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Get Agile teams aligned with PI planning. Here’s how to get started

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

August 12, 2022

If you’re a product owner or Scrum Master, you know PI planning is an essential part of successful Agile delivery. But what exactly is PI planning? And how can you make sure your efforts power you towards your goals?

In this guide, we’ll answer all of those questions and more. We’ll start with an overview of what PI planning is and why it’s important and guide you through conducting a successful session. We’ll also provide some tips and tricks for making the most of your team’s time.

So, whether you’re new to Agile delivery or just want to brush up on your PI planning skills, this guide is for you. Let’s get started!

What is PI planning?

PI Planning stands for Program Increment Planning. It’s a two-day event that takes place at the beginning of each delivery cycle (usually every two weeks) and serves as an opportunity for every team within the Agile Release Train (CRT) to meet and review the upcoming work, including the product roadmap, features, project dependencies, and delivery.

If you’re adopting a Scaled Agile Framework for the first time, PI planning will most likely be your kick-off point. Why? Because it’s when the entire delivery train gets together to plan, commit, and coordinate their efforts for the forthcoming delivery cycle.

The first day of PI planning is focused on the product backlog. The product owner will review the items and prioritize them based on business value. The Scrum Master will then help the team estimate how long each item will take to deliver.

On the second day, the focus is on sprint planning. The team will review the items in the product backlog and decide which ones they can commit to delivering in the upcoming sprint.

What is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?

The Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, is a set of guidelines and best practices for scaling Agile across large organizations. SAFe helps enterprises deliver complex products and systems in an Agile manner at scale.

Adopting SAFe can help you overcome some of the challenges associated with large-scale Agile delivery, such as siloed teams, lack of coordination, and low team morale. If you’re thinking of adopting SAFe or are already in the process of doing so, then PI planning will be a key part of your delivery process.

What is a program in Scrum?

A program (we’re talking about the ‘P’ in PI here) is a collection of coordinated, interdependent projects that work together to achieve a common goal. In Scrum, a program is typically made up of multiple Agile teams working on different parts of the same product or solution.

The purpose of a program is to provide visibility and coordination across all of the projects in the program.

Where does SAFe fit in with PI planning?

The Scaled Agile Framework fills a gap where Kanban and Scrum have limitations. The idea is to bring together multiple teams to work together on the same goals and objectives, as opposed to collaborating on a single-team basis. Ideally, a company that implements SAFe will see an uptick in productivity and results.

One of the best things about SAFe is its high adaptability. You can tailor it to fit the unique needs of your organization, whether you’re a small startup or a large enterprise.

What is an Agile Release Train (ART)?

An Agile Release Train (ART) is a group of Agile teams working together to deliver software in an iterative and incremental way. Each ART has a dedicated delivery cadence (usually every two weeks) and is responsible for delivering a certain amount of functionality at each cadence.

The purpose of an ART is to provide visibility and coordination across all of the Agile teams in the program, which happens in the ART backlog. This is a prioritized list of work items that contribute to the program goals.

Why is PI planning important?

PI planning helps teams in the ART collaborate and align on workflows, releases, and goals. It’s also a valuable opportunity for the product owner and Scrum Master to review progress and identify any risks or dependencies that could impact delivery.

If you don’t do PI planning, teams in the ART will likely struggle to synchronize and, therefore, deliver value. Why? Because they won’t have a clear understanding of what work you need to do and the best way to go about doing it. In big, fast-moving projects, it’s so easy for teams to miscommunicate, get siloed, or prioritize different objectives. Essentially, PI planning is your secret weapon to prevent this from happening.

Who should be involved in your PI planning session?

The product owner, release train engineer, Scrum Master, and development team should all attend the session. Besides these key roles, you may also want to involve other stakeholders such as business analysts, customers, and/or product managers.

