SAFe Program Board: Good Practices for Successful PI Planning
Implementing Agile at scale using the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)? Then you know a solid program board is critical to successful Program Increment (PI) planning. Here, we’ll cover what it is, how to set one up, and give you a few best practices for success.
What Is the SAFe Program Board?
The Program Board in SAFe provides a visual summary of features or goals, when they need to be reached, and helps visualize any cross-team dependencies impacting their delivery. The board helps communicate the Program Increment plan to the entire organization.
Purpose of the Program Board
Coordinating work at SAFe-level scale is extremely challenging. Delivering a program-level increment requires massive coordination among dozens of teams and hundreds of individuals located all over the world. How do you time the release and deliver on cadence?
The answer is the Program Board.
The Program Board is a critical artifact to successful PI planning. It helps teams within the Agile Release Train (ART) visualize and track dependencies across their PIs. With the board, they have a clear idea of what’s done, what’s being worked on, and what might keep them from getting their work completed on time.
How to Set Up Your SAFe Program Board
Columns — Set up the X-axis to include the iterations in the PI. Another option: add a column for things that could, should, or will be moved to the next PI.
Lanes — Set up the Y-axis to include different lanes for different teams. Add a lane at the top for important milestones. Add lanes for any external or central groups at the bottom (UX team is an example).
Cards — Each card represents a Feature or Enabler from each team’s Program and Solution backlog. It is a good idea to give Enablers and Features different colors. In the “special” lanes at top and bottom, the card instead represents what is relevant there (a milestone, for example).
3 Tips for Program Board Efficiency
The Program Board is not a Kanban board. The columns do not represent a process, but a part of the organization. The purpose is two-fold. One, create a visual representation of a longer-term plan. Two, help avoid any dependencies during the two-day PI Planning event.
Avoid a Spider Web at All Costs
When you visualize and connect all linked items, does the board look like a messy spider web? Do something about it! It's much cheaper to discuss, decide, and remove dependencies at the planning event than it is to halt work and solve dependency issues in the middle of the PI.
Color Code Your Cards
It’s infinitely easier to locate a blue card than find the card that says “Refactoring” or “Backend.” So, denote cards with hard dependencies, or cards with different types of work items, by applying different color codes.
Keep It Visual
Many team members communicate and understand better with visual images than with text, as "Features and Enablers typically are concepts for new functionality. Make sure you add those concept images on the cards. It will be easier for everyone to grasp what it is you are talking about.
Should Your Program Board Be Physical or Digital?
A team may choose to simply put a physical board on the wall. While some teams may be able to pull off creating an analogue Program Board, many opt to use a digital Program Board in a scalable Agile tool.
It’s safer. The program board is often taken down after the PI event. But it includes a lot of very useful information, and can be a key artifact to look at during retrospective throughout the PI. So, keep it stored in a digital format. That way everyone can access it with permission at any time. Also, it will allow you to make changes and keep a change history for your convenience.
It supports distributed PI planning. A digital board is a necessity if you have distributed teams planning. Many SAFe organizations cannot afford to fly everyone to the same location, so this is a low-cost option that still offers transparency and visibility into what is happening.
It scales. Creating a board large enough for 14 teams or more? That’s difficult. But a digital tool that has capability for different lanes can make it easier. Set up your team lanes, then minimize ones you’re not focusing on. (Your view just became a lot more manageable.)
It’s transparent. The program board everyone has agreed on is now visible to everyone. Each team can see their responsibilities and how they connect to goals of other teams. This not only improves transparency, it imparts a sense of shared responsibility across the organization.
Bringing It All Together
Implementing SAFe successfully is not a simple process. But with a solid SAFe Program Board as part of the PI planning process, you’re well on your way to collaborating and delivering value to your customers—at scale.