What is SAFe PI Planning, How Do You Prepare, And Why is it so Magical? 

By: David Gipp | Oct 03, 2022 |  Agile Transformation,  SAFe

An image of the wall during SAFe PI Planning which is used to help the teams tell the story of which features they will complete during the Product Increment.We sat down with Enterprise Transformation Coach David Gipp to discuss the ins and outs of PI Planning, how to make it more successful (whether it’s remote or in-person), and why this event is the “magic” of SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework). 

It was a great conversation but it was a long one and we couldn’t bear to cut any parts. We decided to break it down (Agile joke!) into 3 articles. In this first article, we cover SAFe PI Planning basics (what it is, its value, and how to prepare). 

What is PI Planning or big room planning?
It is the one place where we have the entire development group, the entire Agile Release Train (ART), together for the longest period of time. There are some other events including our Retrospective or our Inspect and Adapt, where we would bring the train together. PI Planning is by far the most important because we’re together the longest, and have the conversations we need the most. 

A lot of people say that if there is any magic in SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework), it is in this meeting. It is the moment in time where we align and commit to the work that we’re going to do for the entire Program Increment (PI). The PI is usually around a quarter… Some are 10 weeks, some are 12 weeks. It’s Scaled Agile’s version of a quarterly plan, but a very well examined plan, and my favorite part about it is that everyone gets a chance to vote on that plan. 

A huge highlight and one reason why PI Planning is useful and magical is because everyone gets to contribute in the building of that plan, and everyone gets to vote on the validity of that plan.

Are there any other reasons why PI Planning is such a critical event?
Another important thing that happens at that event is the social aspect. Not only do you get to meet people outside your team, you get to interact with the leaders and sponsors. We bring those people to planning and we have them talk about their business vision; we have product leaders talk about the product vision. So it’s a place where it’s not just a one-to-many conversation, but it’s a place where the leaders are with us for two days and they talk to the teams and the and the teams talk to the leaders. It’s what we would call ‘walking the gemba’ for our leaders. Whether it’s virtual or physical, we are all in the same environment. If it’s physical, we’re eating meals with each other, talking during breaks, and walking the hallways. 

In terms of who needs to be in the room: leaders and sponsors are there to provide the vision, talk to the teams, and observe them. Is that correct?
Yes, and vice versa. It is also an opportunity for the teams to understand what the leaders are like as people and what they want from the development group. It’s where everyone gets aligned on the compelling vision. Everyone knows why their work is important, how it is affecting the goal for the market, and links everyone together. That’s one reason why it’s magic.

How do you prepare for PI Planning? What makes a good goal? What makes a good vision?
There is an art to not over-preparing and also not under-preparing. If we walk into the room and have all of our plans on the shelf already, then what are we going to talk about? But at the same time, if we don’t do enough preparation, what will we talk about? They are different problems: We have nothing to talk about or we don’t know what we’re going to talk about. 

The real trick is in the weeks leading up to PI Planning, the product group and the business leaders work together to get aligned on which top 10 features the teams will likely focus on next. 

Teams should be somewhat aware of the feature list, but they’ll have been focused on the current PI. It is important to start PI Planning by restating our overall vision and explaining how the next group of items is going to fulfill that vision. 

So the vision doesn’t change every single PI, but the top 10 features change?
Sometimes the vision will shift. I think the COVID pivot is a very good example of that; sometimes you do need to change your vision. By pivot or adjusting, we mean you don’t walk away from the problem, but need a different way of solving it. PI Planning is a place to adjust that vision if you need to. Our vision might change a little bit from PI to PI, but what will usually change is how we’re going to get there.  

But sometimes, using COVID as an example, you have a completely different problem.
Yes, or we might need a new way to solve the same problem. The question becomes, how are we going to continue to serve our customers during whatever market event is happening.

Have you ever been in a PI where the vision changed after day one?
Not necessarily. If you’re not clear on your vision, and your PI Planning event is coming up, you should probably not have that event.

To prepare for PI Planning, you need a vision that you’re committed to and the top 10 features. Does the top 10 list need to be prioritized?
We should know going in what the most valuable things are given the effort we want to expend and there are aspects of the SAFe framework that will help you prioritize that such as WSJF (weighted shortest job first). 

You were saying that product and business leaders typically prioritize the top 10. Why 10?
Everywhere you hear about SAFe, you’re going to hear the term “top 10 features” but it’s just guidance. It might be six, a dozen, or if it’s a very large train, maybe it’ll be 20. You should have just enough that you want to add to your product area, and usually slightly more than you’re actually going to accept. You don’t want to walk in with too little or with too much.

Do you need to have an idea of capacity before you have PI Planning?
We will come into planning with an estimate of how big each feature is, a scientific guess. But we will not know precisely how many of those are going to fit in the PI. 

That is the purpose of this two-day exercise. The two days are about examining the list, figuring out what the plan will look like sprint over sprint, iteration over iteration, and making the determination of how much actually will fit. Even in your first PI Planning, there’s a mechanism to make sure that you don’t commit to too much work.


The next article in the PI Planning series discusses how to facilitate the event, what success criteria should you be looking for, and what happens if things go sideways. Plus, we’ll cover the all-important vote. 

Read the whole series:

If you’d like to learn more about how our SAFe services like facilitating PI Planning drive to outcomes, click here.

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