Virtual planning at scale: a personal account
As Delivery Leaders at Kainos we are frequently responsible for delivering outcomes to our customers in complex delivery environments using Agile and distributed ways of working. We have experience of working on large scale multi-vendor engagements where we collaborate, plan and deliver across corporate and geographic boundaries. We have experts, such as myself, in organising, facilitating and managing the approach to planning in these scenarios. The emergence of COVID-19 presented us with some unique challenges and opportunities in finding new ways of planning at scale for our largest distributed Agile engagements.
I was recently due to travel to Europe to work with one of our customers in the payments industry to facilitate a large Agile planning event as part of a regular cadence for the programme of work we’re involved with delivering. The event was due to involve over 130 people, eight project teams, three time zones, four partners and five countries – by any standards, it was a substantial undertaking. A core team was due to be located at our customer’s offices, with each of the Agile delivery teams involved being co-located in their own offices at different locations across Europe, including our own teams based in Gdansk.
During the week before the planning event I watched and listened as each of the locations we were due to work from went into lockdown, it very quickly became apparent that the challenge had got larger. With fewer than five working days before the event was due to take place it was clear that every single one of the c.130 participants was likely to be in a different location. With the support of a core team from our customer I accepted the challenge of being ready to run the event remotely.
Preparation is always key when running large planning events and given the circumstances this was more important than ever. I was fortunate that good collaborative behaviours had been established from previous in-person planning sessions I had run but we were conscious that this could still be a challenge with virtual delivery. The event was no longer about a single facilitator, it was about facilitating several distributed facilitators whose teams were in turn distributed in bedrooms, dining rooms and studies across Europe.
Our priority was ensuring key members of the distributed teams (BAs, architects and scrum masters) understood the features we were planning and the role of each of their teams in successfully planning and delivering that feature. I also needed the same key team members to understand how the event was going to be run, so prior to the event several demo sessions were held, these in turn gave me chance to dry run the facilitation approach and get initial feedback from participants.
The event ran over two days to plan three sprints (six weeks) of work. Day one opened with a programme update, an overview of the objectives and outcomes for the next PI and then an overview of the features we were planning so every team member not only knew what we were planning, but also its value to the customer. I reminded the teams of the Agile Manifesto – particularly the need to focus on individuals and interactions over processes and tools (given the entire event was to be facilitated using digital tools). I also outlined an important principal for the day – stop starting and start finishing – a smaller number of well-planned features was more important than a larger number of incomplete planned features.
The two days were broken into virtual breakout and alignment sessions interspersed with much needed breaks! We ran breakout sessions where teams refined, estimated and planned their work for the PI, and alignment sessions where the teams got back together to review progress and understand impediments and dependencies that were being uncovered. Throughout the event teams were planning against their known capacity (velocity) and using story points for estimates. Current available capacity for each team was being tracked during alignment and as the days increased, where capacity was running out for specific teams this was being reviewed and decisions made around what should be planned next.
At the heart of the event were two key concepts, frequent integration of plans and a PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) cycle:
- Plan – the clearly prioritised features the teams pulled into planning in priority order
- Do – the breakout sessions during which the teams would refine and plan their work on each feature into sprints, collaborating with other teams on dependencies or clarifications where needed
- Check – the alignment sessions where progress was checked and anything that was blocking progress discussed and resolved
- Adjust – at the end of alignment sessions and at the end of the day we agreed any adjustments in approach or plans that needed to be considered in the next breakout session
The event was facilitated using a virtual planning wall I created in readiness for the two days, this provided a digital equivalent of the analogue planning space of large sheets of brown paper, sticky notes, flip charts and whiteboards that we would typically use in a collocated event. Instead of a physical planning rooms a number of virtual meeting rooms were created using video conferencing software. Finally, new and established chat channels were created to support discussion and also “paging” of teams.
BlueJeans, Miro, Jira and Slack were our key technology enablers. Miro provided us with the digital planning canvas used throughout the event, it enabled me to map the journey of a feature from a backlog on the left to it being planned into sprints on the right, capturing risks, issues and dependencies on the way. At the end of the event the same canvas was used to facilitate a retrospective. Miro allowed everybody to see in real time what was being planned and by whom – it gave a fantastic information radiator of progress throughout the two days. At the end of the event each team was able to take the output captured in Miro and create individual team backlogs and sprint plans in Jira.
BlueJeans provided the virtual meeting rooms we needed throughout the two days, from small team rooms with 10 people in them to our large “conference room” which at times had more than 130 people in it for kick-off, alignment and wrap-up calls. Rooms were open for people to drop into at any point, allowing teams to discuss and collaborate around dependencies in particular throughout the event.
Finally, Slack provided numerous team chat channels throughout the event – these were used for everything from team “paging” when they wanted to join each other’s rooms in addition to providing facilitators like myself real-time feedback and reminders throughout the event.
Well, in a nutshell, the group nailed it.
- The customer now wants to make all further planning sessions remote
- Six key complex service features were successfully planned, estimated and committed to with a high degree of confidence across eight component teams
- Delivery was successfully scheduled across three sprints including dependencies across multiple platforms, allocation of time for supporting ongoing UAT and a live service
- By the end of the event delivery commitment confidence was very high with scores from 70-90%
- The approach significantly reduced travel costs with estimated savings of over £175,000 (and lowered our carbon footprint)
- Preparation is key > set objectives and create a clear structure for each of the sessions and flex to the emerging needs of the event
- Help create a journey on the day > set the scene and principles
- Allow conversations to start but enable them to continue offline
- Use the right tools and don’t let them get in your way
- Stick to the values of the Agile Manifesto throughout
- Don’t assume the teams will self-organise to create tea/coffee breaks for themselves outside of lunch – once they get started, they sometimes don’t stop, so be kind and build these in!
From my perspective it was an exciting, fulfilling and invigorating two days. There’s nothing like having to constantly think on your feet, problem solve and frequently re-plan on the fly to give you a buzz. We far exceeded our wildest expectations and for the customer this was probably their most successful planning event. It was an inspiring event to be involved in designing, planning and lead as facilitator. Most importantly, COVID-19 didn’t stop our customer’s planning – and I’m confident it’s not going to stop them delivering!