Understanding SAFe PI Planning with Cynefin

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Within SAFe, PI Planning (or Release Planning) is when all the people on an Agile Release Train (ART), including all team members and anyone else involved in delivering the Program Increment (PI), get together to collaborate on co-creating a plan. The goal is to create confidence around the ability to deliver business benefits and meet business objectives over the coming weeks and months – typically around 3 months or a quarter.

To many people this feels un-agile. Isn’t it creating a big plan up-front and defining work far ahead? However, a recent experience led me to realise why its not about the plan, but the planning and the dynamics of the event itself. In Cynefin terms, PI Planning is a catalyst for transition and movement between domains.

Let me explain.

Before PI Planning, and a move into an ART cadence, many organisations are in Disorder, relying on order and expertise when they should be using experiments and emergence. The scheduling of a PI Planning event triggers a realisation that there is  a lack of alignment, focus or vision. In order to prepare for the event people have to agree on what is important and what the immediate objectives, intentions and needs are. In short, what does the Program Backlog look like, and what Features should be at the top. The conversations and work required to figure are the beginning of a shallow (or sometimes not so shallow!) dive into Chaos.

During PI Planning is when the Chaos reaches a peak, typically at the end of Day One, as it becomes clearly apparent that the nice ordered approach that was anticipated isn’t achievable. More conversations happen, decisions are made about the minimum plausible solution and hypothesis are formulated about what might be possible. This is when action happens as everyone starts to pull together to figure out how they might collectively meet the business objectives and move the situation out of Chaos into Complexity.

After PI Planning there is still uncertainty, and the iteration cadences and synchronisation points guide the movement through that uncertainty. Feedback on the system development, transparency of program status and evolution of the solution are all necessary to understand progress, identify learning and inform ongoing changes. This may require subsequent dips into Chaos again at future PI Planning events, or over time the ART may become more stable as understanding grows, and PI Planning in the initial form may eventually become unnecessary.

It is this triggering of a journey that makes me believe that PI Planning, or equivalent “mid-range” and “big-room” planning events, are a keystone to achieving agility at scale for many organisations. I wonder how this matches other’s experience of successful PI Planning meetings? Let me know with a comment.

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