March 23, 2020 // By Vance Lowe
It’s no secret that we are encouraged to keep social distancing and avoid travel -- it’s had an impact on all our businesses. What does this mean for large digital product development organizations that use Program Increment (PI) or In-person planning?
Let’s be real for a few minutes. Remote PI Planning is filled with compromises and there’s no large-scale solution or bespoke solution that we’ve found. The best option we have found is a series of patchwork tools, bringing some motivated individuals to bear, and willingness to give it a go.
Still, remote PI planning is superior to no PI planning – or even worse – PI planning by management. To that end, we have been leaning in with our large engagements that use Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®). We would like to share a few tips to consider as you think through your own events.
How do you replicate knowing exactly where each team is located?
As with all things of substance, pre-planning is important. In traditional PI Planning, each team is labeled and you can scan the room in less than 5 seconds and determine where a team is located. Most organizations assign locations. We spent time realizing that its important to publish and distribute a list of all the breakout team room locations. This is not different than assigning a team to a physical location.
For most of our teams, we use Microsoft Teams and we created a “Team” to dedicate to PI planning in the remote space. In the main channel we created a “schedule” tab which hosted a standard Excel file housing the agenda, the times for all regions, and most importantly, a link to each team’s breakout meeting session.
How do you replicate the ability to quickly walk to another team, ask a question, and report back to your own team?
Traditional big room planning is great. As a team discovers they do not have a piece of information, they can quickly scan the room and find someone to help.
Encourage teams to use whatever form of Instant Message you use to message individuals for the one-off questions, or in the event you need an interaction with a team, refer to the published list noted above and join. Just remember to be respectful to the conversation as you join.
Also, encourage the teams to quickly drop out of their team breakout to do a voice or video call with someone from a different team, then jump back. It’s no different than quickly walking away. This is a good time to publish a full contact list of all team members as well.
How do you replicate the large room briefings?
A standard conference call is not good enough here because the chat aspect can quickly get out of hand and the opportunity for others to speak up a little too often is something to be contained. We’ve all watched this right? We needed a tool better situated for large audiences.
We already used Microsoft Teams (as noted above) and it turns out, Microsoft has a feature called “Teams Live Events” which is really good. It provides a lot of tools to share presentations, hand off presenters, moderate Q&A, and has a good attendee experience.
As you think through this for yourself, just realize your standard conference bridge and screen sharing could possibly fall short.
How do you replicate the intangibles you get from PI Planning?
Let’s face it, there’s no tool for this. But you can mitigate by encouraging the right remote participation behaviors, being very up front in your pre-communications, clearly laying out expectations of behavior, and most importantly, following up with your team leads and even a little spot checking on the ground level to get the pulse of the teams.
How do you simulate face to face interactions?
At team breakouts, we encourage the usage of video on Teams. Obviously, this isn’t ideal for some people as it’s bandwidth intensive.
How do you control the tempo, pace, and the ability to quickly get contextual information?
Frankly, this kept us up at night. The fastest way to lose the audience is to fumble with tools, seem unprepared, and otherwise lose engagement.
We believe the greatest way to do this is grab your team and program leadership and do an honest to goodness dress rehearsal of the presentations, the hand offs, and even double check the ability to quickly go from one Teams room to another.
Find out how quickly it is to dispatch a team member to find out a bit of information and report back. Do the same but to ask for work on another Teams board.
How do you get the most out of the event?
Up front communication and expectation setting. It’s tempting for many people to try to “multi-task” during remote sessions. After all, there’s no one watching their screen while they are listening to the discussions.
Encourage your teams to not multi-task. In fact, demand it. The best way to do this is ensure most, if not all deadline pressure is removed from the individuals during the days of the event.
Also, find creative ways to encourage true engagement and paying close attention to the briefings. We created “Easter eggs” in the presentations and indicated the first person to comment when it appears on screen gets a prize. The prizes range from Amazon or Apple gift cards all the way up to full iPads and Kindles.
How do you replicate the big board, and even the team boards?
We had the hardest time with this. To be clear, there are tools that exist, but they usually are a fairly expensive add-on or layer above our existing systems. We initially looked at a tool called Kendis that showed great promise. But it had better integration tools with Jira and we were are an AzDO shop. Their pipeline is promising… we’ll check them out in a year.
In the end, we chose to use Mural.co as a tool to offer the teams to more quickly visualize their work, but ultimately stuck with the Azure Dev Ops Feature Timeline View for program review with reference to Mural. The compromise is AzDO doesn’t draw the “red string” to show dependencies, so we asked the teams to try to keep up with their updates in Mural.
To be clear, it’s a manual syncing process to update the program board in mural was a compromise we chose to make given the time we had to pivot. More to come in future PI planning events.
It’s still too early to tell from a big picture and strategic point of view. We just do not know the impact to delivery yet. But from an experiential and event perspective, it seems far more distracting for some people. Part of giving the tools and distributing the contact info, people are far more likely to “interrupt” you virtually because they can’t see that you are otherwise engaged. The volume of incoming requests can be quite high for some team members and program leaders.
Some leaders find themselves in high demand. Conversations tend to run longer in a remote context. And when those conversations take longer, it has a snowball effect. The technology challenges are real, especially when you are using cloud solutions during high volume times. Individual bandwidth, overuse of tools, etc. Disruptions, or confusion on the tools themselves, can have a ripple effect.
It’s much more difficult to coordinate a real time schedule. If a meeting is running late, others are unaware and are joining to the agenda which causes difficulty knowing what is occurring. This can likely be resolved by more tightly enforcing time boxes and thinking of the schedule more like school periods where there is 5-10 minutes between different events.
If you are like most of our clients, you are probably wondering what the single tool is you can buy or build to solve this issue. At this point, we can’t see that it exists as a comprehensive solution which makes sense since a large consensus in this community wants to avoid the remote version of PI Planning due to the lack of the intangibles mentioned above.
That said, the COVID-19 situation has created a forcing function to likely change that in the marketplace. We feel like a few good extensions in AzDO could be helpful but that only supports a single ALM. As leaders, PI Planning is about creating the environment to give our Agile teams the business context and the mission and let them give us the plan.
Just recently, Magenic was able to conduct its first fully remote PI planning session. Thanks to Magenic’s Denise Mueffelman and Ben Ambrosino, it was as successful as possible. Now, on to the business of delivery.
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