5 Tips for a Successful SAFe Release Planning Event

One of the most critical alignment events for every Agile Release Train is the Release Planning Event. This is an opportunity for teams working on a common Vision & Roadmap to come together and build a plan for delivering their next increment of value. Release Planning of this magnitude can be quite stressful, less valuable, and nearly disastrous if teams have not prepared. Having participated in dozens of SAFe® Release Planning Events, here are 5 easy tips that will help make your next planning event a success!

  1. Get Leadership Engaged & Involved
  2. Create a Feature Readiness Board
  3. Bring in External or Unbiased Facilitators
  4. Go Off-Site and Feed the Participants Well
  5. Have Fun

Get Leadership Engaged & Involved

The SAFe® House of Lean has Leadership at the foundation for a reason!  Nothing is more demotivating than initiating your Plan Review teams have worked hard on all day and your Business Owners aren’t represented in the room.  What message does it send to your teams, if you aren’t interested in seeing what they plan to work on for the next 10-to-12 weeks?

Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing. —Tom Peters

When the leadership team is engaged and available throughout the event they are able to make on-the-spot decisions and guide teams in real-time. This prevents re-work and increases the feasibility as well as confidence in the plan. When teams know leadership has their backs, fully understands the work they are doing, and supports and cares about them –  it makes a world of difference in morale and quality.


Create a Feature Readiness Board

Product Managers and Product Owners are constantly balancing the needs of the current Program Increment (PI) with having to look ahead and define Features and Stories for the upcoming PI.  Business readiness is a critical aspect for increasing organizational agility, and a Feature Kanban board allows for clarity and transparency about where upcoming features are in readiness process. BVIRs (Big Visible Information Radiators) are essential for Agile teams and ensure the 1st golden rule of Kanban is met.  Feature Readiness boards enable focus, and help teams plan handoffs and ensure business & architectural aspects of readiness are taken care of.

Bring in External or Unbiased Facilitators

“The facilitator’s job is to support everyone to do their best thinking. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding, and cultivates shared responsibility.”1

Being the facilitator of a planning event can be quite a daunting task.  Proper facilitation is important to keep the people engaged and the activities on track!  There are 2 critical elements for being a successful facilitator. 1) You cannot be a participant. If you try to facilitate and participate, the event will rapidly veer off track.  2) You cannot have a vested interest in the outcome. If you steer planning towards a pre-determined direction, you will lose authenticity of the plan. Neutral, unbiased facilitators assist with avoiding political stress, free up your Release Train Engineer (RTE) to focus on the teams and their needs, and enable someone to be committed to timing and progress.  For your next planning event, try an external coach, or someone outside your Release Train as the MC of the event, the benefits will certainly delight you.

Go Off-Site and Feed the Participants Well

The right environment and facilities are a key factor for a success. You need ample wall-space and a room large enough for each Agile team to have their own area for collaboration and information radiators. If the room is cramped, it will be difficult to pull groups together for ROAMing risks, discussing dependencies, and holding scrum-of-scrum discussions. Often clients say, “It was great to get away for two days and really focus on the work without the distraction of being in the office and stuck back at their desk.”

Assume for a moment that you selected the ideal physical space. From experience, I can tell you that companies failing to provide snacks, lunch, and plenty of beverages will undoubtedly hear about it during the end-of-event retrospective. Trust me, teams will be happier and more engaged if you feed them.  This seems like a small thing, but it will go a long way!  When planning food & beverage, remember your vegetarians and anyone with significant allergies.

One final space planning note, check your mobile devices and laptops at the door! Teams need to come prepared to focus, do work, and avoid distractions. Electronic devices open up the gateway for a huge productivity killer – e-mail.

Have Fun!

“There is good evidence that if you allow employees to engage in something they want to do, (which) is playful, there are better outcomes in terms of productivity and motivation.”2

Two full days of planning can be taxing.  Incorporating fun into the event can relieve stress and reboot mental capacity.  I recommend a friendly competition between teams. Hold it immediately following the lunch hour, and you’ll better ensure everyone is back in their seats for the afternoon session. Nerf® sports, table tennis, Wheel-of-Fortune, or Trivia games are always a hit.

You’re not limited to games though. My personal favorite was when a Release Train Engineer kicked off the event singing a rap song he wrote about his train and teams. Everyone was up on their feet and energized for the day.

Treat release planning like a celebration and the buzz of excitement will yield a plentiful bounty.

Hopefully, these tips will help improve your next Release planning event. Please give them a try and let me know how it goes! Happy planning!

1. Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, et al
2. Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play


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