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From Distributed to Virtual PI Planning: How We Successfully Adapted Our Approach

pi planning tools

Long before most of us shifted, almost overnight, to a full-time, work-from-home model, our Gorillas have been successfully running distributed PI Planning with our clients (you can read about our lessons learned about PI Planning here and here). Our most recent PI Planning experience embraced a fully virtual approach and, with the right tools and comprehensive preparation, resulted in a highly successful meeting that exceeded expectations. In this article, we’ll share what we learned from our first all-virtual PI Planning.

Distributed and virtual PI Planning approaches

First, some background. Program Increment (PI) Planning meetings allow multiple teams in an Agile Release Train to align around common goals. PI Planning:

• Takes place on a regular schedule, usually several times a year

• Includes intensive, multi-day planning sessions 

• Enables teams to review and discuss features, identify cross-team dependencies and risks, and map out what’s next 

Many organizations, especially those with large teams, struggle to justify the travel time and costs required to support in-person PI Planning. Sometimes, they simply forego the process altogether. Distributed PI Planning arose to adapt the process to address the needs of some, most, or even all of the attendees to be in different locations, participating remotely. This makes it possible to reap the benefits of PI Planning, without the costs of in-person meetings. 

Until recently, most distributed PI Planning focused on adapting the process to several co-located teams that might be working in different locations. In our past experiences, for example, we had four geographical hubs: one primary location, with all the leaders present; and several secondary locations in different cities and different continents, in which all the development, QA, and architect teams assembled. 

Now, with everyone suddenly working from home, we had to re-think our PI Planning process.  Fortunately, the SAFe framework gives us a solid base from which we can adapt and innovate quickly, so we tackled the challenges of running an all-virtual format with confidence. 

Plan the right tools for the job

Intensive and highly collaborative by nature, PI Planning requires robust, integrated communication, collaboration, and planning tools. You also need to make sure that all the tools you’ve chosen are properly configured and tested well in advance. 

For our first virtual PI Planning we used:

Video conferencing Zoom (and Zoom Breakout Rooms)
Digital communications Slack
Central file share for all presentations and supporting documents Google drive
Agile lifecycle management Jira
Real-time PI Planning tool with Jira integration Kendis


We had used Zoom, Slack, and Jira in previous PI Planning sessions. This time, we chose Kendis in place of Miro, the whiteboarding tool we had used before. While Miro has strengths, Kendis, a visual PI Planning tool, offers unique and very attractive capabilities. Kendis syncs two ways with Jira, so we could pull all the backlog directly into it, use it in real-time during our planning as our board, and sync updated information from our planning session back into Jira. 

We found that Kendis worked beautifully, with a few added bonuses: all the documentation that the leaders would typically have to complete after the meeting was already captured and ready to go by the end of our planning; and, we were very excited to discover that the analytics in Kendis lets us see how teams were executing against the plan after the meeting.

Plan the planning and coordination

We’ve noted previously that the secret to a successful PI Planning session is extensive planning ahead of time. You will certainly need to do all of the pre-planning you would typically do beforehand. This includes meeting with all the leaders to recap the previous PI and progress on it, as well as reviewing the backlog and the roadmap. This group also sets the agenda and the outcomes needed from the session, and assigns roles and responsibilities.

With dozens or hundreds of attendees in different locations and time zones, multiple presenters, multiple breakout sessions, and multiple platforms, virtual PI Planning also requires significant pre-planning and coordination for the tools you’ve chosen to use and the logistics for attendees working with the tools. For us, our all-virtual approach meant we had to evaluate how all our tools and logistics would work in the new format. We considered all the challenges, including low-quality network connections attendees might sometimes experience, distracted users working from home, and keeping presenters to their allotted time. We prepared for contingencies and testing in advance. 

An added step for us was to bring all the tickets into Kendis, the real-time PI Planning tool we’d opted to use, so that all the information was loaded and ready to go.