Let’s take a look at what each of these roles is responsible for during the meeting:

  • Release train engineer: the release train engineer (RTE) leads the PI planning meeting. They also work with the product owner to create the agenda and ensure all of the necessary attendees are present.
  • Product owner: the product owner presents the business case and guides the team through the estimation process. They’re also responsible for ensuring the scope of work agreed upon during the planning session is achievable and aligned with business goals.
  • Scrum Master: the Scrum Master facilitates the meeting and keeps it on track. They’re also responsible for helping the team identify risks or dependencies that could impact delivery.
  • Development team: the development team estimates the work needed to achieve the objectives set by the product owner. They’re also responsible for making sure the work they commit to is achievable and realistic.

How to run a successful PI planning session

Before we begin, a quick word on PI planning in 2022. Before Covid hit, PI planning was almost always done in person. But in the current climate, many organizations are now holding their PI planning sessions virtually.

While there are some challenges associated with this (e.g., time zone differences and internet connection issues), it’s certainly possible and, in many cases, a preferable way of working. You can adapt the following tips for remote teams. We’ll give you pointers throughout on the best options to accomplish this. So, let’s dive in!

There are a few key things to keep in mind if you want to conduct a successful PI planning session. First, it’s important to make sure everyone understands the purpose of the event. Second, you need to give everyone ample time to prepare for the session. Third, create a safe and collaborative environment where everyone can contribute. Bear these things in mind as we run through the steps.

Step 1: set the agenda

Before the session begins, make sure to set the agenda, either solo or with the input of the Scrum Master, dev team, and RTA. But what should your agenda include?

Here’s a sample outline for you (feel free to customize based on your unique needs):

DAY 1:
Welcome and introduction
Product vision/goals
Architecture vision and development
Planning and lunch
Team breakouts
Draft plan
Management review
Wrap-up and next steps

DAY 2:
Planning adjustments
Team breakouts
Plan review
Lunch
Risks
Confidence vote
Plan rework (optional)
Retrospective and next steps

Step 2: decide when to hold your PI event

As we mentioned before, PI planning is traditionally conducted at the beginning of each quarter. However, some organizations have found it more effective to hold sessions on a monthly or weekly basis. If you’re unsure about what interval will work for your team, it’s worthwhile to experiment and see what gives you the best results.

When it comes to the specific time and date, you’ll need to consider attendee availability, including time zones if you’re holding this remotely. Doodle poll is a great option for finding out people’s availability.

Step 3: set your schedule

Once you’ve decided when to hold your session, decide how long it will be. A typical PI planning session lasts for two days, but some teams have found that one day is sufficient.

Again, there’s no right or wrong answer here; it’s all about what works best for your team.

If you’re conducting your session remotely, it’s important to keep in mind the time differences between team members. You’ll need to decide on a time that works for everyone and factor in breaks.

Step 4: prepare for PI planning with a pre-PI session

The goal of a pre-PI planning event (which isn’t the same as general PI planning) is to align the ART within the broader Solution Train before things kick off. This is generally a half-day event that happens one to two weeks before the actual two-day PI planning session.

During the pre-PI planning event, the key stakeholders will review and finalize the product vision and roadmap. They’ll also identify any risks or dependencies that could impact the success of the upcoming PI.

Here are some of the people you might find at a pre-PI session:

  • Solution Train Engineer
  • Scrum Master
  • Product Owner
  • System Architect
  • Development Team
  • Internal stakeholders
  • Customers

At the meeting, these participants will look into the product vision and come to an agreement on the goals for the upcoming PI. The pre-PI meeting is also a good time to review project risks or dependencies that could have a negative impact on the upcoming PI. By identifying these risks early, you can develop a plan to mitigate them.

What’s the difference between a PI Roadmap and a Solution Roadmap?

Your Product Increment (PI) Roadmap is a high-level view of the work necessary to achieve your product vision. It’s typically a longer-term view, spanning multiple PIs.

