COVID19: Lessons from Pre-SAFe® PI Planning (Part 2)

Jun 3, 2020

The following is a 3-part series on supporting Scaled Agile Release Trains and Agile Teams in the new 100% remote environment we live in.


In my first post, I outlined 4 Enablement Actions that prepared the organization I am supporting to be successful in a 100% remote set of ceremonies associated with the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe). I also outlined the decision-making background and provided some details around my Agile Release Train (ART) and my Release Train Engineer (RTE). In Part 2, I provide some additional preparation details, as well as what went well and where there were challenges. Before we begin, I want to remind everyone of our hypothesis:

Empiricism in the Age of COVID19: Lessons from Pre-SAFe® PI Planning (Part 2)

By having fun and enabling critical tooling so that our teams can conduct themselves as if they were ‘in the room/face to face,' we can achieve a successful outcome from our Inspect & Adapt ceremony and maintain the 2.5 day cadence. By embracing empiricism, we could run a series of small, fun experiments, reinforce core Agile and Lean Principles, and prepare our teams to excel!

Inspect & Adapt (I&A) - Observations

Our I&A was a half day that consisted of:

  1. System Increment Demo and Business Value Assessment
  2. Quantitative Metrics
  3. Problem Solving Workshop

All went very well! In this short interactive session with 80+ people on a Miro board, we had limited validation of the hypothesis; however, we learned that the teams could work without interruptions from each other, navigate effectively into breakout sessions, and deliver the desired outcome of each of the ceremonies.

Biggest lesson learned: Create an Agenda, including links to the objects in the Miro Board, lists of participants and links to rejoin/find the meetings.

It helps to post the Agenda in the following places:

  1. In Microsoft (MS) Teams, or your collaboration meeting tooling
  2. In the email invites
  3. On the Miro Board. Just make it easy to find! Here is a sample agenda (all personal and client information has been removed):
PI Planning Agenda


Enabling a Collaboration Tool - Decisions Made

To support our ART before the event, we had to adjust to MS Teams. Initially, it was rolled out as part of Office 365, but there was no plan to align the ARTs in a common way. With the entire organization forced to work remotely, the MS Teams rollout accelerated, resulting in a change and a new tool for many folks.

To support our work, planning, and fun, we decided to make MS Teams our essential daily collaboration tool. We organized and leveraged the MS Teams Architecture to support open collaboration and transparency. The picture below demonstrates how we structured MS Teams.

MS Teams example

If MS Teams is your current tool but you are unfamiliar with its underlying architecture, then it will be worth some research. The backend is a SharePoint server that enables file storage, search, communications and integrations with calendars, and other critical tooling that enables many core activities on an Agile Release Train.

When we decided to go all in with MS Teams, a series of additional ‘Centralized Decisions' paved the way for really unlocking some efficiencies, which easily have delivered more than the Return on Investment in reuse, productivity, and open collaboration.


Some Decisions Made around MS Teams:
  • Every Team Ceremony is published in the MS Teams Channel Calendar.
  • All Ceremonies are in MS Teams, excluding when MS Teams is down (note: we have had no downtime since we started working remotely). Our backup is WebEx.
  • All MS Team and System Demos are recorded and published via Stream.
  • All Increment Readouts are now recorded in MS Teams. They had previously been recorded on cell phones and uploaded, which often took hours due to restrictions on corporate policy on uploads.
Benefits & Outcomes
  • Enabled Communications
    • The Agile Teams are using MS Teams as frequently as they would meet ‘face to face' in the office for phone calls, video meetings and ad hoc collaboration activities.
  • Increased Productivity
    • Due to internal changes, it is not a 1:1 comparison but worst case there was a 22% increase in productivity, in the best case it was as much as 56%
    • I would at least partially credit this to ‘seamless' communications available on Teams between Chat, Calls, Video Conferencing and general Information sharing.
    • The Increment started before COVID and the ART was forced to work remotely, and still there was a significant productivity increase.
    • The teams realigned after the previous PI, so many teams were new, had new members, or had been realigned.
    • Added a new Scrum Master and new team members during the increment. MS Teams was their primary way of ‘meeting' their teammates.
  • Increased Efficiency
    • The simplification of one tool with transparent access to its information, ease of use, optimized reuse and consolidated information access meant team members did not need to search to find pass codes, meeting updates, etc. They went to their channels and information was consolidated in a single place; ART information was likewise consolidated. If a team member missed a demo, they viewed it in Stream.
    • Product Management could ‘attend' every Iteration Review & System Demo and give feedback because they could view all the contents in a single day and make adjustments before the next iteration began. Previously, their time had been split between multiple events due to the number of teams on the ART. Prior to the Demo, Product Management culled most of their presentation for Business Value scoring from the video recordings of their Iteration Demos, and where needed extended or performed additional demonstrations. Their presentations were also shared via Miro Boards if someone was interested in viewing them but could not attend the event.
  • We provided dedicated training and coaching to the Scrum Masters and Product Owners using MS Teams.
  • We held ART-wide virtual Happy Hours and had team challenges, games and other activities that required:
    • Moving From one meeting to another and back
    • Interacting in an MS Team environment while simultaneously interacting with other tools
    • Explaining the organization of the MS Teams structure
    • Providing recorded training content for additional features within MS Teams
    • Publishing recordings via MS Teams & Stream, with tagging for search capabilities
    • Exposing barriers to optimized MS Teams experiments (faulty headsets, equipment policy restrictions etc)
  • Began utilizing Yammer for amplifying the recorded content throughout the company, engaging the wider Stakeholder group more frequently and visibly.


