Making and meeting small commitments builds trust. Ba must be energized with its own intentions.
—Nonaka and Takeuchi, The Knowledge-Creating Company
PI Objectives are a summarized description of the specific business and technical goals that an Agile Team, Agile Release Train (ART), or Solution Train intends to achieve in the upcoming Program Increment (PI). They are used to communicate the plan of action to stakeholders, and as a way to measure accomplishments of a PI.
PI objectives validate the understanding of business and technical intent, focus alignment on outcomes rather than process or tactical concerns, and summarize data into meaningful information that enhances alignment and provides visibility for all.
(Note: For more on this important topic, see the “Role of PI Objectives guidance article.)
SAFe is commitment based, in that it relies on a rolling series of short-term commitments from the Agile Teams, Agile Release Trains (ARTs), and Solution Trains to assist with meaningful business planning and outcomes. This is a key element of trust that must exist between development and the business stakeholders. However, this shouldn’t be confused with committing to a set of fixed, long-term, waterfall-like deliverables (as explained in the Solution Intent article).
But in order for the business to do any meaningful planning, it depends on teams for some amount of reliable, predictable forecasting. Too little, and it’s “those ARTs can’t commit to anything useful.” Too much, and it’s “those ARTs never do what they say they will.” Neither is good, as both increase the distrust between business and development. That significantly hinders business success, not to mention the joy of work.
We need something in between, and that is a primary purpose of the Team, Program, and Solution PI Objectives. In addition to alignment, the process of feasible objective-setting is integral to reducing the excess work in process in the system.
SAFe PI objectives and plans are built bottom up, by Agile Teams who estimate and plan their own part of the solution. The team creates team PI objectives at the PI Planning meeting, indicating what they will have ready by the end of the Program Increment. The objectives created by the team are aggregated up to the Program Level and then aggregated again to the Large Solution Level, as can be seen in Figure 1.
Building the Team PI Objectives
During PI planning, teams set team PI objectives, which provide many benefits:
- Provide a common language for communication between business and technology
- Align teams to each other and to a common mission
- Create the near-term vision, which teams can rally around and develop during the PI
- Provide an important Metric, the Program Predictability Measure, that the team and Agile Release Train can use to improve performance
- Communicate with management and highlight each team’s contribution to business value
- Expose dependencies between teams that must be addressed for system success
Setting team PI objectives is not a trivial thing, as it requires solid estimating and planning, a well-understood velocity, analysis of upcoming Features, defining Stories for the Team Backlog, and, finally, synthesis into simple business terms that can be understood by everyone. The net result, however, is straightforward and readily represented, as the example in Figure 2 illustrates.
During PI planning, the teams look at the Program Vision and new features and plan the stories they need to deliver. In so doing, they also identify their specific team PI objectives.
Differentiate Between Features and Objectives
The team’s PI objectives often relate directly to intended features; indeed, many are the same. However, the mapping is not always straightforward, since some features require the collaboration of multiple teams, as Figure 3 illustrates.
Note that some features (such as Feature A) can be delivered by individual teams; others (Feature B) require collaboration. In addition to features and inputs to features, other team objectives will appear as well. These can include technical objectives (for example, the proof of concept in Figure 2) that enable future features, enhancements to development infrastructure, Milestones, and more. All the results of this process are captured in the affected team’s objectives.
PI objectives help teams shift focus off the feature language and into the desired business outcomes. Features and acceptance criteria are excellent tools to help understand, capture, and collaborate around the work that needs to be done to iterate the solution to the next level, but it’s all too easy to get caught up in “finishing the features” and missing the overall goals hiding inside them.
The core question becomes, “Is our goal to complete the listed features, or is our goal to provide the outcomes desired by those features? In other words, if we could provide the same value with half the amount of work, and without building all of the features, would this be acceptable?”
Better understanding of the intent offered by direct conversations with the Business Owners often results in the teams providing new perspectives to System Architects/Engineering and Product Management and quickly finding ways to apply their expertise more effectively.
Use Stretch Objectives
Stretch objectives provide a way to help ensure that the delivery timebox will be met (synchronizing to a delivery cadence requires capacity margin ).
Teams commit to deliver their non-stretch objectives. In addition, teams also agree to do their best to deliver the stretch objectives, and they are included in the capacity for the PI. Realistically, however, those may or may not be achieved in the timebox, due to timing or other uncertainties. As these objectives might not be finished in the PI, stakeholders plan accordingly.
Stretch objectives provide a number of benefits:
- Improved economics – Without stretch objectives, a team must commit to a 100% scope in a fixed timebox, This forces teams to trade off quality or build other buffers into the system. These other buffers accumulate and convert uncertain earliness to certain lateness, resulting in less overall throughput.
- Increased reliability – Stretch objectives provide an estimating error allowance, thereby increasing confidence in delivery of the main priorities. In turn, delivering commitments (stretch objectives are not committed objectives) is the most important factor in building trust between the teams and the stakeholders.
- Adaptability to change. In order to reliably deliver on a cadence, stretch objectives provide the capacity margin (buffer) needed to meet commitments, yet alter priorities if necessary when fact patterns change.