In contrast, your Solution Roadmap is a more detailed view of the work needed to deliver a particular solution. It’s typically a shorter-term view, spanning one or two PIs.

Step 5: host your PI planning meeting

All you need to do is invite the right people, organize a time, and follow your agenda. What could be simpler? Oh, but before you let everyone dash off to get to work, make sure you do the wrap-up properly.

When you’re closing up your PI planning session, it’s important to have a clear plan of action. Make it your goal to come to a firm understanding of tasks and the people responsible for them. By having a clear path ahead, you’ll ensure everyone’s working toward the same goals.

Step 6: do the follow-up

Follow up after the session to check that people are ticking off those action items. You should also use this opportunity to make sure everyone has the right amount of work and the resources to do it efficiently. You can do follow-ups in person or virtually. Just use a video chat, or let people self-manage via your project management software.

3 Common challenges when running a PI planning session

Here are a few potential roadblocks to keep an eye on (plus tips on how to stop each one in its tracks).

1. Time management

Keeping track of time can be difficult when you’re working on a project. This is especially true if you’re running a PI planning session with multiple teams involved. To avoid this, create a clear agenda and timeline for the session — and stick to it.

2. Tech problems

Not all tech problems are avoidable, but there are things you can do to make sure snafus don’t happen mid-session. Always test your setup in advance and have a backup plan in place, which is particularly important for remote meetings.

3. Engagement

Keeping everyone engaged can be a challenge during long meetings. So, make sure you keep the session moving forward. Besides having an agenda, focus on team input to confirm that everyone has the information they need to do their part. It’s also a good idea to take lots of breaks and breakout sessions. Snacks don’t hurt, either.

Tips and tricks for making the most of your team’s PI planning sessions

Here’s how to squeeze the absolute most from your two-day event (and keep all attendees smiling).

Create a safe and collaborative environment

It’s important to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable contributing. Foster a positive tone and atmosphere by setting ground rules, such as no interruptions, no side conversations, and no judgment.

Structure virtual sessions

If you’re conducting a virtual session, make it as close as possible to an in-person meeting. However, you don’t want to compromise efficiency. Here are some tips to achieve a good balance:

  • Use video: whenever possible, use video rather than audio to help people feel more connected to each other and make it easier to read body language.
  • Use breakout rooms: if you’re using a tool like Zoom, take advantage of the breakout room feature. Allow people to have small group discussions, and then come back together to share ideas.
  • Assign roles: assigning roles (e.g., scribe, timekeeper) can help keep people engaged and encourage productivity throughout the session.
  • End with a review: at the end of the session, take a few minutes to review progress and identify action items for the next PI planning session.

Clarify the purpose of the event

Make sure everyone knows the whats and whys behind your PI planning session. Otherwise, you’re more likely to have more team members who are less engaged and less productive.

Give everyone ample time to prepare

If you want your team to be productive, give them time to prepare for the session. By sending out the agenda and any relevant materials in advance, all participants have time to review them and gather their thoughts.

Keep it focused

Have a clear agenda, and stick to it. Going off on too many tangents can make the session drag on, causing people to lose interest.

Take breaks

Don’t forget you’re working with humans, not machines! Schedule lots of breaks, and supply snacks and drinks. If you’re holding this virtually, consider ordering food/drinks to people’s houses. Whichever option you choose will help to keep people fresh and motivated.

Use project management software

Whether your team’s remote or not, project management software is a must. Remote management tools mean you can track schedules, set tasks, chart dependencies, and more in real-time (or pretty close to it). Even when team members are in different time zones or locations, you can still stay on top of things.

Embrace online collaboration tools

So, we’ve convinced you on PM software — but it doesn’t end there. If your team’s remote, you’ll also want to get on board with things like diagramming tools, live video streaming, and chat apps. These days, there’s no need for everyone to be in the same room to collaborate on a project.

In fact, with the right tools, you might find remote collaboration even more productive than working in person, no matter how complex your project.

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