A Coach’s Skepticism on Virtual PI Planning

By: Brian Ralph, SPC
I woke early that morning in a state of anxiety. The rational part of my brain tried to reason with me.

“You’ve contributed to, or coached, multiple SAFe PI planning events. Yes, this time it is different, but your level of anxiety is out of proportion.”

“Probably because this is 100% virtual, dummy?” I responded to rational self.

We had performed all the necessary technical checks; ensured all participants could get on to Microsoft Teams where most of our large room and breakout rooms would take place, and although the PI Planning tool was new to us, we had road tested it well before this day. But could we really pull off virtual PI Planning? Or worse, what if we did succeed, and ended up creating something that would not go away; possibly violating our first love of Agile; ‘Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools’?

We arrived on the client site in early March, just weeks after their first PI Planning event, which had taken place in person. The walls of the development shop, we had been told, had been plastered with butcher paper and multi-colored post-it notes, sharpies were plentiful, and the usual bundles of red yarn lay about. People from all around the nation had flown in and commented on how nice it was to be able to visualize the work, connect with each other, visit the team breakouts, and discuss the planned work. And then, just a few weeks into our assignment, COVID-19 sent us home.

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On this anxious morning, I went from my kitchen to my desk, connected to MS Teams, and entered a large virtual room with 200 others. After the vision, mission context (government), and a list of potential features were presented, we headed off (mouse clicked over) to our team breakout rooms. I shared my screen with my Scrum team as I pulled up the PI Planning tool; a tool they were seeing for the first time. I created virtual post-it notes for stories, and after a short round trip to Jira, a unique number magically appeared on the sticky. We dragged stories between sprints, being careful not to turn the sprint red through over capacity. We created risks and dependencies, being able to send a copy of the dependency to the dependent team and the program board. A scrum sync room was created where the Scrum Masters checked in on planning progress, and we returned to the main room for readouts. Our management review went well. Even though we often talked over each other accidentally, when someone had the floor, we could all hear them. The next day we ROAM’d the risks, retrospected, took a virtual confidence vote, making it through the two days successfully. Mr. Rational was correct. It was just different.

In pre-pandemic PI events with past clients, during the initial team breakout, some teams would be found wrapping police tape around their work areas. Well-meaning visitors would need to keep out while the teams got their mind around the new work. Interruptions to that initial breakout were a constant problem to the teams, with Scrum Masters playing facilitator, and bouncer. In virtual land, we had visitors drop in, either because they were requested, or because they were curious. In either case, it never pulled us off course. I also noticed an increased scrutiny from the mission owners during read out. In past PI events, as much as we tried to bring visual aid to the product owner’s message, the audience was heavily reliant on their listening skills to take in all the information. But in virtual land, where the team and program boards could be seen clearly on-line, there were more detailed questions I had not come across before. “Zoom in on your load and capacity please. I’m concerned you’re overloading,” “your PI Objective seems unclear” and “tell me about that dependency,” were just some of the statements we were hearing. Higher levels of visibility brought higher levels of critique, which brought stronger objectives and confidence to deliver them.   

Charles Dickens once said that ‘electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.’ The only ‘electric’ communication in Mr. Dickens’ time was the telegraph. What would he say now? I look forward to seeing faces again, encouraging souls to be brave and true, having conversations over lunch, seeing teams work and laugh together, watching leaders resolve problems in person and even accidentally walking on balls of red yarn. I will always choose in person over virtual when I can, but COVID took away that choice. The global pandemic became a ruthless taskmaster that forced a date on us to make virtual PI planning successful. Now that many succeeded in doing so, even in safer times, many will choose the virtual option for PI planning. If it is chosen, I believe we can get as close to Dickens’ intent by just smiling and turning on our web cameras, and if we remember that the virtual tools are just that; tools that support individuals interacting, perhaps we can remain true to the best part of Agile.

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Brian Ralph came into the Agile world in 2007 after many years of burnout with traditional project management techniques. Since that time, Brian has worked as a Scrum Master and Coach across multiple companies in the private sector, and is currently a SAFe Program Consultant with PCI, where he serves the Department of Defense on their Agile journey. 

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