How Atlassian tools and SAFe® can support different planning horizons
Planning horizons – the length of time into the future that's accounted for in a particular plan – are a fundamental part of working life. But at different organisational levels the way planning horizons work varies wildly, and without the right framework and flexibility, project management tools and techniques will struggle to account for this.
In this blog, we'll look at the different planning horizons that exist in organisations, and see how the Scaled Agile Framework for Enterprise® (SAFe®) and the Atlassian toolset can help bring focus to the important aspects. Whilst we will use terms that are predominantly from the software industry, many of these concepts are applicable to all sectors of work.
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Let's start to look at what this means in practise. In our imaginary company, we have the following structure:
So in this organisation we have four layers to consider. Let us start at the base with the individual, where the actual project work gets done.
As individuals, we are concerned with completing those activities that are our responsibility. For this, our planning horizon is very much focussed on 'what should we be doing now' and 'what comes next'. The planning horizon is very short – maybe only looking at the activity for today and possibly tomorrow in an agile environment.
Atlassian Jira helps us see what is on our planning horizon with the use of a Kanban board, where I can have clear visibility of the activities allocated to me, what I am working on now, and the priority for those activities that follow.
We can use the Kanban board to progress items along their workflows, and we can adjust the relative priority of each item on the board. We can also use the Work In Progress limits to indicate when a team is overloaded (or even the unlikely event of being starved of work).
When a group of individuals work together as a team, they are likely to be working on related activities, and so as a team we need to have visibility of all the individuals' actions and how they are progressing.
While it's possible to continue to use a Kanban board, many teams find it better to adopt the Scrum approach and split the work in progress from the backlog of future activity that’s planned. Again, Atlassian provides the tools to do this: Agile boards in Jira supports Scrum and Scrum/Kanban hybrids.
What’s more, if a team has adopted it and has maturity in terms of their delivery rate and consistent team membership, Scrum can be helpful in providing pointers for future delivery targets. And by clustering tasks against larger Epics, the team can also see items that are related beyond just the current sprint in progress.
So now we have a planning horizon that looks at what is being delivered in the current sprint, and also supports planning for future sprints in the backlog.
As we move up to organisational levels comprising teams of teams, such as departments, we may still want to see the work of each individual team and their progress. But our planning horizon has moved out beyond the current sprints, and so we must look to other methodologies to accommodate it.
The Scaled Agile Framework for Enterprise® (SAFe®) is one method by which larger, more complex organisations accomplish this multi-level view.
A Program Increment in SAFe® provides a view that looks to the future, and Atlassian tools can be customised to help deliver this roadmap. It can be as simple as a visual roadmap in Jira/Confluence using the Smartdraw app, or something more complex with one of the other apps that extend the Atlassian toolset.
A department's planning horizon is likely to be for at least a year, and will consider all of the major activity that is foreseen at this point in time. This horizon accepts that the further out the plan goes, the less certainty there is about what will happen.
When considering our plans for a SAFe Program Increment, we will need to bring in the following information to make sure we're fully informed:
- A summary which has the progress from the previous Program Increment, showing which capabilities or features are still to be delivered
- Business context, vision, and milestones
- The desired capabilities and features list
- Understanding of the backlog items, the dependencies, and the risks associated with this work
Let us look at how Atlassian tools can help us with SAFe® planning, and more importantly to aid us in making sensibly-informed decisions based on this information.
Current PI progress
The tracking of progress in each team can leverage Jira Software as mentioned via review of the Agile boards for each team and a summary of the information on a Jira dashboard.
Business context, vision, and milestones
For business context, vision, and the milestones associated, we are likely to be looking at information that is unstructured in its layout and that changes infrequently.
Atlassian Confluence handles this with ease, and a Confluence Template can be utilised to provide a standardised approach to capturing the desired detail. The milestones can further be tied to Jira Software versions which change with each milestone.
Planned capabilities and features
We should begin capturing the new capabilities and features in Jira Software in preparation for alignment with the sprints in the Program Increment. This will be an ongoing activity as new capabilities or features are identified, adding them to the backlog allows them to be prioritised by the Product Owner and aligned with future Program Increments.
Understanding the context
It is important not to forget that our capabilities and features are not isolated items but will have dependencies on each other. We can represent these dependencies using the link function in Jira Software.
As well as the activity that adds functionality we should also consider the risks. There are several ways to track risks, but one way is to use the power of the Atlassian ecosystem via the app Risk Register from Project Balm. It treats each risk as an issue, and provides a set of custom fields to record such aspects as probability, impact, and exposure. In each Risk Issue we can also capture the mitigated risk details.
Now that we have all this information, our PI planning can proceed with an informed group of users who are able to look at their view for the next PI and plan accordingly.
When executives plan, they think about where the organisation will be in several years time, and work on a vision that will allow the organisation to achieve this goal. Atlassian allows this to be captured easily via a Confluence page that can be shared with everyone in the organisation.
In addition to the information on the Confluence page, if we've captured the risks using Risk Register we can view these risks rolled up in a Risk Matrix to see what the risk profile looks like at any point in time.
Planning horizons can be very different from role to role within an organisation, varying from days to months to years. But with frameworks like SAFe® and flexible tools like Atlassian Jira and Confluence, providing individuals and teams what they need to plan sensibly doesn’t have to be a pain point, even for a complex organisation.
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