PI Planning in a pandemic

The Access Worldpay experience.

PI Planning plays a crucial role at Access Worldpay. Involving more than 100 people meeting offsite every quarter, it’s essential to the team’s ability to plan, structure and schedule its work and keep its customers informed. But when nobody can meet in person, what’s required to help large, complex events like these take place remotely without losing productivity?

This question has gained fresh urgency because, pandemic or not, PI (Program Increment) Planning events are too important to call off. They enable the Access Worldpay ‘tribe’ to agree the work for the next quarter, identify relevant risks and dependencies, and give customers advance notice about forthcoming changes and improvements. What’s more, bringing everybody together allows individuals and teams to collaborate in person – before sharing some drinks and celebrating as friends once planning is done and business for the quarter ahead is just beginning.

How things were

Historically, planning began straight after the previous quarter’s review, demo and celebration event. Initially broad-brush, the preparations inevitably became more detailed as the date drew closer. Two weeks out, “We looked at all the collateral and logistical elements – everything we’d need for 100-plus people meeting together out of the office,” says Ben Haswell, Development Manager and Release Train Engineer.

Going offsite certainly brings benefits. “It injects a little bit more excitement and it means people can concentrate just on what they’re there to do that day,” Ben continues. This means fully immersing themselves in all the complexities that need to be reconciled, he explains: “Because everybody’s in one big room, you can easily discuss schedules, dependencies and so on.”

What happens now?

The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown therefore demanded a total rethink. “We’d never organised a remote PI before,” says Ben: “There was so much to think about – the video conferencing, how to simulate our whiteboards and breakout rooms – and we only had a month to put everything together.”

The team treated the remote PI as an agile project in itself, setting up a working group to identify requirements and propose solutions. “We asked ourselves, how can we make it successful? What do we need to do for backups?” says Ben: “We even asked at what stage we should call it off altogether if things were just not working out.”

Very soon, the conversation moved onto tools. “Usually we’re working on whiteboards with sticky notes we move around as the day evolves, and there are breakout sessions and communications across the whole group,” says Joe Connolly, Lead Business Analyst: “When you’re not all in a room doing that, you quickly need to figure out how to make this happen.”

Choosing new tools

After a series of trials, Access Worldpay chose Miro. This allowed the tribe’s nine separate teams to plot their own roadmaps independently and then combine them all into one space to highlight the dependencies and the broader context. “We customised it quite a lot,” says Ben: “People had a lot of feedback about features they wanted to see.”

Another challenge was replicating the free-flowing discussions typical of PI sessions. “We wanted something that would always allow people to be connected and gather for teamwork during the breakdown sessions,” says Shravan Jadhav, Senior Software Engineer: “We chose Discord because it’s very flexible and allows multiple users to be online at the same time, but in different virtual rooms.”

Once the choices had been made, the group had to ensure that they were suitably secure and acquired licences so that everybody could use them. They then had to test and configure the tools, provide training and ensure all the tribe knew how to use them.

Practice and planning

They also spent time contingency planning, including asking everybody making presentations to pre-record their talks as a backup in case of connection problems. “We wanted the ultimate amount of productivity from everybody there, so having those backups was really important,” says Pat Bateman, Access Worldpay’s Head of Engineering: “Huge effort went into making sure that whenever something could go wrong, there was a plan.”

Similar reasoning underpinned their practice runs. “We very much followed agile principles of iterating, getting feedback, then improving,” says Joe. The first iteration involved the group; the second included the entire tribe. “That threw up some issues with moving from WebEx to Discord,” he continues: “It also demonstrated the importance of muting!”

The third iteration

Ultimately, the trials proved effective and the back-ups unnecessary. “Probably 90% of those involved won’t have seen the work involved because everything worked really well on the day,” says Pat Bateman. Listing off the parameters for success, including agreeing objectives, identifying dependencies and confidence voting, Ben says: “We got them all.”

Moreover, as a third iteration, the PI provided valuable feedback. For example, the consensus was that, as Ben explains: “Sitting at your machine for a whole day is draining – and this was a long day.” In future, therefore, remote PI events may stretch to a second day. This could also help participants deal with other local responsibilities, such as childcare.

The new normal?

Nevertheless, the bigger picture suggests remote planning could become standard. “The world has changed now,” Rob Brown, Access Worldpay’s Agile and Leadership Coach proposes: “It’s ready for much less travel; less hassle.” Forced into existence by a pandemic, remote PIs may well outlast it. “I don’t see what we’d gain from having everybody in the same room again,” says Ben: “We may end up doing all of them like this.” There’s just one final challenge to overcome – making end-of-day drinks as much fun online as they are in real life.

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