Empiricism in the Age of COVID19: Learning and Preparation for SAFe® PI Planning (Part 1)

May 19, 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.


Since 2007, I traveled weekly to my clients' offices, where I trained, coached and supported teams using Agile, Lean and SAFe®. I embraced the value of face-to-face communication, never supporting teams remotely for longer than a week or two. And then...COVID19!

Empiricism in the Age of COVID19: Learning and Preparation for SAFe® PI Planning (Part 1)

A brave new world!

As with most people who read this, the teams I support and I were disrupted. Suddenly, I had to meet the world from where I was, and meet my teams where they were—online. An agile coach's number one responsibility: meet people where they are!  It is the only way to be the coach they need. It is a rule I have learned and lived by for many years.

So where were my teams in terms of work, and how could I meet them there?

When quarantine began, the teams on the Agile Release Train (ART) that I coach had just completed their second Program Increment (PI) Planning week. The teams were immature, in that their first PI had been extended by leadership. Only recently had a full-time Release Train Engineer (RTE) been hired to lead the ART. The teams' agile and engineering practices were just beginning to be enabled. They were not fully engaged at the Program Level. Our Product Management Team needed to do a better job with preparing for PI Planning and working to sequence value into the delivery teams. They were generally working through a backlog that had become stale and bloated. This left them unfocused, working on too much and on outputs, not outcomes. However, I must note that they are highly motivated, exceptional individuals who are genuinely interested in doing the right thing and embracing change. I am lucky to get to work with them!

Since this time, we have worked 100% remotely, and this week is our regularly scheduled PI Planning. This first part in this series will cover the preparation for the 2-day remote PI Planning event, including an Inspect & Adapt (I&A) ceremony. I will discuss how we arranged for the teams to be as prepared as possible. In the following parts, I will discuss how the events unfolded (Part 2), and then a retrospective on how things went and what we learned (Part3). Hopefully, if you are reading this, you will find value in the challenges that you have in front of you or your teams.


Preparation for PI Planning- Actions Taken

Eisenhower is famously attributed with the statement, “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.” In other words, the real value is not the output of the planning, but learning from the act of planning. I believe in this paradigm and have often quoted this same saying (usually loosely) in many of my agile trainings.

My ART is currently operating on a 10-week increment. The increment started on March 5, 2020. On March 12, 2020, we went into an ordered lockdown. On March 13, our first Scrum of Scrum and Product Owner Synchronization coordination ceremonies were scheduled.

Previously, our ART had used a physical PI Board, a list of ART Risks and Program Objectives, to evaluate where we were, if we were on track, and where we needed to adjust. In a remote world, this was an example (only one!) of the changes immediately impacting our teams. It was the first symptom of how we needed to start adjusting and adapting.

After the meeting, we began to evaluate how to make Work in Process better and how to enable the teams to complete larger effort ceremonies and get value from them (See SAFe Principle #6). We took four major actions.


Action #1 – Enable a Virtual Program Board.

For this action, we needed new software to deliver a virtual program board that teams could collectively read, update, comment and collaborate around. It needed to trace Business Objectives to Milestones, to Features, to Dependencies.

  • 'Decision Background: Several drivers formed the basis for the decision...
  1. 'The company had licensing agreements in place
  2. 'Miro had built in template for a PI Board
  3. 'Integration with ALM tooling

Quickly converting the physical board into a virtual board allowed us to begin a 2-fold effort to move forward. First, it allowed us to collaborate and rally around our plans. Second, it allowed us a planning platform to move into the next effort, the larger effort.


Action #2 – Enable a collaboration platform.

My client recently migrated from legacy Office Productivity Suite to the modern Office 365 Platform (O365). The primary tooling used for open collaboration was Webex, which left some opportunities on the table, so we considered other options.

  • 'Decision: After a short evaluation and several experiments using gamification, we decided to use Microsoft Teams'. This platform enabled significant improvements over Webex and other tooling. Chief among them was the ability to create multiple meetings and breakout areas where people could jump quickly into and out of meetings. This made it easy for leadership, who might not be in the daily meetings, etc.


Action #3 – Enable our people.

Before adopting Miro, we believed that people would quickly embrace and adapt to using this virtual tool. We never considered a learning curve. It was jarring for some people to go from ‘walking to a board and moving a post-it note' to hand-eye coordination and inherent understanding that when you grab a virtual post-it, you might also move the entire board around!

Physical PI Board vs Virtual PI Board

In my next post, I will review the outcomes from Days 1 & 2 of PI Planning, as well as the Inspect & Adapt ceremony. I will tie the ‘enable people' part of the outcomes where they succeeded or failed. In the meantime, here is a downloadable reference sheet I produced and shared previously in a blog post.


Action #4 Gamify!

One of my early observations was the ‘confirmation bias' in remote teams—they were not challenging each other to try, learn, and change. The disruption pushed people to safe spaces and isolation. Their largest reach was strictly at the team level. When interacting with the RTE, they did not experiment and relied on the RTE to provide any needed change. This was a noticeable change from the office.

We decided to combat the passivity by creating a fun learning environment. In my next post, I will detail some of the specific actions and outcomes around creating a fun online learning environment. I'll share what we did, how it impacted the teams (short-term and long-term), as well as any observations from the event, things I might change, and how I might adjust our approach.


What can we gain from preparation?

'From these four actions, we developed the following hypothesis: 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.

Until my next post, stay safe! I look forward to reporting back soon.

Finally, 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 2

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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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