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PI Planning: How We Established Strong Communication with our Client

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#Management 29 december 2023
  • Daria Semenova

    project manager

Hello! My name is Daria Semenova, and I'm a project manager at imaga. I've been fine-tuning processes for a major client for five years now. It's an e-commerce company, and they sell their products. Many of you might have made purchases from them. And if not, you've probably heard of them for sure. Overall, it's a well-known and significant brand for us.
But there's a catch: for the first couple of years, we couldn't find common ground. We argued, got nervous, and clashed. However, eventually, we found a solution, and it turned out to be PI Planning.

What is PI Planning and why do we need it?

PI Planning is a regular meeting involving all project teams and stakeholders. It helps maintain focus on the common goal and synchronize the actions of multiple teams simultaneously.
We didn't adopt PI Planning right away. To understand why we grew fond of this tool, let's explore the backstory, briefly. Our collaboration with Company X started six years ago. Initially, we faced challenges; it felt like we were speaking different languages.
  • Here's a brief example. Sometimes, a stakeholder would come to us and insist on implementing their specific feature. As a full-cycle development agency, we consistently consider the product comprehensively rather than in isolated parts. We make it a point to clarify the hypotheses, understand the feature's impact on the product, ensure other stakeholders are informed, and so on. However, our queries often remained unanswered. We would proceed without sufficient clarity, only for other stakeholders to intervene later and revoke the decision. It resembled the moral of the tale "Swan, Pike and Crawfish." Clearly, a change in our approach was necessary.
The process needed fixing, and that starts with a fundamental change in our approach to planning. Our request was simple: we aimed to understand what we were doing and why.
Our arguments persuaded the client to shift their collaborative work approach. Subsequently, we introduced PI (Program Increment) planning. It's essentially a meeting where we go into the client company's tasks: examining stakeholders' key KPIs, prioritizing tasks, and aligning with other outsourcing teams engaged with the product.

How do PI planning meetings go?

Various methods are used to conduct it. While meetings are occasionally held offline, this approach doesn't suit us for two reasons: firstly, our team is dispersed, and secondly, it's more efficient for us to directly engage in the task tracker. Hence, we operate online.
  • Both online and offline work have their pros and cons. In face-to-face meetings, there's room for elaborate setups and visually appealing presentations. These gatherings allow all employees, especially in smaller companies, to collectively prioritize tasks. However, organizing such meetings requires significant time and effort. Conducting PI planning online lets us stay flexible and conserve resources. Various online formats like Miro or Notion are available, but we find our task tracker to be effective enough.
Within our task tracker, we have a function for managing the backlog. It's crucial to highlight that PI planning originates from this backlog. Consequently, this meeting isn't for adding tasks to our board; it's primarily preparatory. During the meeting, we collectively allocate tasks from the backlog into two-week time frames. It includes participation from team leads, managers, and all stakeholders representing the client.
The typical duration of a meeting like this is about three hours. With numerous tasks and a large backlog across multiple teams, some tasks might rely on others, making it essential for PI planning to identify and consider these dependencies while filling the time boxes. Furthermore, each participant has the opportunity to voice their concerns and forecasts regarding deadlines and resources.
Photo

This is how our board looks. You can see the planning structure and in this specific board, it's PI 12.0. Within it, there are the time boxes PI 12.1, PI 12.2, and so on.

To streamline the meeting, we get a pre-meeting task list link. Team leads and I run a trial PI by reviewing tasks and assigning estimations. These are broad estimates; we can't precisely foresee the hours each task needs. Hence, we use T-shirt sizes: XS, S, M, L, and XL. These sizes indicate how many releases a task might span. Our releases are weekly.
PI planning is facilitated by the client's representative. They share their screen, and together we go through the task list for the upcoming PI, during which they briefly outline each business task, reminding us of the company's objectives. Then, we voice our task assessment and discuss its priority collectively. Some are eager to implement the feature as soon as possible, while others are willing to wait.

When all stakeholders reach a consensus, we decide which timebox to assign to the task. Urgent tasks are placed into the nearest timebox, while less pressing ones are scheduled for later. However, it's essential that we complete these tasks specifically within this PI period, which, for us, spans one and a half months.

