How Covid-19 Wiped Away Our Big Room Planning (BRP)

Virtual, Virtual, Virtual

We’ll follow-up with an article shortly about the basics of BRP and lessons learnt through our experiences facilitating and observing 5 events over the past 12-months.
There was a greater impetus for this article as many people have expressed an interest in our virtual BRP format.  Although were scheduled to run BRP for a client right in the middle of Covid-19, this article describes the incredible pivot towards a “One Team” approach that superseded BRP and the virtual format we had planned.  We describe the adapted virtual format and the reasons behind our thinking.

 

What is Big Room Planning?

Big Room Planning, commonly known as “BRP”, is a series of events over a day or multiple days, where multiple teams plan their work for the next quarter. As the name suggests, it is a “BIG” multi-team event with upwards of more than 100 people. Our largest BRP in 2019 comprised 400 people.  Sometimes referred to as PI Planning (Program Increment Planning) in the SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework), the concepts are not framework specific. We have seen how bringing people together always results in magic!

Sketchnote

This sketchnote describes what we had originally planned (pre-Covid-19), what we thought we’d do (ahead of the NZ lockdown announcements), and what we actually ended up doing.

Broken down into 3 rows, the top describes the original plan, the middle shows the adaptations for an online format, and the bottom is what we did.

Click to view full Sketchnote

The Original Plan – Co-located physical BRP

  • 4 working days out from BRP – 3-hour Business context discussion led by business leaders covering
    • Previous quarter’s product performance
    • Long-term vision
    • Thinking around short-term priorities
    • These priorities were sent out to everyone .
  • T-minus 2 days – Teams do high-level estimates on the priorities that come through from the business context session.
  • BRP Day (AM)
    • Last quarter’s delivery performance
    • Team planning
    • Best practice representatives (e.g. UX, Architecture, Security, Ops, Analytics) arrive part-way through
  • BRP Day (PM)
    • Cross-team planning
    • Portfolio board building
    • Risk identification
    • Problem solving
    • Commitment

The Adapted Format – Semi-Online BRP

  • 4 working days out from BRP – 3-hour Business context discussion led by business leaders covering
    • Prior to the lockdown arrangements, we thought there was still value in having a part of the session physically located.
    • Speakers would be streamed from one room in the office.  The thinking behind this was to reduce disruptions with screen changing, and to have a richer central presence.
    • Everyone else would dial in via Skype, and the meeting would be recorded for participants unable to make the time.
  • T-minus 2 days – Over the next 2 days, we’d leave it to the discretion of the teams to populate their team boards.  Physical team boards were handed out a couple of weeks prior to the event (clear of any glimpses of lockdown).  All we asked was for a team representative to bring the physical board into the BRP room on the day.
  • BRP Day
    • We planned to have a skeletal central presence in the office where team representatives could bring their team boards in.
  • BRP Day (AM)
    • Teams would be given a final 2 hours to finish their internal team planning.
    • During this time, we’d video record from the room
      • Last quarter’s delivery performance
      • Instead of having our best practice representatives (e.g. UX, Architecture, Security, Ops, Analytics) walk the floors, they were to do 5 minute presentations on considerations our teams should be making for the quarter.
    • Teams would be sent the recorded video to watch while team reps congregated in the physical room with their team boards.
  • BRP Day (PM)
    • We’d do our cross-team planning through team reps bringing back wider questions to their teams
    • Then build our portfolio boards with this skeletal crew.
    • We’d identify enterprise levels risks and bring in our business people to the room.
    • Everything was to run similarly to a physical BRP other than the fact the cross-team activities were online or elsewhere in the building and channeled through a rep.  This meant we would still have core physical interactions but with very limited numbers of people.

What We Actually Did

Due to vastly changing priorities and time constraints, our teams were immediately hands-on fixing things in production.

5-days out from BRP, we turned one of our meeting rooms into a War Room.

We gathered the few people in the office (some were already working remotely) to:

  • Visualise on a wall all the problems we were seeing
  • Think about our objectives over the coming Covid-19 period (e.g. keeping staff and customers safe)
  • Brainstorm on post-its ideas to combat the problems and achieve those objectives

Over the weekend, these ideas were channeled into a single backlog (Word document), and we established a Portfolio Kanban way of working.  The purpose of this was to keep the flow going:

  • Focus on doing the right things
  • Unblock our teams
  • Take a one-team approach to combating Covid-19

We started to encounter difficulties working with a Word document, as priorities were changing and we couldn’t quite clearly see who was working on what.

We piped those priorities back into our digital tool and established a single Portfolio Kanban backlog.  Teams would work on a single backlog and we’d keep the comms going with clear priorities by doing two things, facilitated by a Scrum Master (we called them the “Air Traffic Controller”. Their role was to stop planes from crashing.):

  1. Daily Priorities – Scrum of Scrums style meeting attended by POs and PMs
  2. Daily Scrum of Scrums – Attended by Scrum Masters

On the actual BRP day, we ran our first Scrum of Scrums with about 30-40 people attending, and moved into Lean Coffee around major blockers.

What Would We Change?

Covid-19 forced us to adapt our plans so quickly and it did really bring all our teams together to swarm on the things that would help our customers the most.  As we see ourselves working remotely for an extended period of time, we need to think of a completely online format.

We would:

  • Run a central event using Zoom
  • Use breakout rooms for internal team planning
  • And a digital tool to amalgamate team boards into portfolio boards

 

If we were to tackle another pandemic, we think we’d still work in Kanban with multiple teams on a single backlog.

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