Prepare for contingencies

Contingency planning should always be part of your preparation for PI Planning, and is especially crucial for distributed and virtual meetings. We ran several tests of all of our tools, systems, and processes together, and worked out all the kinks well before Day 1 of our meeting. We created backups for every failure scenario we could think of, and rehearsed them with our leaders and presenters ahead of time. For example, when one of the presenters experienced a network outage in the middle of her presentation, she knew to call back in on her cell phone while we restarted her presentation from our backup file, and we were rolling again within just minutes.

Here’s a simple checklist you can use to get started:

• Assess each tool you plan to use for how well it will work for the capacity and bandwidth you have available. 

· Do you have adequate user licenses for the number of simultaneous users you expect? 

· Do all users have the appropriate access and credentials they’ll need to use each of the tools? 

· How well does the tool work in less than ideal conditions? What workarounds might there be for performance-related issues?

• How will you instruct users to navigate between the tools throughout the days as they progress through the agenda?

• How will you prepare users ahead of time to navigate the issues they might encounter participating in the sessions throughout the day?

• Who is the go-to problem solver for issues encountered during the meeting?

Plan to engage

Keeping remote participants fully engaged through several very full days of meetings can be challenging. Most of us will struggle to stay focused while staring at our screen, hour after hour. So planning to engage despite the flagging attention and inherent distractions of working from home is critical.

We established rules of engagement to help keep everyone engaged throughout, and shared them with all participants before the meeting and at the start of Day 1, including:

• We shortened the overall length to 1.5 days, minimizing the up-front discussion of the business context and development practices to spend more time on product discussions.

• We time-boxed all presentations, capping the time and using a timer and assigned timekeeper. Although this presentation length is shorter than the time suggested by SAFe, we believed we could cover the material we needed to in that time, and that we would be more successful in keeping attention if the time period was shorter.

• We introduced more frequent breaks, also time-boxed, being sure to start again right on time. We used a timer, to minimize the confusions that sometimes happen with different time zones. For example, if you announce a 20-minute break and a re-start time of 09:20 AM PT, we’ve found that can introduce confusion. If instead you simply use a timer, then it’s clear to everyone when the meeting will restart.

• We required that everyone turn their video on, so they could all see each other live.

• We encouraged use of the Raise Hand feature in Zoom, so everyone could offer opinions, ideas, or questions throughout every session. We found this feature to be very useful, as it helped minimize disruption from different people talking over each other. It helped us make sure we got everyone’s input, and that everyone had equal opportunity to share their input.

• For the team breakouts on Day 2, we gave each team an hour for lunch and let them decide when to take within their own team’s meeting time block. This accommodated teams in different time zones, and gave each team more autonomy over their own part of the agenda.

• We set up a Slack-based system to notify individual PMs or POs, who were on-call throughout the two days, when individual teams needed their attention in a breakout room.

• We used the same Slack system to allow all the leaders to move from team to team, observe the work being done, and participate whenever and wherever they could add value.

So, how well did we do with virtual PI Planning?

Not only did we achieve all of our objectives, but the feedback we received throughout the two days, and in the Retrospective, was very positive, from the leaders and from everyone else.

“…you guys kicked ass in PI. That was the smoothest 2 days of PI that I have ever experienced. You guys are all a truly oiled machine and I am proud to work with you!”

—Product Owner

Because everyone had multiple ways to participate through the two days, the event felt less formal, and participants engaged more than we might have expected. 

“The [Gorilla] team innovated by using new tools to plan and keep track on the progress during the quarter (and any deviations as well), making it easier to visualize progress toward epics, objectives, risks and dependencies completion. … Current times call for innovation, creativity, excellence, focus and more… we can say for sure that our Gorillas are up for the challenge.”

—Product Manager

Our experience is a perfect example of how a culture of flexibility empowers teams to embrace change, find ways to respond, and keep delivering value to the client.


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