When people think of agile, the first thing that comes to mind is a software development team. But agile is much more than that now, as every DevOps practitioner knows. Nearly a decade and a half of practice has shown us that high-performing agile software development teams are critical, but not sufficient on their own. When they operate in a silo, software development teams can easily become disconnected from the business and from other teams. To truly achieve the higher business goals, those development teams need alignment, or else they risk delivering the wrong things or the right things but at the wrong time. That is where Big Room Planning comes in.
Big Room Planning is the secret sauce for effective agile planning and execution because it brings together all the people in an organization responsible for delivering software value to market—from development and test to program management and the business—to plan collaboratively. When I say bring them together, I don’t mean that figuratively: The key is to bring them together quite literally, assembling all of the stakeholders together in the same room in real time. That can feel quite shocking because it represents such a significant commitment by the company, but that is the point. Making agile work requires a commitment across every level of a company.
Before the Big Room
So do you just have everyone roll into a large space somewhere in a hotel’s conference area and hit a home run? Clearly, no. Setting up an effective agile delivery group takes time, and is far more complicated than spinning up agile development teams because of all the roles involved and how each team and individual will approach their part of the work. Most importantly, establishing the leadership changes required to truly change the way an organization works must also take place. Bottom line: Establishing an agile mindset throughout the organization is critical to have a foundation for success.
There are three distinct phases of preparation required when standing up an agile delivery group (Agile Release Train, in SAFe parlance), which we call:
- The Ready phase
- The Sync phase
- Rhe Go phase
Each are vitally important, and without success in the earlier phases, your delivery will get bogged down in the latter stages.
The Ready phase is probably the most critical, and it establishes the right leadership, organizational mindset, and right group of people required for agile value delivery. Three key steps include:
- Enterprise value stream mapping
- Agile organization design
- Leadership development
Without these key steps, supported by leadership at every level, you simply cannot instill the cultural and mindset changes required to stick.
In the Sync phase, agile practices are instilled first. Agile practices specific to each role requires training and coaching to set in, and we advocate for a four-to-12-week period to ensure everyone understands their role, the ceremonies they will use to ensure collaboration and what artifacts they will use to plan and execute their part of the overall work.
Once everyone in the delivery group gets it, it’s time to set up a first Big Room Planning event. This typically takes one month of preparation—without which your event is likely to fail.
Preparing for Big Room Planning should focus on the inputs for the event. First among these is the business vision and context—the domain of executives, line of business leaders, etc. This is essentially the “why” behind what the teams will work on. Key initiatives for the delivery group, with clear outcomes defined (often supported by a lightweight business case), must be communicated effectively to inspire the group. It takes time to put this together.
Next, develop a feature backlog that represents what the delivery group will be planning out during Big Room Planning. Doing this well is a more rigorous process than meets the eye. Features are the crucial ingredient because they represent the value being built to both the business and the customer, and they represent the key deliverables teams will produce.
Product managers typically own this step, and if they are not well-prepared, they run the risk of either asking for too much or asking for the wrong things that won’t have the desired impact on business results. At CA, our product managers go through several iterations of backlog preparation involving stakeholders throughout to company to make sure the priorities are clear.
Even with a well-formed and prioritized backlog, effective Big Room Planning requires an understanding of the capacity of the organization to build what’s needed. This requires good estimation and a good understanding of the each team’s velocity. Estimation and a team’s velocity are big parts of what we learn during the Sync phase: Over a few iterations, the amount of work (a.k.a. story points) a team can deliver outcomes and provides an understanding of roughly the right capacity needed for effective planning. Doing this well ensures teams will be asked to plan not only the right features during Big Room Planning, but the right amount of features so that detailed planning can take place with enough time to design stories, resolve dependencies and address risks that emerge.
The Go phase actually kicks off with the Big Room Planning event. The event itself occurs over a two-day period, which marks the starting point for agile execution. If formed well, the right people will be in the room to build value fast. With upfront preparation, the group members will understand what they will be building and why it’s important, and will be set up to create a plan that best delivers the value needed.
Planning collaboratively ensures that the plan is well-designed across the group. Most importantly, because everyone has a part in building the plan—with the opportunity to work together across teams and across roles, with the ability to challenge and even veto decisions as they form—everyone ultimately feels a strong sense of ownership and commitment to the final plan. A successful outcome almost always ensues, and the group only gets better from there are they learn to prepare, plan and execute together as a cohesive “team of teams.”
About the Author/Steve Wolfe
Steve Wolfe is Senior Principal, Product Marketing for CA Agile Solutions. He has worked for more than 20 years on software products in both hardware and software companies. His experience spans 10+ years in both software engineering management and product management, including 7+ years on agile teams and delivery groups. Steve’s passions include helping organizations learn how to build the right things fast and reliably by applying agile and DevOps practices at scale. He is a certified SAFe Program Consultant.