Typically, the total allowance for stretch objectives is 10% to 15% of the total capacity. And one must constantly keep in mind that stretch objectives are used to identify what can be variable within the scope of a plan; stretch objectives are not the way for stakeholders to load the teams with more than they can possibly do. It’s not extra stuff to do, just in case time permits.
Write SMART Objectives
Team PI objectives serve as a brief summary of a team’s plan for the PI. However, the fact that the objectives are at the higher level of abstraction means that they may tend toward fuzzy and non-verifiable “chunks of intent.” To address this, teams use SMART objectives. Each objective is written in such a way that it is:
- Specific – States the intended outcome as simply, concisely, and explicitly as possible. (Hint: Try starting with an action verb.)
- Measurable – It should be clear what a team needs to do to achieve the objective. The measures may be descriptive, yes/no, quantitative, or provide a range.
- Achievable – Achieving the objective should be within the team’s control and influence.
- Realistic – Recognize factors that cannot be controlled. (Hint: Avoid making “happy path” assumptions.)
- Time-bound – The time period for achievement must be within the PI, and therefore all objectives must be scoped appropriately.
Communicate Business Value with Objectives
As objectives are finalized during PI planning, Business Owners assign business value to each of the team’s individual objectives in face-to-face conversation with the teams.
The value of this particular conversation, from business-to-team and team-to-business, cannot be overstated, as it communicates the strategy and context behind these weighting decisions. Each objective is assigned by the Business Owners on a scale of 1 to 10 (lowest to highest). Business value should not be confused with any other measures, such as the associated effort, total story points associated with an objective, or anything else.
Business value is assigned, not calculated, and serves as an input to execution considerations. Many of the team’s objectives provide direct and immediate value to the solution. Others, such as Enablers, advances in infrastructure, development environments, and quality initiatives, enable the faster creation of future business value. All of these factors must be weighed in the final balance.
Finalize the Team PI Objectives
When objectives have been made “smarter,” stretch objectives have been identified, and business value has been established, then the objectives in Figure 2 might evolve to look like those in Figure 4.
Commit to PI Objectives
Near the end of PI planning, once objectives have been agreed to, some capacity margin has been provided by stretch objectives, and risks have been addressed, the teams hold a vote of confidence on their ability to meet the objectives.
While, strictly speaking, a vote of confidence is not the same as a commitment, they are treated as about the same thing. Therefore, this commitment has to be a reasonable thing to ask for. Moreover, the commitment has to come from the teams, instead of being mandated to them. After all, the only people who realistically commit to the objectives are the people who do the work. Therefore, SAFe’s commitment has two parts:
- Teams agree to do everything in their power to meet the committed objectives
- If, during the course of the PI, facts dictate that some objectives are simply not achievable, then the teams agree to escalate immediately so that corrective action can be taken
In this way, all stakeholders know that either: a) the program results will be achieved as planned, or b) they will be provided sufficient notice so as to be able to mitigate and take corrective action, thereby minimizing business disruption. That’s about as good as it gets, because this is, after all, research and development.
Creating Program and Solution PI Objectives
The result of the PI planning process will be some number of approved objectives sheets, one per team. Teams vote on the confidence level for the objectives as a set, and if confidence is high enough, the aggregate set of objectives becomes the committed ART plan. The Release Train Engineer summarizes the team objectives into the program PI objectives in a format suitable for management communication.
The summarized objectives should be SMART, much like the team PI objectives, and have stretch objectives. Also, like the team PI objectives, these might be business Capabilities the ART is working on, enablers, or other business or technical goals.
During the Post-PI Planning meeting, after all the ARTs have planned, objectives are further rolled up to the large solution level by the Solution Train Engineer, and the solution PI objectives are synthesized and summarized. This is the top level of PI objectives in SAFe, and they communicate to stakeholders what the value stream as a whole will deliver in the upcoming PI. Figure 1 (above) illustrates this aggregation from team to program to solution PI objectives.
It is important to note that only team PI objectives have business value attached to them. This value is not rolled up to the other levels. When calculating the predictability measure for programs and Solution Trains, the predictability metric itself is rolled up to determine predictability at a higher level.
Shed Excess WIP with Realistic Objectives
During review of the team PI objectives, it will typically become obvious that not everything that was envisioned by the various business stakeholders will likely be achieved in the PI timebox. Therefore, in order to gain agreement, some of the current in-flight development work (WIP) will need to be reevaluated. This happens throughout the PI planning process but is crystallized in the final agreement among all the stakeholders to the program PI objectives.
Those lower-priority work items get moved back into the Program Backlog. Decreasing excess WIP reduces overhead and thrashing, and it increases productivity and velocity. The net result is a feasible set of PI objectives that are agreed to by all business stakeholders and team members, as well as increased efficiency and a higher probability of delivery success. And that’s something that most everyone should be able to commit to.
Planning at the large solution level can work similarly: The planning of the ARTs will impact each other, pushing some work back into the Solution Backlog for reevaluation in a later PI.
Learn More Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley, 2011.  Reinertsen, Donald. The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development. Celeritas Publishing, 2009.
Last update: 17 June, 2017