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Good PI Planning is the Enemy of Great PI Planning

Em Campbell-Pretty
Dec 17, 2015

When I first met Dean Leffingwell (the creator of SAFe), I had already launched the EDW Release Train - without doing PI Planning. I was attending one of the early SPC classes in Boulder, CO. It was day three before I built up the courage to ask Dean the question that had been on my mind since I decided to attend the class: What should I do about the fact we weren’t doing PI Planning?

My memory of Dean’s response is that he was rather dismissive. Being the sensitive little thing I am, I felt somewhat wounded by this exchange. Looking back now, almost three years later, I can now see this exchange from a different perspective—the perspective of someone with a little more experience and a few more battle scars.

With my 20/20 hindsight, I can see how I must have appeared to Dean. A youngish business person with no real experience leading large IT teams, suggesting that I knew better than a veteran of the technology industry, author of several books and creator of the Scaled Agile Framework. Looking at the situation through this lens, I find myself squirming with embarrassment at my own arrogance.

Fast forward to the present day, I am an SPCT, making a living from helping enterprises implement SAFe. As a consultant, I get to see and learn from many different approaches to implementing SAFe and launching Agile Release Trains. I encounter people every day who think they know better, and I find myself bristling, perhaps in the same way that Dean bristled when I questioned the value of PI Planning.

While this could be the same arrogance I displayed back at that SPC class in Boulder, I hope the root cause is actually something different. I now believe. (Ok. I’m now channelling Agent Fox Mulder!) Seriously though, my experiences and those of others in the community who have chosen to share their experiences have convinced me that perhaps we should listen before passing judgment.  I think Henrik Kniberg put it best in his recent talk about SAFe at Lego:  “SAFe = Shu-level scaling”.

Slide from "Is SAFe evil?" presented by Lars Roost & Henrik Kniberg at GOTO Conferences

Launching an Agile Release Train with that very first all-hands PI Planning event is a terrifying thought for many new to SAFe. Without an experienced SAFe Practice Consultant on hand to lead the way through the courage of their convictions that it will work, new trains start to devise a plot for a “soft launch”, not unlike my first attempt at PI Planning with the EDW Release Train. The end result often being equally as soft.

No matter how soft the launch, almost without fail, the team is inspired by big room planning. They decide to do it again in 12 weeks' time, but this time better. Still not ready to go all in. They make some changes to make the next event a little more like textbook PI Planning. The second event is a raging success. Everyone is self-congratulatory. They have improved so much. They are making great progress. Clearly, the more structured, full-scale PI Planning approach is for fools.  In the end, it’s all a matter of perspective. How can you be great if you don’t know what great looks like? And there it is, just as Jim Collins observed - Good is the enemy of great.

The more poor PI Planning I see, the more I believe that the formula is almost fool proof. No matter how underprepared you are or how many corners you cut, there is always a good outcome and a little taste of the magic. Perhaps it is just like sex and pizza, even when it is bad it is good. These days, Dean likes to rib me about all the “workarounds” we did with EDW. It’s all good-natured fun. We did what we did because we had no choice. Dean understands that, but he also knew something we didn’t. If there is magic in SAFe, it is in PI Planning, and you just have to experience it to believe it.

Update 23 January 2024: A couple of years after writing this, I discovered that PI Planning is not actually foolproof! The one place I have seen it come severely unstuck is when there are no features or underbaked features. For more on this, check out my session at Agile Hartford: Stayin’ Alive! Feature Disco Your Way to PI Planning.

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