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Sep 10

All You Need to Know About Program Increment (PI) Planning

The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more – Yuval Noah Harari

Program Increment (PI) is like a pizza base for Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®). It keeps other elements (aka toppings) together, and is essential to even think about implementing SAFe® in your pizza place (aka company). In this article, you will learn about the PI Planning ceremony, its importance, implementation, and how BigPicture can help you with it.

What is a PI Planning Event?

Every big event requires a proper preparation. According to SAFe®, PI Planning aligns all the teams on the Agile Release Train (ART) to a shared mission and vision. ART, according to Lucidchart, is a team made up of Agile teams. It consists of groups of 50 to 125 people working on the same product. PI Planning aligns the ART members with business and technological missions. An ART team plans and commits to the work scheduled in the PI, which usually lasts between 8 and 12 weeks. 

During this event, teams and managers can meet and speak with each other for about two days. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, PI Planning was highly recommended to be performed in the form of a physical gathering. No video calls and group chats, just a few dozens of people in a conference room. Being physically present at PI Planning events used to be considered so important that international teams would even book long-haul flights only to meet in one place and talk with each other. 

PI Planning is an essential part of SAFe®: If you are not doing it, you are not doing SAFe®, the authors state. Sounds radical, but the following points will explain why PI Planning is so important.

What is PI Planning for?

During PI Planning, all participants get to know each other face-to-face. SAFe® demands human interactions and deeper-than-average relationships between members. This translates into better cooperation later. PI Planning results in a plan of iterations, backlog, objectives, and risks for the upcoming PI.

PI Planning is a marketplace of ideas

Why is PI Planning important?

It allows teams to see the bigger picture of the company’s goals, vision, and targets. The business side presents what needs to be done and achieved in a broader sense. Meanwhile, Teams debate what specific steps they need to take to achieve these goals. They narrow down the possibilities and solutions, analyze them and choose the best ones.

To be more specific: PI Planning lasts two days. It’s a large meeting (50-125 participants), which follows a specific schedule that we will break down later in this article.

The agenda includes a presentation of business conditions and company vision. The meeting is attended by the representatives of all teams. To quote Agile Manifesto, face-to-face conversation is “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information.”

A successful PI Planning brings the fruit of PI Objectives and a Program Board. During the next 8-12 weeks (the usual duration of a Program Increment), these objectives are visible and fully accessible to all and open for updates.

PI Planning vs. Sprint Planning. What’s the difference?

It’s simple: PI Planning happens between teams. Meanwhile, Sprint Planning is an event for team members. The main difference is the scale and hierarchy – Sprints are a subset of PI Planning. Also, Sprints are made for a single Sprint. On the other hand, PI Planning is done for four Sprints together for every 8 to 12 weeks, and its purpose is to get a vision of business value. 

Main differences between PI and Sprint

When to use PI planning?

Simply use PI Planning when you want to implement and use SAFe®. PI Planning is needed to establish effective communication between the teams and stakeholders and to create a social network. PI Planning helps to adjust the goals and visions to teams’ capacities, and narrow down the possible outcomes and methods to achieve the business value. Typically, PI Planning starts when the previous PI ends.

How to prepare for this event?

SAFe® highlights three areas of preparation

  • Organizational readiness
  • Content readiness
  • Logistics readiness

Let’s briefly check each step. 

Organizational readiness is about vision, aligning strategy within interested parties, and assigning critical roles. Also, it’s checking on priorities, and if they are similarly understood by business owners. Lastly, to make sure we have Agile teams, and then we can assign proper roles.

Content readiness brings specific business context to the table by creating proper briefings that include features in the Program Backlog and presentations from management. 

Logistics readiness, in contemporary times, is mostly about preparing channels of communication for dispersed teams. Before the COVID-19 days, it also meant choosing a location and coordinating an event for several dozen people, including catering and accommodation. 

How to make PI Planning fun?

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” to quote Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror movie, The Shining. We can make PI Planning more attractive if we don’t want to turn our team members into Jack Torrance impersonators. How? The most simple element is STUFF. Every person likes getting gift bags, so prepare them for participants. Also, you can spice things up with raffle tickets, trivia during intermission, or by bringing some tabletop games during the lunch break. Some experts advise using a theme for the PI Planning event that corresponds with the year’s hot topics, or with the latest trends. The last one might work pretty well even in the remote mode.  

PI Planning can be fun

What is the standard agenda?