This is how we go through the entire backlog, and then we review the composition of the smaller timeboxes. They should not be overloaded or underloaded. We aim to balance them in terms of workload. This ensures that for the upcoming one and a half months, we have a clear understanding of our tasks, their deadlines, and their approximate size.
  • The planning horizon varies for everyone and relies on factors like release management, task volume, and team capability. A 1.5-month PI works well for us, considering our client's limitations in planning for longer durations, though some may have a broader planning horizon. Given the client's numerous and substantial tasks, regular synchronization becomes imperative for our operations.

What to do if things don't go as planned

There are always situations where urgent tasks arise after PI planning. Or conversely, a task included in the PI isn't ready for implementation. Formally, we cannot change the PI's composition or add something new. However, there are workarounds.
For example, we've already planned the PI, but the client hasn't formalized certain tickets. In this case, the task may shift to the next PI, but it will be placed in the first timebox, thereby holding the highest priority.

If a particular task needs to be completed in the current PI, the client may request someone from the team to focus on it. However, in most cases, we would just move another less critical and urgent task to the following timebox or PI.

Benefits of PI Planning

1. We have a dedicated team, and it's essential to ensure an even workload for them
If tasks come spontaneously, then on Monday, the entire team will be bored, playing solitaire or getting lost in YouTube videos. Yet, come Thursday, everyone will have to work until midnight on an urgent feature, operate in emergency mode, and end up making a ton of mistakes. Both scenarios are equally bad. PI planning allows tasks to be distributed sensibly. This is particularly crucial for a dedicated team. When the team is idle, the client loses money.

2. Teams at different levels should understand the ambitions and goals of the business. This divides responsibility among everyone, inspires, and motivates.

Imagine this scenario: top managers make all decisions on product development, then delegate specific tasks to departments. Team members lack clarity on why they're working on certain features, resulting in them executing tasks based on individual judgment. The manager notices that the implementation doesn't align with the overall concept, leading to conflicts and unnecessary discussions. PI planning prevents this issue by ensuring everyone understands the shared goals and mission, leading towards achieving a collective outcome.

3. PI planning allows for resource allocation: understanding what's available and what's lacking.

For instance, realizing there are more project tasks than available team members suggests it's time to recruit new specialists. Conversely, when noticing a task shortage and team members are idle, it's a signal to refill the backlog or tackle long-awaited tasks.

Who does PI planning suit?

✅ Those managing multiple teams working on the same product.
As previously highlighted, PI planning significantly facilitates synchronization among teams. Interdependencies between tasks across different teams often exist. Discussing these dependencies beforehand and establishing priorities prevents bottlenecks. Moreover, this process helps the client in assessing workload distribution across their teams. Should any team face a task shortage, adjustments can be made accordingly.

And most importantly, all teams working on the product will equally understand business goals. This transforms, for instance, five separate teams into one larger entity because they all strive towards the same objective.
✅ Those who are building a team through outsourcing.
Returning to our example, with client X, we collaborate as equals. Even though our role in the product is as contractors, it's not our practice to approach tasks casually. We aim to understand what we are doing and why. For instance, at some point a new product owner from the client approached us, requesting to implement a feature we hadn't even heard of before.

The team became concerned, asking questions like where did this task come from? Why was it necessary? And why are we in such a hurry? We refused to take it on without prior discussion with all stakeholders. Eventually, it turned out that the task was included in the timebox without preliminary analysis. Later on, it became clear that there was no need to do it at all.

PI planning is a way to turn an outsourcing team into a full-fledged in-house team. It helps us understand the overall context and prevent mistakes from occurring, just like an additional filter.

How PI planning helped us find common ground

When we implemented PI planning, half of our disagreements with the client resolved naturally. Now, we work within a shared context. We understood their goals and the necessity behind each task. They also understood why we asked questions. Essentially, we managed to achieve the status of an in-house team—we were immersed in the project just like regular staff.
  • The integration has been beneficial as it lets us treat business tasks as our own. Stakeholders share their KPIs, discuss future plans, and seek our input on technical matters. Since we oversee the technical implementation of the product, having insights into the project's trajectory in the short or long term is vital. PI planning has significantly influenced our shared understanding and the caliber of our work.
Ultimately, we’ve been working with client X for six years now. Initial disagreements have faded into the past, and currently, we foster a harmonious relationship while crafting collaborative plans. Undoubtedly, PI planning wasn't the exclusive solution to normalize the situation, but it played a fundamental role. PI planning facilitated dialogue and mutual understanding between us and our clients.
  • Daria Semenova

    project manager

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