How to keep your team on track during PI Program Planning

Hi Scrum Masters

Let’s talk about applying Scaled Agile… and specifically How to keep your team on track during PI (Program Increment) Planning

This SUMMARY article will cover the problems, the insights, and recommended approaches related to this challenge.

Quick disclaimer! We are assuming you completed Scrum and SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) training. Knowledge presented here is mean to grow your existing Scaled Agile or SAFe practices.

The Scenario

You are a passionate Scrum Master boldly leading your awesome Agile Team through Program-level planning (SAFe PI Planning) session. How, despite limited time and endless challenges, can you help your team deliver a great PI Team plan?

Typical Problems

Let’s take a look at typical problems related to this big challenge:

  • Epics / features / stories are not ready for planning. They are incomplete and missing key documentation forcing the team to make risky assumptions.
  • There is too much work. Instead of planning the work to team capacity, Scrum Masters are leading the Team through a futile exercise of how much work they are willing to squeeze into an already packed PI.
  • With lack of info, priority conflicts, big risks, cross-team dependencies and other problems… your team (and other teams) need more time to finish their Team Plans for the PI.

All of these can lead to low plan confidence or an unrealistic plan that’s sure to fail.

Key Insights

Difficulties during PI / Program planning are often caused by one or more of these factors:

  • Scope ambiguity / unknowns often resulting in insufficient scope information in epics and features (including acceptance criteria)
  • Technical ambiguity / unknowns often resulting in insufficient or erroneous architecture direction
  • Portfolio ambiguity / unknowns often resulting in product vision or priority conflicts due to limited capacity

Our VT research show several of these pain points to be the most prevalent (table 1.1 below):

  • 3.2 – Insufficient epic / feature information to develop proper plans
  • 2.8 – Insufficient emphasis or info on Architecture (e.g. enterprise, solution, UX)
  • 2.6 – Insufficient emphasis or info on Planning Scope and Context
  • 2.6 – Difficulty matching demand with capacity (too much work)
  • 2.6 – Plans are not realistic or even idealistic (unfortunate result)

Table 1.1 | Global Survey of SAFe Professionals | Oct. 2018

Recommended Activities

There are three common activities every Scrum Master should be doing to keep their team on track during PI Program Increment Planning:

  1. Review Epics / Features and relevant documentation ahead of time
  2. Time Box how much time you are spending on planning each iteration and each feature
  3. Leverage Micro-SOS (Scrum of Scrum session) during PI Planning to discuss cross-team dependencies, risks, and conflicts

But let’s reflect and think about the purpose of PI Planning. There are three key objectives:

  • Facilitating fast alignment between all parties involved
  • Match team capacity with work demand to achieve a realistic plan
  • Discover and manage top unknowns & risks to increase chance of success

OK so let’s talk about what other highly valuable activities the Scrum Master can do to support these objectives and keep their team on track to deliver an awesome Team Plan:

  1. Start by anchoring iterations to key business objectives rather than starting with stories. Having a clear focus for the iteration will accelerate your planning as well as future execution.
  2. Program Board is not enough. Use the 80/20 rule. Spend 80% of time on planning work then spend remaining 20% on managing dependencies + risks. Risks and unknowns will have a significant impact on the final plan and your team’s Confidence vote.
  3. Try incorporating other critical factors into your Program Board. Add a swim-lane to show / schedule large deployments, code freezes, team training, system upgrades, etc. This will help you plan and mitigate impact from these factors.
  4. If you keep getting dragged into priority and product conflicts, escalate them to RTE and Product Management team. RTE / Chief Scrum Master can facilitate a side-discussion to get you answers without distracting your team.
  5. For high cross-team work overlap, do your planning together because your team plans will be more driven by cross-team dependencies then just a natural progression of features / stories.

These activities will not only help you keep your team on track during PI Program Increment Planning, they will also set your team up for future success.


Here is a convenient summary of the solutions discussed above

Keynote Video Summary - Scrum Master - How to keep your team on track during PI Planning.001

Want to know more?

For deeper insights and more information of how to do the above activities, please purchase our Applying Scaled Agile training series. Visit our Agile Training page.

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