Fortunately, this element is standardized. Here is a handy cheat sheet to showcase how the PI Planning agenda can be planned:

PI Planning agenda

Based on: PI Planning by Scaled Agile Framework

You can also download our PI planning table here.

What are the business benefits of PI Planning?

To name a few: 

  1. Coordinating business goals based on business requirements and company objectives and vision.
  2. Identifying cross-team dependencies.
  3. Creating a social network by fostering cross-team relations, raising team spirit, and enabling cooperation.
  4. Coordinating demand with capacity by safeguarding against excess. 

Who should be involved in PI Planning?

As mentioned above, PI Planning requires all teams, stakeholders, product owners, and managers to be involved. Another crucial technical role is System Architects. According to SAFe®, they are responsible for defining and communicating a shared technical and architectural vision for an ART to help ensure the system or Solution under development is fit for its intended purpose.

How to do PI Planning effectively?

All interested parties must understand the vision, goals, objectives, and business value that must be achieved. It can be executed via good communication, putting doubts and questions before the discourse, and addressing it properly. “Yes-man” attitude can be the worst enemy, as it does not help. It only serves to feel good about ourselves for a brief time, but in hindsight, it can be catastrophic. Remember, there is nothing wrong with hesitations about plan or execution. Communication is the key to the most effective PI Planning. 

What are the most common mistakes and challenges?

In the contemporary remote landscape, the challenges to prepare fruitful PI Planning are even more significant. Let’s point out some of the most important: 

  • a vast amount of upfront work and preparation dedicated for this event
  • trying to save time and money on the event
  • syncing in the entire company with goals and objectives 
  • transparent work and communication within and between teams 
  • synchronizing the product delivery by teams 
  • team members localization 
  • syncing between different time zones 
  • potential connectivity issues 
  • sticking to a day plan 
  • explaining the Definition of Done (agreed-upon set of items that must be completed before a project or user story can be considered complete). 

Before the pandemic, the main mistakes were mainly about communication and proper preparation of the event itself. If people felt they were in an unwelcoming, hostile environment that served only as a way to confirm stakeholders about their goals without challenging them, then that was a big red flag. The same goes with poor or no preparation – pre-planning was crucial to point out and address critical goals that the company wanted to achieve.

Now, members must take care of communicating online. This can create distance between people, as meeting face-to-face was always at the heart of PI Planning. It takes a good speaker and organizer to overcome this obstacle, but it’s not impossible to achieve similar goals via remote work. 

Distributed PI Planning – what is the answer to the pandemic?  

To address the problem of dispersed teams, caused by many factors like COVID, budgeting, lack of office space, SAFe® prepared a quick guide for companies. Let’s see the six areas SAFe® has highlighted: 

  1. Planning Locations: where the distributed event will take place.
  2. PI Planning Agenda – include different time zones preparing this agenda.
  3. Facilities – places where participants will be during the event.
  4. Working Agreements – establish what are the member’s needs and how to meet them.
  5. Tooling – software and technology to effectively use.
  6. Facilitation – set and execute PI Planning event.

How can BigPicture help?  

BigPicture can be an essential tool in crucial aspects of PI Planning. Organizations using BigPicture Roadmap can define and present product plans for the upcoming Program Increment, thus setting clear targets for the ART. On the Roadmap, you can define both PI Objectives and Iteration Goals that can be visualized. BigPicture Board, as the name suggests, is the module that allows creating a Program Board and determining backlog items at the PI level and zooming in to the Iteration level, where more granular planning can be performed. 

BigPicture - a useful tool for PI Planning

BigPicture Roadmap allows Objectives status to be marked as Completed, Failed, Abandoned, Continue, and Set as uncommitted. All the stakeholders will be allowed easy and immediate access to all PI Objectives. Based on that, they will monitor how teams are performing against their objectives through the constant PI. Want to know more about PI Planning with BigPicture?

PI Planning, as massive as it looks, is a foundational element of SAFe®. If your company wants something that puts the Agile approach into understanding convenient and measurable frames, then PI Planning is essential for you. It will help you achieve your goals and help all people involved in better recognition of company plans and business visions.

SAFe® with BigPicture part 1

Essential scrum: a practical guide to the most popular agile process,  Kenneth S. Rubin, July 2012, Addison-Wesley Professional

About The Author

Content Specialist @SoftwarePlant since 2021. He was previously working for the biggest media outlets in Poland, e.g., Wirtualna Polska, Rzeczpospolita, where he was writing about video games, biotechnology, and startups. Now he explores the vast world of Agile and Hybrid approaches. Loves good research, short sentences, and clear communication.