Making and meeting small commitments builds trust. Ba must be energized with its own intentions.
—Nonaka and Takeuchi, The Knowledge-Creating Company
During PI planning, teams create PI objectives, which provide several benefits:
- Provide a common language for communicating with business and technology stakeholders
- Aligns the train with a shared mission
- Creates the near-term vision, which teams can rally around and develop during the PI
- Enables the ART to assess its performance and the business value achieved via the Program Predictability Measure
- Communicates and highlights each team’s contribution to business value
- Exposes dependencies that require coordination
SAFe relies on a rolling wave of short-term commitments from Agile teams and trains to assist with business planning and outcomes, resulting in improved alignment and trust between development and business stakeholders. However, PI objectives should not be confused with a set of fixed, inflexible, long-term deliverables.
But 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 PI objectives. In addition to alignment, the process of setting realistic objectives helps avoid too much Work in Process (WIP) in the system.
PI objectives and Iteration plans are built from the bottom up, by Agile teams who estimate and identify their part of the solution during the PI Planning. They are summarized up to the Program Level and then rolled-up again to the Large Solution Level, if the ART is part of a Solution Train, as shown in Figure 1.
Building the Team PI Objectives
During PI planning, the teams review 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.
Creating team PI objectives is not trivial. It requires reasonable estimating and planning, a well-understood velocity, analysis of upcoming Features, defining Stories for the Team Backlog, and, finally, summarizing the information into simple business terms that can be understood by everyone.
Figure 2 illustrates an example of one team’s PI objectives.
Differentiate between Features and PI 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, and Milestones. All the results of this process are captured in the affected team’s objectives.
Features and acceptance criteria are excellent tools to help understand, capture, and collaborate around the work that needs to be done, but it’s all too easy to get caught up in ‘finishing the features’ and missing the overall goals hiding inside them. PI objectives help shift focus away from developing features to achieving the desired business outcomes.
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?
A 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 to create better solutions.
Use Stretch Objectives
Stretch objectives help improve the predictability of delivering business value since they are not included in the team’s commitment or counted against teams in the program predictable measure.
- Stretch objectives are used to identify work that can be variable within the scope of a PI. Stretch objectives are not the way for stakeholders to load the teams with more work than they can do. It’s not extra stuff to do, just in case time permits.
- If a team has low confidence in meeting a PI objective, it should consider categorizing it as a stretch objective
- If an item has many unknowns, consider moving it to stretch, and plan spikes early in the PI to reduce uncertainty
However, teams agree to do their best to deliver the stretch objectives, and they are included in the capacity for the PI. Since these objectives might not be finished in the PI, stakeholders plan accordingly.
Stretch objectives provide several benefits:
- Improved economics – Without stretch objectives, a team must commit to a 100 percent scope in a fixed timebox. This forces teams to trade off quality or build other buffers into the system. The other buffers can accumulate, and convert uncertain earliness to certain lateness, resulting in less overall throughput.
- Increased reliability – Stretch objectives represent variable scope, allowing confidence in the delivery of the main priorities. In turn, delivering commitments is the most important factor in building trust between the teams and the stakeholders (stretch objectives are not committed objectives).
- Adaptability to change – To reliably deliver on a cadence, stretch objectives provide the capacity margin needed to meet commitments, yet alter priorities if necessary, when fact patterns change.
Typically, the total allowance for stretch objectives is 10-15 percent 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.
Write SMART PI Objectives
Team PI objectives are a summary of a team’s plan for the PI. Sometimes this causes their description to be fuzzy and nonverifiable ‘chunks of intent.’ As a countermeasure, teams make their objectives SMART:
- Specific – States the intended outcome 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 PI Objectives
As objectives are finalized during PI planning, Business Owners collaboratively assign business value to each of the team’s individual objectives in a face-to-face conversation.
The value of this particular conversation with the team cannot be overstated, as it communicates the strategy and context behind these weighting decisions. Business Owners use a scale from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest). Business value should not be confused with any other measures, such as the associated effort or total story points associated with an objective.
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 (e.g., advances in infrastructure, development environments, and quality initiatives) allow 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
A vote of confidence is held near the end of PI planning, where the teams commit to the PI objectives. However, it must be a reasonable ask of the people who do the work. Therefore, the SAFe commitment has two parts:
- Teams agree to do everything in their power to meet the committed objectives
- The teams agree to escalate issues immediately that might prevent objectives from being met
- During the course of the PI, if it’s discovered that some objectives are not achievable, then the teams agree to escalate immediately so that corrective action can be taken
In this way, all stakeholders know that either the program results will be achieved as planned, or they will be provided sufficient notice so as to be able to mitigate and take corrective action, 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 illustrates this summary from team to program and from program to solution PI objectives.
It’s important that business value is only assigned to team PI objectives. The predictability metric itself is rolled up to determine predictability at a higher level.
Reduce WIP with Realistic PI Objectives
During the review of the team PI objectives, not everything that was envisioned by the various business stakeholders will likely be achieved in the PI timebox. Therefore, some of the current in-flight development work (WIP) will need to be reevaluated with Business Owners to gain agreement to the 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: 11 November 2017