A primary benefit of adopting the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) is the ability to quickly adjust business strategies and goals in response to market and economic conditions. But for organizational agility to take hold, you must ensure alignment with updated business objectives through regular communication and planning across the company.

Instituting recurring program increment (PI) planning for every agile release train (ART) ensures that leaders have conveyed strategy and objective updates to each team, permitting them to adjust program iterations, backlogs, and goals. Known as SAFe PI planning, these sessions are vital for organizational agility.

What’s PI planning?

PIs are batches of work that cover about 8–12 weeks, and PI planning is an agile practice that involves all teams comprising an ART (a group of teams working toward completing a shared project) meeting to plan the next PI. This meeting synchronizes group efforts into a collective mission and calibrates initiatives with the organization’s overall vision and goals.

In these sessions, ARTs:

  • Discuss upcoming feature development, objectives, and releases
  • Plan the roadmap for the coming 8–12 weeks
  • Identify cross-team dependencies
  • Establish timelines, milestones, and delivery dates for all action items

Increment planning is similar to scrum sprint planning but scaled to meet the needs of a larger organization. An increment is a managed timeframe with a schedule of deliverables for the ART to complete. The Release Train Engineer (RTE) records these tasks on the SAFe program board, mapping outcomes to timelines, dependencies, and delivery dates. The ultimate goal of the PI planning event is to update this program board.

Per the Agile Manifesto’s emphasis on face-to-face communication, PI meetings are in-person whenever possible. While colocation is preferred, hybrid and distributed PIs are becoming the norm, upholding the agile principle even when geography or remote work arrangements divide teams.

Why is PI planning important?

In SAFe agile, PI planning is essential to successfully scaling the framework. Not only does it keep the organization nimble, but at the ART level, it:

  • Ensures alignment across multiple teams: Cross-functional team collaboration is tricky sometimes, but when an ART is spread out due to team distribution and remote work, it’s even more challenging. PI events get members out of their silos and into the same space — whether in-person or via teleconferencing — to bring them up to speed on the latest work developments.
  • Sets clear goals: Part of every PI session is an update on the organization’s strategic goals and objectives. At the end of the meeting, team members have a clear vision of how their work impacts the business.
  • Creates trust: Because PI planning is a collaborative effort, it allows workers from the entire agile organizational structure to mingle, develop relationships, and build trust in their fellow ART teammates.
  • Improves the customer experience: Ensuring that teams align across the business improves processes, creating a more efficient and productive experience for clients.
  • Speeds up decision-making: PI planning meetings facilitate communication between cross-functional teams, streamlining the problem-solving process. The result is faster, better-informed decisions.
  • Prioritizes important goals: Bringing ART teams into one place helps pinpoint the group’s essential objectives, focusing workflows on action items that deliver the greatest impact.

Types of PI planning

Initially, PI planning was an in-person event, with every team member gathering in a single location for two days. As remote work gained traction, companies had to adjust their approach. Now, there are four options for a PI planning event:

  1. In-person PI planning: Everyone from the ART, from RTEs to Scrum Masters, product owners, and developers, gathers in a single location. Meetings are face-to-face, with teams using physical tools like sticky notes, markers, and whiteboards to brainstorm.
  2. Distributed PI planning (Option 1): Individual ART teams are co-located but separated from each other. Consider this option if travel is impractical or working groups operate in different states or countries. Teams use a combination of video conferencing, digital, and real-world tools to complete the work.
  3. Distributed PI planning (Option 2): The PI planning process becomes entirely virtual when every teammate participates from home. Everyone joins via teleconferencing platforms and uses online, cloud-based technology to complete planning tasks.
  4. Hybrid PI planning: For hybrid planning meetings, a subset of ART members gather centrally, with others joining remotely, so each team has a mixture of remote and in-person attendees. Planning activities use a flexible blend of technology that accommodates everyone’s needs throughout the event.

