Even before the pandemic changed our world, PI (program increment) planning events were starting to go virtual

Flying hundreds of employees across borders and time zones, juggling visas, and putting everyone up for three to four days is an expensive and time-consuming process even in the best of times. So, as virtual tools made real-time conversations and collaboration not only possible but also smooth, companies started to shift their thinking (and their budgets) to go remote.

Then the pandemic hit, and late adopters were forced to join the early remote crowd, with nearly all of our PI planning events in 2020 happening online. 

Even now, as we are all feeling our way into a new way of working post-lockdowns, remote events are the norm, not the exception. And many companies who want the benefits of face-to-face collaboration are thinking about hybrid events rather than returning to fully in-person experiences. 

In other words, remote (or partially remote) events are here to stay. And with either of those options, you’ll have at least some of your teams attending sessions via video conferencing and often from other time zones. 

Factors like screen fatigue, people in different time zones participating outside work hours, and humanity’s ever-decreasing attention span affect PI planning. So, if you want your PI planning to be effective, you have to find ways to get your point across fast, especially for foundational information like business context.

In fact, we believe that the hour-long business context session suggested for in-person planning should actually take up to 15 minutes – or less. After all, experts suggest that the average attention span when dialing into a meeting is about 10 minutes. Past that point of no return, you either need to end the meeting or somehow reengage everyone’s attention. 

So, the logical question is how? How can leadership condense their ideas into 15 minutes or less and inspire their teams to hit the ground running with an understanding of the business context behind the quarterly plan?

1. Provide information before the event

A vision for enterprise agility

It’s easy to look at SAFe’s suggested schedule and take it as gospel, each session a sacred text that cannot be moved or replaced. But the truth is that remote and hybrid events should shake things up. Even SAFe themselves came out with new recommendations when fully remote events hit a fever pitch. 

And what if we took their recommendations a step further? 

They’ve cut business context down to 30 minutes. But the truth is that decisions for things like business context and architecture are made long before the PI planning event. So, there’s no real reason to hold that information back until day one when teams could be digesting it before the intensity of the planning event begins. 

By sharing business context (and other foundational info) via video, Confluence pages, and other pre-event resources, you can let teams review them at times that work best for them. This way, they come into the PI planning event with their questions either already answered or at least already mapped out. This reduces the amount of info (and time) you need for those foundational sessions and can clear more time for collaborative team breakouts, where the majority of the work happens during the event.

With the info provided upfront, you can either remove these sessions entirely from your event or schedule them as short (potentially optional) overviews or Q&As.

2. Lean on the principles of storytelling

If you aren’t ready to give up your business context session altogether, keep it short and rely on storytelling tricks to keep people’s attention and, more importantly, make what you’re saying memorable

A list of objectives? Not so memorable. A lengthy backstory for your goals? Not so engaging.

So, how do you make it memorable? 

First, think about your hero. Because every story – even a business context story – has one. And it’s not you. It’s not even the business. It’s the people you’re talking to. In the context of PI planning, your hero is your team(s). 

Next, every hero has to have a goal: to slay the dragon or rescue the prince. (Or maybe slay the prince and rescue the dragon – I don’t know your life.)

Then, there’s the conflict, the obstacles, the things keeping your hero from slaying and rescuing and coming home with the prize. 

These storytelling elements might sound like they primarily apply to Dune and Shrek, but they work across contexts. And with PI planning, they work particularly well. Your heroes are the teams. They’re there to slay your business objectives (or OKRs) for the coming quarter. They need to identify the challenges standing in their way, such as program and team-level risks. And your business context session is there to support that by providing them with the why. Why are they slaying that particular dragon? Why does it matter that they save the prince?

Use these principles no matter if you’re doing a business context session or taking our advice and providing business context ahead of the event. Either way, storytelling will help teams connect with what you’re saying – and remember it later.

3. Ask: what information do teams need right now?

Four best practices for a successful virtual PI planning event

When you’re in the planning weeds, things can get complex. There are, after all, a lot of details that go into business context, architecture, etc.

But that doesn’t mean your teams need all those details to get their jobs done. And with limited time and attention span to work with, your presentation should be laser-focused on only the necessary.

In other words, ask yourself: what info do people need right this second in order to complete their task? What info, if you left it out, would block their progress?

The answers to those questions are the things you must include in your talk (or your materials ahead of the event). Everything else is optional. Everything else can be communicated before, after, or via a Confluence page or similar resource that teams can reference.

4. Ask: what is the one action you want people to take?

At the end of your talk, if people only walk away with one action or learning, what should that be? Sit with that question and answer it before you put your talk together.

Everything in your presentation should center on this point. 

Psychological research suggests that the more choices we have, the more likely we are to be paralyzed by them and not take action. More choices also make people more likely to second-guess themselves or feel unsatisfied.  

This means that not only does your talk need to center around a single action item but your planning before the event should, too. This pitfall isn’t just a pitfall of communication. It can also be a pitfall of planning whenever leadership wants to try and do too many things at once. If your teams walk away with a to-do list 20 items long, that’s probably a planning failure.

Short talks are good for everyone

Not only does an abbreviated talk help keep everyone’s attention, it also makes remote and hybrid PI planning more effective for teams scattered across time zones.

The fewer sessions people have to attend in real-time, the more you can take advantage of time zone overlap for the most collaborative, important, real-time work. This isn’t only a benefit for teams who might not be terribly excited about working at 5am or 11pm; it also benefits the business, as people are more likely to be engaged, awake, and sharp during daytime hours.

In other words, shortening or ditching sessions that don’t need to happen in real-time means fewer people working during hours when they aren’t alert or tuned in – and more focus on the heart of PI planning.

Learn more about PI planning in a remote world from Atlassian customers Lloyds Banking Group and Nets. Watch our on-demand webinar now!

How to condense PI planning business context into 15 minutes or less