When virtual PI planning becomes a reality: The five most significant challenges

Thought Leadership
visual virtual PI planning Projective - Joshua Sortino
visual virtual PI planning Projective - Joshua Sortino

… and the tools we used to overcome them.

At the start of 2019, we had the pleasure of working for a fantastic company which dedicated many resources to a planning event by flying ~50 people to the nearshore development location to execute a by-the-book PI planning session. It enabled company-wide face-to-face communication among participants and strengthened relationship building across teams.

One key factor for successfully conducting such an event is the physical presence of the right people. Communication and collaboration are at their best when people create relationships, bond, exchange information and can consciously and unconsciously absorb information from body language.

 As Nick Morgan puts it,

“without the body language, the information stream goes down from broadband to dial-up”.

The 6th principle of the agile manifesto states very clearly that the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a team is face-to-face communication. True to its word, as we walked through the rooms, it was easy to spot when another break was required or when people needed more time to understand instructions or requirements. Our physical presence made a huge difference by allowing for adjustments to the event based on these observations.

Just some weeks before the second PI planning of this year was due, our client came to us and asked if there was any way to conduct the PI planning event virtually, rather than face-to-face? The question wasn’t easy to answer. Yes, of course, technically it is possible but will you gain the same expected outputs from this setup or will it end up a disaster, where two days would pass by without any significant impact?

The predominant driver for virtually conducting the planning meeting was to reduce costs. A large conference room for 120-150 people, hotel rooms and flight costs add up quite quickly, not to mention the workforce required to plan and coordinate such an event. The majority of PI planning events we’ve seen involve late nights before, during and after the event and requires that many people endure an extended travel time to the host locations. So, in short, a significant impact on people’s private lives.

To make the most out of the given situation, it was vital to think about the differences between executing a physical vs a virtual PI planning. For this article here, we want to focus on our top 5 ranked challenges and the tools we used to overcome them:

  1. People get sleepy in long online meetings
  2. People can’t see what they can’t see
  3. People can’t listen if they are not there
  4. People can’t find information if which is not shared
  5. People can’t share information centrally will everybody 

Challenge 1: How to avoid people falling asleep

We assumed that the most significant challenge this meeting would face would be the participant’s reduced ability to focus. Research on how long people stay tuned in to meetings held over the phone revealed that the virtual attention span is a mere ten minutes long. Daily Scrum Meeting – as you know – suggest a time frame of less than 15 minutes, and when researching the ideal length of TED talks, the sweet spot is still only 18 minutes. It didn’t matter which number we chose, each of them was significantly lower than the 90 minutes suggested duration block of an agenda point in SAFe.

From here, there were two choices. Ignore the research and force the people through the blocks or adjust the agenda. Below the standard schedule with an indication of where we would face issues.

So, we decided to restructure the sessions to be no longer than 20 minutes. To do this, we used an online tool called SessionLab to structure the agenda by breaking it up into multiple parts. One of the things the tool allowed us to do was quickly reshuffle sessions items and created coloured themes for increased visualisation. In the end, the day’s structure ended up as follows:

  •   Blue: Central hosted presentations
  •   Yellow: Breaks
  •   Red: Team breakouts
  •   Green: Team presentations

Each agenda item had defined objectives, but presenters needed to be very crisp in their presentation as time was significantly shortened. As shown in the outline above, we tried to stick to 20 minutes as often as possible. This concept required the presenters to either share relevant information upfront with the teams or focus on the absolute necessary during the presentation.

On the second day, we deviated slightly from the original agenda to give teams time to choose a specific problem and join a moderated problem solving or ideation session.  

Challenge 2: How to deal with non-verbal communication

Everybody has probably experienced a virtual meeting where one of the participants said, “Sorry I was on mute”, or endured the terrible call quality from the colleague taking the call from the car.

In order not to miss out on the non-verbal communications, our challenge was to find a video conferencing tool which would be able to handle about 120-150 active participants who can share presentations, collaborate in small groups and present the result of their breakouts back to all attendees. As the existing infrastructure does not fit our needs, we had a look at various tools on the market to achieve this goal.

The online video conferencing company, Zoom, caught our attention with the release of their sketch called “A video conference call in Real Life“, reflecting on all too familiar issues with video conferencing sessions. Not only did Zoom an incredible job hosting a high amount of video calls without noticing any impact on the bandwidth, but it also allowed us to create virtual breakout rooms where all team members can meet outside of the big group. 

Challenge 3: How to orchestrate large groups and breakout sessions

The third challenge would be managing the breakout sessions. How were we supposed to divide each participant into an individual team session and then reroute them back into the main channel at the designated time? After some evaluation, Zoom stood up to this challenge as well. We were able to create virtual rooms for each team, assign each member to the rooms, without interrupting the video or audio, and bring them back to the main channel once a session came to an end. The usage of the tool was massively cost efficient as well, as only the host needs a license, all participants are free to join, making the costs below 100 Euro for the session.

Challenge 4: How can people find and access information?

Imagine you sit in a meeting and didn’t quite catch a presented topic. You would usually just tap on the shoulder of your neighbour and kindly ask for help.

How would they be able to do this while attending a virtual PI planning? To solve this issue, we uploaded all conceivable information required on Confluence (a collaboration software) so that the documents were easily accessible. We stored the presentations, instructions, templates, recordings of the sessions and any further documents necessary to execute the sessions. Besides, we communicated multiple time the names of people who are available for any support or questions. We organised people who dialed into the individual team rooms and made sure everything works from an infrastructure point, questions get answered and impediments resolved.

Challenge 5: How to plan and collect information centrally with distributed teams?

During the breakout sessions, teams refine epics into stories, capture dependencies, and outline associated risks. The online collaboration tool Miro helped us to have everything in one place and even offered adjustable templates for PI planning. We found that having a centralised collaboration tool helped our teams to access information from other groups and review the input on dependencies and risks.

Furthermore, we asked teams to update our issue tracking tool JIRA straight away so that we had an updated PI backlog by the end of the session. 

The Verdict

By conducting the PI planning virtually, significant cost savings were realised. Furthermore, very minimal investments into tools have been required. When we asked to feedback on the new approach, nearly everyone liked working with the listed tools like Zoom and Miro. They all agreed that the tools supported the collaboration in the virtual environment. However, participants also preferred conducting the next PI planning face-to-face for apparent reasons like meeting their colleagues from different offices or countries. Many learnings had been captured, which will influence the execution of the following PI for sure. 

Personally, I think conducting a virtual PI requires a very experienced team and an excellent preparation up front. My personal preference is also having face-to-face meetings, but I appreciate the argument of high investment costs.

Our recommendation would be to either budget at least for alternating face-to-face planning sessions or head back into the think tank and consider restructuring the team setup entirely over the issue.