If you’re hosting a virtual planning meeting, you need the right technology. Consider the following items:

  • A collaborative workspace: Choose a virtual platform that facilitates collaboration throughout the session, having features that encourage productivity, innovation, and socialization.
  • High-quality video: Don’t let glitches get in the way of planning, instead using a top-of-the-line remote conferencing platform.
  • A timer: Encourage productivity and prevent meetings from running overtime by using a timer.
  • Vote tracker: Adopting some objectives requires a confidence vote, and an online voting tool ensures an accurate count.
  • Templates: Save time and ensure consistency by templating all documentation before the meeting.

What to include in a PI planning agenda: 9 elements

The first step to conducting an effective PI planning session is sending out a comprehensive agenda that properly prepares every attendee and includes elements you can fill out as the meeting progresses.

Here are nine essential elements your agenda should include.

1. Business update

Upper management kicks off PI planning by giving a status on the existing business environment, their vision for the future, and how the company meets current customer needs.

2. Current vision

Then, the product manager presents the current vision for development, which usually includes the highest priority items in the backlog or the next 10 features slated for delivery.

3. Expectations

The RTEs explain the planning process and outline expectations for its outcome, offering more team-specific and hands-on information about the upcoming PI.

4. Capacity breakouts

Individual teams break away for a timed session to assess their capacity and create a draft plan outlining expected deliverables and outcomes for the next iteration.

5. Draft review

At the end of the breakout session, each team presents their plan for the PI, including expected:

  • Capacity
  • Objectives
  • Risks
  • Dependencies

After these presentations, other teams within the ART offer feedback and recommendations.

6. Management review and problem-solving

The draft review process likely uncovers potential roadblocks like cross-dependencies and limited resources, scope, or capacities. The RTE gathers management for a problem-solving session where they brainstorm solutions.

7. Risk identification

Teams work together to identify possible risks before launching the new iteration, categorizing them into one of five categories:

  1. Resolved: The team agrees that the risk is resolved.
  2. Owned: Someone has taken responsibility for addressing the threat.
  3. Accepted: The team understands and acknowledges that the risk is unavoidable.
  4. Mitigated: Teams will work together to reduce the risk’s impact.
  5. Confidence: Teams vote on how confident they are to meet the objectives once they’ve successfully addressed the risk.

8. Rework

Teams reassemble in their breakout location to update their draft plan based on the feedback and risk assessment, hoping to score a higher confidence vote.

9. Retrospective and next steps

The final stage of the PI planning meeting involves the RTE leading a brief post-mortem evaluation of what worked well, what didn’t, and potential improvements for the next session.

How to prepare for a PI planning event: 3 best practices

To experience the full benefit of a scaled agile PI planning event, incorporate the following three elements into your preparations:

  1. Organizational readiness: Schedule PI events regularly so teams expect them and can adjust their schedules to attend. The ideal time is prior to each quarter’s end, allowing working groups to organize ahead of time.
  2. Content preparedness: Ensure you’ve communicated the program’s mission and vision to every team member so they understand and engage with the “Why?” behind every task.
  3. Logistics preparation and accessibility: Every logistical choice should enable productivity and collaboration, like a large room with tables, pads, and pencils so in-person attendees can take notes or teleconferencing technology allowing teams to access breakout rooms for planning sessions.

Inputs and outputs of PI planning

A vital factor in the success of a PI planning meeting is the quality of your inputs — items you prepare ahead of your session. These might include:

  • Executive briefings: Provide context for the PI session and help teams align by preparing a report on the state of the business.
  • Roadmap and vision: Clearly define the business’s current direction and management’s vision for the future.
  • Program backlog: Review the future product features and functionalities to establish a prioritized list you’ll refer to during iteration planning.

You’ll know your PI meeting was a success if, in the end, you’ve generated the following outputs:

  • PI objectives: This is a list of SMART goals for the upcoming iteration and a firm commitment from each ART team to attain them.
  • An updated program board: The SAFe program board should have a new list of outcome timelines, inter-team dependencies, and delivery dates for the next 8–12 weeks.

Give your agile teams the best tools

No matter the version of the scaled agile framework you’ve implemented, Tempo has the tools to support your organization. Streamline product and project roadmapping with Roadmunk, organize the team’s work in progress within an ART using Structure, and visualize performance with Custom Charts for Jira. Whatever the challenge, Tempo has solutions to help you succeed.