3 success factors for a big room planning

· January 16, 2017

A few months back I blogged about the practice of big room planning made famous by SAFe (™) through their Product Increment planning session.

For the record I still think it’s a great event and every time we have run it we have come out the other end in a more aligned, enlightened and excited state than when we went in. And for the record I still think it’s just a phase in our process improvement that we should move away from, in a suitable pace.

I’ve been running 3 or 4 big room planning sessions now and I’m starting to see pattern of what bites us the most and what is the foundation of being successful in these session.

In this post I wanted to share the top 3-4 (there might be few slipping in there) things that I’ve found paramount in order to have a great planning session worth the time and effort.

Shortly a big room planning could be described as an event where all the people needed gets together in the same room, at the same time to balance demand to capacity to achieve a business goal.

Or at least I want to describe it like that because then my points below falls out very natural.

All the brilliant people in the room

The first, ah well all of these factors, is pretty obvious but here goes:

Keep people in the same room

One the reason the a big room planning is so effective in many organizations is that everyone is there, at the same time. The meeting have, in one go, eliminated all wait states. It’s awesome:

  • Need to figure out the priority between two important projects? Go to the head-project manager and ask - she’s right there!
  • Want to question or get clarification on the goals of the next iterations - all the people you need are in that corner over there.
  • Your team cannot work until the bozos (oh sorry, not that kind of company) in team X? Well, as it happens team X is right next to you. Would you mind keeping the bad-mouthing down a bit?

Running one of these meetings is messy, noisy and very tiering. That’s by design and not surprising. You are exchanging a lot of information in a short time span. No wonder it gets noisy. And messy. And loud.

Inevitable one of your teams will ask you if they could work in another room, or start their work at their desks, since they already have everything planned.

No. They cannot. Because that defies the purpose of getting everyone into the same room at the same time.

Marcus comment

Here we can see the reason I think this is actually a work-around in a very blunt fashion. Because we have designed a practice that is extremely tiring, noisy and that most people gets worn out by (luckily it’s ran seldom…).

Just because we could not have this communication going continuously. Surely this is just “best so far”? Surely we are looking for better ways, where information like this is well-known among all. All the time.

It resembles the strive for “one piece continuous flow” that Toyota has been seeking for half a century and more; every practice they are doing now is just “best so far”. They are always striving for better. Why shouldn’t we?

Well established backlog or at least goals - demand

The best meeting we had was preceded by 2 or 3 meetings where we groomed and adjusted the backlog. I say “2 or 3” because in the first of those meeting we couldn’t agree on what the goal for the business (the upcoming period) actually was.

Imagine if we would have gone into the meeting with that kind of mess around what the goal was, or what activities and features we were going to do to reach the goal that was suitable to do now.

It would not have been pretty. I know, because other planning sessions we actually did very little grooming and the result was that most teams just continued to do what they were doing. It was hard to question if that was the right thing to do, since the goals for the period was not well known.

Marcus comment

This advice ties back to the basics of knowing the demand of your system. Imagine if we were spending our precious time and effort on “not the most important thing”. That would be very stupid and feel wasteful. But often I feel that we don’t even know how we would know what the most important thing is.

But at least we are continuing to work. That is strange I think. Unless we are working to discover what we really should do.

The work that happens under this heading is a real benefit of doing these planning sessions; we need to know what we are doing and why. The planning session is pushing us to do that. That’s great!

But… surely not the end state? I hope that we would want a place where this is known all the time. In the mean-time this workaround is good for us.

Well known capacity and scope

Before going into the planning session we should have a good understanding of:

  • which teams there are
  • who are in what team
  • who is here when
  • other things that we need to do and that will take up our capacity

Questions like these are paramount to know before any descent and fruitful planning can take place. This is needed to be able to balance demand and (ta-da!) capacity.

I’ve been part of meetings where we, as an introduction, revealed which people are going to be in which team during the next iteration. That meant that they spent about 20% of the time for the planning session getting to know each other, found out how much they had to spend in their “old” teams and finally learned about vacation plans and other absence.

Goes without saying that it was not time well spent in the meeting where we were supposed to understand, break down and ultimately solve business problems to reach a goal.

Marcus comment

In a more flow-oriented approach problems like these would resolve themselves smoother and continuously. Some people needs to move into another team; sure - go ahead, then plan. Now we stand a risk of making these changes big-bang at the planning meeting.


These are my top 3 factors for a better big room planning:

  • Make sure that you know what the goal is and, for extra points, have a good idea about the features and activities that would take us closer to that goal (the demand*)
  • Make sure that you know who is going to be part of the effort of taking us closer to the goal (the capacity)
  • Make sure everyone that is needed to get us closer to the goal, are in the room - cutting the lead times to almost zero

Nothing strange really. But it helped me as a check-list. Hopefully you find something useful in here too.,

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