Pivot to Virtual PI Planning

How ZXM helped a large government department to reinvent their SAFe® big room planning event for virtual delivery

The Situation

With the COVID-19 pandemic having an impact to the way that all people were working, the ZXM agile coaches were asked to assist the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources to reinvent their quarterly agile ‘big room planning’ event, for delivery in a remote, virtual environment, while adhering to the existing standard operating environment.

With the change to a virtual event the challenge that the remote agile teams would potentially face included communication and network bandwidth issues as well as it being harder to connect with other dependency teams. If the teams come prepared for the planning, it allows for the planning day to just focus on having discussions with business, negotiating with others and confirming their plans.

The Solution

The format changes needed to be implemented within a few weeks therefore it was important to clearly communicate and engage with teams to co-create and ensure the collaboration experience was achieved. The key challenges for the ZXM coaches in helping plan how to convert this event to a virtual environment included acknowledging the constraints:

  • Even though big room planning had been done previously with a mix of face to face and distributed teams in the past, the move to a 100% virtual event was new.
  • Holding the event in a virtual environment for a full two days could be draining for participants sitting in front of a screen for 8 days (“Zoom Fatigue”) so needed to work out how to reduce this stress.
  • Before and during the event, teams would need to connect and engage, not just with direct peers, but across the broader Division remotely and this was a challenge to get the same collaboration feel that is experienced in a live face to face event.
  • This was the first iteration of doing planning remotely so there was always going to be lots to learn and it wouldn’t be 100% right on the day.
  • The technology would have to support bandwidth requirement for up to 20 teams, stakeholders and up to 200 people in the sessions at any one point in time.

MS Teams to the Rescue

With these challenges in mind,  the coaches developed digital boards for every team and the program within Microsoft Teams (MS Teams). The ZXM Agile Coaches set up virtual team tables via generating Cisco WebEx rooms, which would simulate the in-person event as the place to go if a team needed to connect with another team on a shared outcome. This online chat room was open throughout the event. The agenda was adjusted to accommodate for remote ways of working (such as virtual breakout rooms and chat lines) and the ZXM team helped test the technology before the day. 

Virtual “How To” Guides

“How to” guides were developed on the operation of the tools and a list of the comparison of the in-person event, to the new virtual format was provided as a quick reference guide. Each team was provided a briefing session to guide them through the new format, process, digital tools and answer any questions they had. This was critical to the success of the day ensuring that the teams were well prepared, felt supported and knew where to go to get more information and help. This level of support was provided throughout the virtual event with coaches having their own ‘virtual table’ if a team had questions, and going to teams virtual tables to provide guidance by preempting issues.

Virtual Planning Format

Approach considerations we developed for a virtual planning format:

  • Having a central facilitator for the event who is supported by agile coaches and a tech point person as back up to take care of any technical issues on the day
  • Including a house keeping and logistics section in the opening to remind people of  Netiquette guidelines for remote meetings
  • Acknowledging that this was the first time that it was 100% remote and asking people for patience and providing an online chat channel for people to raise questions and concerns
  • Having one common virtual meeting place  running all day with a chat line to facilitators for communications and issues resolution monitored throughout the day
  • Providing clear instructions on logistics for the virtual rooms – which virtual table to go for next session, when to come back to virtual tables for group discussions like presentation of plans etc.
  • Ensuring each agile team had a virtual table
  • Ensuring business people and SMEs knew what discussion to join and when. Their contact details and back up contacts were included in the info pack
  • Building in opportunities for social interaction and connectedness as part of the agenda to bond as a group and share the experience
  • Sharing team draft and final plan presentations via common room screen using a virtual program planning board  to give a clear program view of what features are forecast to be delivered as well as any issues and dependencies to be raised for the manager review
  • Setting up these Virtual boards for program planning such as Risks and Issues ROAM Board, Retrospective and Program Board prior to the day

The event was still conducted over two days with teams building their own plans, negotiating those plans with other teams, sharing outcomes, raising risks and issues, building the program board, and closing with the final team plan review.

The Results

While the ultimate success of the virtual planning event will be judged by how well the teams eventually deliver their planned outcomes, the immediate results and feedback from teams and executive stakeholders indicate early benefits and success. 

Overall the day was a big success as evidenced by a high confidence vote across the program areas with a well-defined consolidated program plan with very few risks or issues that weren’t resolved on the day. The bandwidth was adequate and was able to sustain the volume and most stakeholder reported that even though it was remote, the virtual boards, chat rooms and interactivity helped to ensure there was still good collaboration and discussion on features.

Positive feedback was received on the overall quality of individual team plans and the resulting, comprehensive program board, which enabled visibility and transparency of outcomes, dependencies and risks across the CIO group portfolio. The resultant ‘program board’ is now a virtual centrepiece and ‘meeting place’ for regular and ongoing interaction, visibility and progress tracking, with teams committed to updating and adjusting their plans and progress throughout the planned horizon.

Whilst not all dependencies were fully negotiated ‘on the day’, the catalyst relationships and conversations initiated during virtual planning experience sparked ongoing discussions, which continue beyond the planning event and into delivery sprints.

Feedback and lessons learnt from this first virtual planning are being used to address issues and inform future improvements for the next horizon planning session.

Improved transparency

Virtual program boards helped make the horizon planning visible and accessible to all teams in order to discuss plans and dependencies across the teams.

Remote working

A new virtual experience to leverage and improve over time as it is likely that remote planning will continue.

Improved communication

Virtual events need a greater focus on communication to ensure that the same level of collaboration is achieved and can be done successfully through effective use of virtual tables, digital planning tools and chat rooms.

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