Enabling the Virtual Program Board and Our People - Decisions Made

As previously mentioned, we decided on Miro to use as our planning platform. The reasons listed were discussed in my previous post. Much of the learning about how to enable our teams came fromusing Miro early on to migrate our physical board during the PI in execution

The big decisions here were around preparation of our teams. As a coach working with a new RTE, I decided to assist in materials setup and preparation for the actual events. I created/customized templates within Miro and provided training/support, as well as game design for the learning activities used in Miro. I created games, contests and activities to ensure that core capabilities were developed. I ran several workshops, as I prepared my RTE to deliver similar workshops. He excelled and was a fantastic leader!


Benefits & Outcomes
  • Enabled Core Capabilities - The Agile Teams engaged in several learning sessions that enabled and accelerated their use of Miro, Mural and MS Teams. Games included:
    • Identify your teammates' baby pictures
    • Trivia
    • Build a picture
    • Complete a process
    • ‘Seek and Find' on a board
    • Work within a team environment
    • Team Happy Hours
    • Open Sandbox for learning
    • Separate Product Owner and Scrum Master training for advanced skills
  • Increased Efficiency - The teams became incredibly effective. Their feedback was that using the virtual tools enabled better productivity, team cohesion and planning due to the ability to quickly see the ‘whole' picture, as well as their piece of the picture throughout the planning process.
  • Increased Team Cohesion – A side effect of these activities was that the teams actually began to know more about each other and learned higher trust and established better relationships. This was especially interesting, as a large number of key roles were new hires, including several people who have never met their teammates face to face.
  • Supporting reusable utilities – In addition to the referenced learning, we also looked to optimize the use of the tools by creating reusable utilities that enabled faster content creation in Miro and other planning utilities.
  • Team Happiness – The team enjoyed the use of the tools and commented about using the tools going forward. They generally responded very positively to the events and their ability to finish planning in less time than previous events.

To bring the plan together, we decided to create a backup tool for each and every activity. The use of the custom utilities enabled us to quickly adjust if the primary tooling failed. The sample chart below outlines our plan. Additionally, the RTE and I conducted several partial walkthroughs and prepared to have me monitor all ceremonies and provide direct feedback to the RTE about issues, as well as troubleshoot any issues that arose around access, tooling and setup.

PI Planning Scenarios



By the final walkthrough of the plan, my RTE was confident and prepared. Each team member completed a checklist, creating specific set-up steps within the planning tools. These steps not only ensured that they knew how to do each task, but also provided them with explicit instructions that left an audit trail, allowing the RTE and I to ensure they could complete the tasks.

We were ready, and we knew it!

In summary: We made a plan based on our hypothesis, putting in place and running specific experiments. We learned from them and used the outcomes to adjust where needed. Because we applied empiricism, we felt that we achieved what we had set out to do.

In the next and final installment, I will share some details from the retrospective and observations of the event. Until then, take care of your people in these trying times. They are still the very best asset you have in your organization!

> Go on to Part 3

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Written by Travis Reed

Travis is currently on his third career, drawing his passion for helping Organizational Leaders implement 'Good Change' in their organizations using Agile, Lean, and other practices. He has led multiple Enterprise-wide Re-engineering efforts within the context of Digital Transformation, Agile Transformation, and efforts in Lean/Lean Six Sigma. His energy and passion are powered by his experience in System and Software Development and Support for over 25 years, as well as the problems he encountered and the learnings he developed. He retains multiple industry certifications including SAFe Program Consultant, Certified Discipline Agilist, Enterprise Business Agility Strategist, and Lego Serious Master Strategist. 

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