PI Planning — 5 Steps To Survive The Quarterly Planning In SAFe

How to plan for a quarter and not go insane? Now that’s a challenge!

Maria Chec


Here we are again with PI Planning, the Program Increment Planning in SAFe, Scaled Agile Framework. How to do it and not go nuts? How to plan for a quarter and not go insane? Now that’s a challenge!

YouTube video on PI Planning in 5 steps by the author

In the last episodes we agreed on the following:

In SAFe Explained — we arrived at a conclusion that “SAFe is like the lovechild of a control freak and a Project Manager on a power trip.”

In SAFe PI Planning Preparation, I warned you that “PI Planning is the nightmare on the Safe street for each new RTE, not to mention the teams.”

Today we will dive into the PI Planning exercise and you will understand all the previous statements. Because perhaps you were under the impression that I’m the one with a few screws loose.

PI Planning in 5 steps cover photo

The theory

If you venture into the PI planning manual on the SAFe website, you will stumble upon this gem — PI Planning. Just by the word count, you can tell it’s a huge undertaking. Your predictions are right. Let’s break it down into bite-sized chunks for easier consumption. Here are the five steps to survive and succeed with the quarterly planning in SAFe.

1. Who should participate in PI Planning?

According to SAFe, it’s a little like Fight Club

“The unwritten SAFe ‘rule’ is that the people who do the work plan the work.”

So it’s the whole ARTs who are planning the Program Increment, that I will call a “quarter” for the sake of simplification.

2. What’s the Agenda?

Further in the manual we read:

“PI Planning has a standard agenda that includes a presentation of business context and vision, followed by team planning breakouts — where the teams create their Iteration plans and objectives for the upcoming PI.”

How long does it take to plan a quarter of work, you’d ask?

“PI Planning takes two days, although the ART can extend this timebox to accommodate planning across multiple time zones.”

SAFe PI Planning Agenda

3. Who Facilitates it?

We continue reading:

“Facilitated by the Release Train Engineer (RTE), this event includes all members of the ART and occurs within the Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration.”

We already have a PI for Program Increment and now we also have an IP for the Innovation and Planning Iteration.

Remember the timeline from the last video? It means that the last Sprint, called Iteration here, from the six Sprints in a quarter, is dedicated to Innovation and Planning. SAFe lays it out like this:

Timeline for SAFe PI Planning

“Holding the event during the IP iteration avoids affecting the scheduling or capacity of other iterations in the PI.”

What does it mean? In theory it’s like a surprise party of the quarter, think hackathons, training and the planning exercise. In practice the sixth sprint is our golden ticket to finish the leftovers that spilled from the other iterations.

It’s the opposite of doing a dual track, instead of continuously planning and innovating, you have a special iteration for it. And you shouldn’t be asked to plan in the other five iterations. Do you think that’s doable?

Get ready for the classic hit: “Can this team or that ART postpone the planning? We’ve got this super important thing to deliver.” Brace yourselves, it’s coming!

RTE Hotline

All this information must be made available to the teams, especially the Product Owners and the Team Leads. They will be the RTEs hotline, the contact people for the PI Planning preparation.

Create a PI Planning readiness meeting or channel with the team reps and prep them for what’s coming. Then it’s on them to cascade that information to the team members.

4. What tools to use for PI Planning?

In the real world, on-site planning’s a breeze — flipcharts, post-its, and markers, that’s it! But in remote land, it’s a more complicated undertaking.

So, picture this, the PO arrives with epics, the team sizes them up, and they play a game of Tetris to fit them into five sprints. That’s best done ahead of the planning.

Breakout time – during the PI Planning the teams split those epics into user stories and again play the game of Tetris. Result — five sprints full of user stories based on the team's capacity (factoring in holidays and vacation days).

I will give you two options I used to run a remote PI Planning.

Option one — the ticketing service you use like Jira or Azure DevOps

It can be a matter of creating the Sprints and filling in the Jira backlog with the user stories.

It’s like planning on easy mode, a seamless flow from planning to the daily grind. Perfect, right?

Sprints planned in PI Planning in JIRA

Yet for some reason, it’s not the go-to move. I suspect that the management is not so used to the Jira jungle and what for us is perfectly easy and transparent they struggle to appreciate. We end up lost in translation.

Option two — Digital whiteboard like Miro, Mural or Figma

These tools come with ready-made templates for PI Planning. It’s like planning on autopilot. They’re sleek, user-friendly, and you can hop from one team’s board to another like a digital ninja.

The catch is, teams need to move all their work from the whiteboards to Jira or Azure Devops afterward. And at some point, there can be confusion about which place is the single source of truth. Chaos arises, and suddenly, it’s a whoops-I-deleted-the-entire-team’s-work situation. Yep, it happened!

I wonder if you have any other ideas for the tools to use to do PI Planning? Share your thoughts in the comments — let’s swap stories and maybe tools!

5. PI Objectives

Ah, there is also the concept of the PI Objectives. But don’t get me started on this subject. You’d be better off — much better off — reading the manual on this one.

I get it; it’s a planning marathon. Just take a deep breath — it gets smoother with time. You will see that in a couple of years, you won’t feel the heaviness of the planning on your chest… Kidding of course.

In a few quarters, things will lighten up. Fingers crossed for all of us!



Maria Chec

Agile Coach and Content Creator at Agile State of Mind and Head of Agile Practice in Fyllo