Like many workplaces around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has compelled our Mobile Heartbeat offices to adapt to a virtual workspace. One of the largest adjustments has been revising our centralized, open process for planning the future of our product features and capabilities. As we expand upon our Agile best practices, maintaining a collaborative and comprehensive product plan has been top-of-mind for our company.

As a refresher, Agile practices support continuous progress, growth and feedback by working through distinct chunks of time called “sprints” that each team plans together.

The framework Mobile Heartbeat leverages for this purpose is the Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe. This industry-standard extension for Agile practices has been successfully implemented by large businesses, government agencies, financial companies and health care organizations.

SAFe at Work

At its core, SAFe includes a fixed set of sprints, called a Program Increment, involving multiple teams that naturally need their own flexible plans. These plans become the starting point for review before teams kick off each sprint in the months ahead.

To initiate Program Increment Planning (PIP) before the pandemic, Mobile Heartbeat employees came together, in person, over three days to plan the following three months of work. During the three days and within Agile overall, co-location has helped to facilitate collaboration and communication within and between teams.

Because everyone is present on-site, much of the collaboration happens in a physical, analog way—team members complete exercises using markers and sticky notes to visualize ideas across the whole team and group contributions accordingly. The entire team, including stakeholders, is physically and mentally engaged in the planning process by the advantage of co-location.

This also enables the teams to quickly reach conclusions, mitigate risks and consider alternatives. The teams then review and iterate on draft plans until they’re confident that they have all the information necessary to get started.

Planning for the Unprecedented

The coronavirus pandemic compelled us to rethink how we develop our roadmap at Mobile Heartbeat. Unable to share physical space, we were faced with the challenge of migrating our PIP to a virtual environment that could accommodate all team members without sacrificing the engagement and agility of the in-person meetings.

Especially for distributed teams, web-based planning tools become appealing when they can integrate with other engineering tools. However, the lockdowns and social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic have meant that internet service providers are dealing with their own surprises. Every ISP wants to be ready for an unprecedented 200 million Zoom calls that are public, insecure, have terrible video or some fun mix of the three. In turn, this affects the UX for the rest of the people on the call, slows the loading speed for web pages and increases wasted time from connection errors.

This illustrates how critical tools can show a variety of failures that warrant multiple rounds of contingency planning to cover all the options. Why invite these hazards to attend unchecked during planning? We took this into consideration as we developed a plan for adapting to a virtual workplace.

First, we considered the variety of perspectives that would need to be included. In addition to the engineering teams, there is the leadership team, which gives feedback on the plans, as well as interdisciplinary feature teams that have already been ideating and testing around prioritized opportunities. Each of these groups needed to have the set of tools reviewed with an open call for feedback and changes.

We decided to use each of our tools and applications for a dedicated purpose to avoid overloading one system. Team discussions, draft presentations and ad hoc discussion each had their own specific platform. A mix of sprint planning, overview slides and simple tables summarized the plans for engineers, feature teams and key stakeholders.

Our thinking was that if any single tool deteriorated, one of the others could handle two audiences if necessary. Even if all of the tools broke down for a specific interaction, we planned to switch to cell phones only with group chats, attached pictures and conference calls while each team member followed along.

The Transition to All-Virtual

Once we had developed the plan, our scrum masters ran rehearsals with the full suite of tools, including those for recordable presentations, team rooms and inter-team chat, feature documentation, sprint planning and road mapping.

Each of our favored planning tools could all fail for different reasons, and we knew we could rely on basic tools to consolidate a plan within a day for review. There would be a small surge of manual updates as different areas came back online, plus other downsides to deal with, but the speedy three-day session would roll on toward final review.

Fortunately, our first all-remote PIP went off without a technical snag of any kind. Video and audio quality were good throughout. Planning tools all behaved during the flurry of activity. In general, the feedback from our colleagues was overwhelmingly positive. There was still plenty of cross-team engagement and collaboration despite the virtual environment.

The Mobile Heartbeat team has recently completed our third fully remote PIP, and our first with two tracks of work. It has been encouraging to see how engaged and adaptive our employees have been throughout the pandemic, including the transition to remote PIPs. And, even though we didn’t end up needing to rely on our contingencies for any of our virtual PIPs, we will continue to keep them viable. Our backup plans for planning have become like seat belts, fire extinguishers and life insurance policies: You make sure they are ready to use, and are grateful when the need never arises.