As a Scrum Master I get a lot of questions from our customers and other Agilists about how we plan at Agile Central. What is our planning process? What is Big Room Planning (BRP)? What do we do leading up to BRP for things to go smoothly? What makes a BRP event successful?
In this two-part series I will tackle our planning schedule and the work we do leading up to a BRP event to make it successful. In part two, I will dive deeper into the BRP event itself, what those two days look like, and some of our learnings on how to have the best event possible.
How We Operate
At Agile Central we practice SAFe. We plan our work in planning increments (PIs) of one quarter at a time and we work in two-week sprints. We plan as one release train made up of 15 teams across three locations. We organize our work based on our highest priority initiatives to tackle each PI. At Agile Central, we define an initiative as a mid-range (1–6 months) business objective (including architecture or experiments) that delivers value to customers. Initiatives are budget-constrained, not fixed scope, so that we are flexible on how we plan and deliver on the objective.
Each initiative has two to four teams coordinating on delivering that work by defining and executing on related features and stories. For more on how we organize and run our development teams, check out this post.
Since we work in two-week sprints, it is easiest to break down our planning process into the same time boxes. This helps us keep all of our work and our brains in sync.
We start our planning calendar during the first sprint of the quarter, when our teams are off executing on the plan we just committed to in Big Room Planning.
We start with product discovery process, looking at customer feedback, data, and our product backlog, to take a high level pass at top priority initiatives and key potential features for the coming quarter. This sets us up to understand customer, market and design gaps that need to be addressed before the work can be planned. With that understanding, we have visibility into whether or not the work will be ready in time for the following quarter.
During the 2nd sprint, User Experience, Product Managers and Architects continue the discovery process by prioritizing initiatives and beginning to break them into deliverable slices. We don’t worry about what features fit into a PI, we just use them to guide the discovery process and better understand what is possible, and what a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) might look like.
By the third sprint, our initiative team is far enough along in discovery to create the first draft of our Roadmap for the next quarter. They review the top priority features and work with tech leads and Product Owners to get basic t-shirt sizing of the top features.
In Sprint four, the train has an all hands meeting we call the “Why meeting”. In the Why meeting, Product Managers review the discovery process and how it lead to the priority Initiatives and features for the coming quarter. We review the roadmap together as a train, and receive feedback to go into the 2nd draft. Product Owners and Development Managers work with the initiative team owners to review the feature estimates again and discuss them with development teams.
In the fifth sprint of the PI the whole train kicks into planning mode. Teams are using some of their weekly planning session time to break features down into stories. User Experience works closely with the teams at this point to share mock-ups and information about customer interviews, and help with story creation and acceptance criteria. With stories emerging, refined estimates aid in the 3rd draft review of the roadmap. If teams find themselves moving quickly or with spare time, they may even start estimating and prioritizing stories.
The sixth sprint is really two one-week sprints. The first week is Hackathon. If you are unfamiliar with Hackathons, they are an opportunity to explore work not in the plan, and demonstrate to the release train the value it adds and how it might fit into our future roadmap. We find Hackathons to be essential to our process and success. We have had new products, top customer requests, and award winning features come out of this time, and it adds to our pride in the product and the energy needed to have a successful BRP.
During hackathon, the initiative team leads continue to refine and define work, answering questions and resolving any issues and gaps that were exposed during sprint five.
Big Room Planning
The second week of Sprint six is dedicated to PI Planning aka the BRP event. Monday and Tuesday teams continue the work started in sprint five to be as ready as possible for the event. BRP takes place Wednesday and Thursday. The outcome of the event will be a finalized product roadmap, committed features and prioritized stories for quarter starting the following week.
In part two of this series, I will dive deeper into the details of what happens the week of BRP, so stay tuned!
What does your planning cycle look like?
What do you find most helpful in your planning process? What are your biggest planning struggles?