The Agile Manifesto points out that “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is by means of face-to-face conversation.” In constant conversation, using program backlogs, the scrum and scrum master, tech talent and all stakeholders, we commit to the agile planning process. The goal is to produce tested and timely iterations that enhance business value.
Now, step back a bit for a view of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) set up to manage larger projects with intricate hierarchies. Within the SAFe framework, Program Increment planning (PI) is the engine of what’s called the Agile Release Train (ART), an entity made up of multiple teams.
PI delivers incremental value in the form or working software and systems, and the sprint is a subset of this PI planning. PI sounds like a sprint but, as those train metaphors hint, the difference is one of scale: In effect, PI is to an Agile Release Train (ART) as an Iteration is to the Agile Team.
Five to 12 teams work together on the ART, compared to a single agile team conducting a sprint. Face-to-face conversation — including remote PI planning in this time of Covid — ensures that all team members share the product owner’s goals. In the sprint, each one- to four-week session engages one highly-committed team. Compare this to the PI planning which maps four sprints for completion in eight to 12 weeks.
Within the PI SAFe project management divides the development timeline into a series of iterations. The SAFe will identify dependencies, clarify and strengthen organizational readiness, and foster cross-team and ART collaborations.
Like a scrum master, in pre-PI planning the release train engineer (RTE) outlines the PI planning process and how it works, what input is expected from the teams and what they are expected to produce, and overall PI objectives.
The PI planning process addresses 3 major considerations:
- Organizational readiness: Do the teams, trains, and business owners agree on the PI priorities?
- Content readiness: Is each agile team organised around a scrum master and product owner?
- Logistics readiness: Are real time audio and video channels available to support all attendees and ensure a successful PI planning event?
During the PI planning event the RTE may uncover barriers to project completion that can only be resolved by renegotiating with management, stakeholders, and the business owner. The scope and features of the product may change in this process.
A program board will be set up on site to highlight any new delivery dates, feature dependencies between teams, and targeted milestones. Once program risks on the board are assessed and addressed, teams are ready to hold a confidence vote to affirm their capacity to meet PI objectives.
5 notable differences between the PI release and the sprint iteration:
- The plan for the development team: Sprint planning involves one agile team; PI planning shapes the work for an entire 5- to twelve-team agile release train (ART).
- Outputs: The sprint and scrum development process targets delivery of a working product iteration at 1 to 4 weeks; PI development and the ART aim to meet business goals in 8 to twelve weeks. At completion, both sprint and the PI teams hold retrospective events to review and evaluate what they have accomplished and how well targets have been met.
- Inputs and the road map: A sprint development team responds to daily input from business owners and all team members to produce iterations as quickly as possible; PI value is delivered by multiple teams and requires high-level roadmap planning to sustain the work over a longer period of time. The business context in the PI may be more broad than in the sprint.
- Commitment levels: The sprint is intensive and requires a high level of commitment from team members, stakeholders, and business owners; PI is an emergent plan that requires a fluid level of commitment from the development team, product management, the systems architect (IT expert), and the release train engineer.
- Making the development plan: Sprint planning takes 2 to 4 hours; PI planning involves more teams and team members, and takes 2 days.
PI management review and problem-solving
- Planning events: Pre-PI planning will describe the context and inputs sought for individual ART planning events. Post-PI planning points out the results of the ART that best contributed to project goal fulfilment — the solution.
- The draft plan review describes the project’s scope, the teams in place, and the resources available to complete team tasks. The Solution Train Engineer (STE) makes sure the results of each management review and problem-solving meeting are implemented.
- The retrospective: PI planning session team members may rework their plans in order to achieve high confidence in what the teams have accomplished. The RTE leads the retrospective for the PI planning event, as at the finish of a sprint, to evaluate what went well, what did not, and what post-PI planning should inform the next PI.
Benefits of PI planning
Agile development practices in PI planning are always responsive to variations and changes in cross-team decision making, the introduction of new features, draft plan and final plan review, and business goals.
Benefits arise from successful PI planning in the architecture vision of the agenda: Each team in the ART is committed to their collective PI objectives and to producing the business value as identified by the business owners.
A useful tool in PI planning is the program board. This visual compilation of data makes clear to all team members the working relationships in the ART. The program board may be used as a template for team plans, including team breakouts, and to advise the ART of new PI planning meeting or upcoming PI. The board will mark progress, new feature delivery dates, dependencies, and any issues of product functionality.
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