Running Distributed PIs, ARTs & Teams

Context: I’m writing this blog post during the COVID-19 outbreak. The UK government (along with many governments around the world) have instructed people to work from home where possible. This is unprecedented and has forced many teams to change their way of working over-night.

As I have discussed before, I’m a Certified SAFe Agilst and work with teams and teams of teams to facilitate Scaled Agile delivery. PI Planning is a great way of helping teams to plan and give stakeholders visibility to what the teams have committed to, but what happens when nobody is in the office and everyone is dispersed?

The Podcast

This post was inspired by a really timely podcast. Many of the ideas and insights in this post are inspired by the podcast and the subsequent conversations I’ve had with colleagues and customers about it. I’d recommend giving it a listen if you’re considering running your first dispersed PI events.

DEEP DIVE: Running Remote PIs, ARTs and Teams – SAFe Business Agility Podcast

SAFe Business Agility Podcast

Distributed Vs. Dispersed

Firstly, there is nothing new about doing remote or distributed PI Planning. While SAFe do encourage PI Planning sessions to run with all the participants in the same room, it’s common for teams to be split geographically for a number of reasons and it’s not always possible to bring all the teams together.

In this case a ‘Distributed‘ team usually refers to a group that is split across two locations. This can often be where a company have engineers in Europe or India, for example, and bringing them to the same location can be difficult.

Unlike Distributed teams, ‘Dispersed‘ teams are all in different locations. This is the situation we find ourselves in during the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK.

I’ve tried to compare and contrast some of the differences between Distributed and Dispersed teams and the things that you might need to think about while running a PI event with them.

1. Requires a facilitator in every room1. Requires a facilitator in every comms channel
2. Common for a teams in a different timezone may work late to stay connected
– Consider safe transportation late at night
– Consider food for the team late at night
2. Colleagues in different timezones may work late to stay connected
– Consider other people in their homes
– Consider food times (for families)
3. A technical issues may mean you loose 50% of your team (and you’ll notice)3. A technical issue may mean you loose 1% of your team (and don’t notice)

Up-front Planning

It’s not common in agile teams to advocate from much up-front planning, however, this is going to be the difference between your PI event being good and it being excellent.

As individuals are in different locations, timeszones and potentially in unfamiliar work-patterns, it’s important to try and be flexible around the format of the event and allow people to engage in their own way and at their own time.

These are my thoughts on ways to improve your distributed PI events and help your attendees get the most from (and contribute the most to) the event:

1. Plan your use of technology

Consider carefully your tech stack and what users may need to be able to use it. If everyone is working from home and has a different technology setup, there may be a need to understand what users have at their disposal before you mandate technology that could alienate some of your participants. A helpful list of things to do in advance could be:

  1. Communicate in advance the technology you are going to use
  2. Supply guidance to your teams on how to signup, do you want them to use corporate email addresses to make them easier to identify to administrators? How about using their corporate headshot as their avatar to make them easily recognisable to colleagues?
  3. If participants need to install plugins to make Webex or Zoom work, ensure that they have the time to do so and supply guidance. Some of your colleagues will need a bit of help to do this
  4. Ensure that the you test whatever you pick with a small group, but try to understand if there are any limitations to your chosen platform, if used at scale.

2. Consider adjusting your timings

A PI event has a full agenda that is difficult to fit into two days at the best of times. So think about your timings. If you know that you’ll struggle to retain your participants for a full morning of briefings, consider asking your Product Manager to pre-record their PI vision presentation and get this to your participants to watch in their own time, maybe 48hrs before the event.

Allow a channel for participants to record their questions and use your time together on the first morning to answer those questions, rather than watch the presentation live.

This gap gives the participants the opportunity to ask questions and allows the presenters the opportunity to think through their answers and supply updated material if needed.

Linear schedules may be difficulty for attendees with family and school-age children at home. Try to give suitable breaks and allow people to engage with content in their own time – maybe you’ll choose to leave your retro board live overnight to allow people to come back to it later in the evening after the kids have gone to bed.

3. Create a place to work for every team

Your teams need their own spaces to work, one per-team. They may already have an electronic board, but ensure everyone has access and can see it.

Consider how the teams can chat amongst themselves and how they’ll collaborate in the feature elaboration effort. One thing a team could do is update their leave before the event on a team calendar – helping the Scrum Master to plan for capacity before the event has begun.

While it’s perfectly normal for people to have side-chats at these events, try and think of ways to keep people together where possible and workout how you’ll present your commitments back to the wider group.

Interactions and follow-ups

It’s understandable that many teams aren’t familiar in working this way. The situation could be stressful and all of the participants are likely to have distractions and worries, outside of the event.

It’s important to be mindful of the situation that we find ourselves in and take care no to unintentionally upset or offend people. Written text can often be interpreted differently to how it was first intended and so offer to follow-up with a colleague verbally if you think they have missunderstood.

If you’re struggling to contact a participant, be aware that they may have stepped away to get a coffee, take a call or look after a family member. Don’t bombard them with multiple messages, instead – ask them to contact you on their return. And if you as a participant want to step away, consider adjusting your status to allow others to know you’re not there and when they can expect you back.

Imagine the sorts of status you might see:

  • “Feeding the kids, be back at 1pm”
  • “Just nipped downstairs for a coffee, back in 5”
  • “On a call with a customer, trying to get some clarity”
  • “Taking the dog for a walk, be back soon!”

Delivery starts… soon!

Playback at a PI planning is very visual – it may take some time to produce the sorts of artefacts needed to get teams started and you might need to give a couple of days to people to get copies of all the agreed commitments.

Think about what might aid you in pulling this together. Should the Scrum Masters be sharing time-stamped screenshots of their Scrum boards at each scrum-of-scrums? Would this help give someone a head-start at putting a quick powerpoint together to aid playback? Knowing that this would be needed, could a deck be created before the event, with gaps for each teams boards and objectives to slot in?

Whatever you do, its important to not rush the start of the delivery cadence, until you’re confident that all participants have a clear set of objectives and know what they are doing.

Be agile and keep learning

Getting through your first dispersed PI event will be an incredible learning curve. Accept that not everything is going to be perfect and find ways to capture feedback and look for creative ways to achieve the outcomes you need, even if you have to do them very differently.

We might be working like this for some time to come, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice and improve your skills at delivering PI events in this way!