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What’s the Secret to Maximizing the Value out of Agile PI Planning–Whether You’re In Person or Online

By David Gipp | Oct 19, 2022 |  Agile,  Agile Transformation,  SAFe

An image of a laptop with a group doing remote Agile PI Planning via Zoom.The second article of this series talked about success criteria and how to facilitate the voting process. This time, we talk about a critical aspect of PI Planning. Whether onsite or online, how do you make this event valuable and fun. 

We’ve talked about how the social aspect of PI Planning is really important and why it makes PI Planning magical. Are there other reasons why onsite PI Planning is your preferred venue versus online?
It’s definitely for the things that happen in the margins. When you are online, you need to precisely plan every interaction. When you are together in a room, you’re going to have unexpected conversations and those are always good surprises. 

There are also physical interactions and jokes that inject fun that can only happen organically when you are in person. For example, during one PI Planning, we had a business leader show up in full disguise. He had on sunglasses and a hat so nobody knew who he was. He wandered around for the first 20 minutes but we couldn’t figure it out because it had been a while since we’ve been in person. Once he got up to the front of the room and started sharing his business vision, people were like, “Wow, is that [leader]?  Then he took his hat and wig off and everyone figured it out.

The other thing that’s a lot easier in person, is the ability to wander up and listen at the outer edge of any conversation. It’s a lot like an Open Space, you can use the Law of Two Feet and wander over to where you are interested. That cross-pollination of conversation is what yields the best results. 

How do you inject fun and create space for cross-pollination online?
In one case, our RTE pre-printed fake event tickets. He did a mail merge so it had everyone’s individual name and assigned them a ticket. The QR code on the fake ticket actually worked! When you scanned the QR code, it took you to the online planning board.

We also had a theme for every one of our PI Planning events, whether it was remote or not. The first one was remote and we went to Hawaii. The second one, also remote, we went to Tahiti. The third one was onsite and we went to Florida (as a theme). The music matched the location: Hawaii was Hawaiian, Tahiti was Polynesian, and Florida was Miami Vice sort of music.

In order to create space for cross-pollination, people will need to be able to move around. For online, we had separate breakout rooms where people could self-select into the conversation they wanted to be in. Prior to the event, you should think about whether you’re going to intentionally send people to breakout rooms or if you are going to allow them to self-select. In the instance of PI Planning, I believe self-selecting works best; people need to be able to choose when they drop in or leave a conversation. 

There will be times when you need to gather everyone together in one room, such as when it’s time to listen to the plans or when we’re going to do the confidence vote. I suggest having a main room for that. 

Another good idea we use to successfully encourage people to bounce around from room to room is setting up a lobby for lost and found. When someone is thinking “I don’t know where to go” they can go to lost and found and the person staffing that room will tell them where they should be. 

I think the biggest reminder about facilitating a remote event is that you have to prod people for that cross-pollination. If you’re physically in a big room, it’s easy to walk over or ask someone to weigh in. But when you are remote, you have to remind people to drop into breakout rooms and encourage them to contribute to the conversation. There’s a lot of lurking that can go on but you should not be shy. Raise your hand, turn on your camera, come off mute, and say “I’m here because I have a question. Can I interrupt you guys?”

Do you have any advice for people who are more introverted? How do you make a more inclusive, welcoming space?
Fun helps with that. The RTE’s and the coaches’ job will be to create a light, safe environment where anything can be said. Scrum masters are a good conduit to those conversations. During the event, we’ll bring all the Scrum Masters together three or four times throughout the day to discuss how much people are cross-pollinating and if we need to keep an eye on [issues]. If there’s a team that needs some help, a coach may decide to join the Scrum Master. Sometimes we’ll create a third ad hoc grouping if we need to get to two rooms together. 

If you’re in person, it is easy to tell whether the event is going right or wrong. If the teams are on two different sides of the room and you don’t see people going back and forth, something is not right. It’s much harder when you’re remote to know if things are going well. You need to go out of your way to drop in the breakout rooms and listen. If it’s dead silent, after joining a room for five minutes, it’s probably not going well. 

What supplies do you need for in-person?
You need tons of stickies, dozens and dozens of stickies for each team. You need a big chart or foam core board for each team to visualize their plan on. At the front of the room, you’ll need a large program dependency board where we plan who needs what when. You’ll also need red string and scissors to map those dependencies. 

You can also use props to increase excitement about the theme of the event. Go to the dollar store and grab sunglasses, confetti, or some sort of table swag that will lighten the mood. This is not conference room planning. It should be fun!

If it’s a train of any size at all, you’re likely going to need audio and visual support. You’ll need projectors and mics so everyone in the room can see and hear what is going on. You’ll also likely need to help people get used to being on the mic. I always have to remind people that if you can’t see the mic in your hand, then we can’t hear you. 

What do you say to organizations that may prefer the online version because it’s cheaper and easier to coordinate all of those people?
Well, [online] is always going to be cheaper. The question is, are you getting the same value for the 2-day investment? You’re still taking people away from whatever they’re doing for those two days because we need their full attention even online. 

[My opinion] is the cost of food, room, and travel for anyone who’s flying is probably worth the investment given the increased value that you’re going to receive from being in-person. Although we’ve gotten good at [remote] PI Planning, and we’ve been kind of forced to do it, I’m not sure I agree that we’re getting the exact same value [when compared to onsite].

Some companies have a work-from-anywhere policy, but they also have this idea of “Moments that matter.” PI Planning is one of those moments where most companies, even if they have a remote policy, have seen the value in coming together on location for planning.

If there are people that couldn’t attend in person, would you try to incorporate them in a hybrid way?
You can review and discuss on a case-by-case basis. If someone really can’t get there or if they have health concerns, we will adapt and figure out a way to make it work.

[Hybrid] is tough. The level of toughness depends on whether the person needs to contribute or not. We had some people that were remote that needed to see the leadership decks and the output of the event–passive consumers of the plan–and that works fine. The hard part is when you need to contribute in a hybrid environment. 

During the last hybrid PI Planning event I was a part of, a few team members that were remote, were on the laptop Zooming with the rest of their team. It was hard to hear though…. In the middle of the event, we actually ran out and got some Bluetooth speakers that we wired to each team so they could hear their remote members and vice versa. 

Any last words of wisdom?
It was awesome being back in person. I would always choose to do PI Planning in person if you have the means. It may turn into alternating between remote and in-person. If you can, you should always do [in-person]. I would fear to lose in-person PI Planning completely because they are so effective at reaching the intended outcomes.

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