How tomato soup taught me to Quarterly Plan with Agile...or PI Planning In A Can

A bowl of tomato soup, which taught me how to plan better in SAFe

(Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash)

When I worked as a teacher, I often had to teach a lesson more than one, to different classes. Often in the same week. A great chance to learn quickly, make changes and go again. I was following Agile about 10 years early! When I then worked as an Agile Coach in a new portfolio, trying to adopt and develop quarterly planning, I realised that waiting three months to learn could be improved by doing it quicker and shorter, after chatting with Coach Brian. Everyone needs a Coach Brian.

Your takeaway: It’s not a question of how long a sprint cycle should be, it’s a question of …HOW QUICKLY YOU WANT TO LEARN!

Teacher, teacher, what’s today’s lesson? Erm…why cycle time, exactly?

I started my working life as a teacher, in secondary schools in the UK, trying to convince 11 to 16 year olds that tectonic plates were cool. Yep, a pretty tall order for the dawn of our current millennium, especially with my choice of ironic ties.

What I did enjoy, strangely, was the chances I had to improve my teaching. Every week. I often taught two of the same year groups, two lots of 11 year old classes, but a few days apart. That was great as you could run the first lesson on volcanoes, see how things went, then overnight tweak it for the next group to see whether your improvements worked. Heck, I had figured out the benefits of short cycle times about 10 years before I first found Agile! #earlyadopterwithoutknowingit

The problem was, apart from pay, conditions and dodging thrown tables, was that after that sprint of sorts, I had to wait another year to do the same lesson again. By that time, I could barely remember my own name, let alone what Charlie thought about my use of soup and croutons to explain convection currents in the magma (tomato soup, obvs, in case you were wondering…). More importantly, I had forgotten how useful short cycle times and quick feedback were.

Go forward about ahemn a few years and I was working as a Product Owner for an established team, providing some sickness cover. I slotted in reasonably quickly as the engineers powered through stories in a two week sprint. I had to:

  • keep 10 different stakeholder groups happy
  • bring to life and nurture an extensive roadmap
  • create and refine stories, working dual track
  • prioritise, refine further, trim and polish the backlog
  • b-r-e-a-t-h-e
  • drink coffee

Phew, it was hectic.

Every two weeks, going into sprint planning, burning the midnight oil to make sure we had enough pre-prioritised work was a nightmare for me. The team were used to that time length, but I was struggling to cram all that work into a fortnight. There had to be another way, right?

Pausing for breath on a retro deep-dive

During a retrospective, I sat there during a bit of estimation and a thought arrived through the ether:

“Rich, listen to me, I am the Voice of The Manifesto….why don’t you push this sprint out to four weeks…more time, more stories, more quality, more YOU! It’s a win-win baby :-)”

It sounded perfect! We cracked on with a four week sprint cycle. The work seemed to increase, everything seemed to get bigger, including the size of stress ball I had to use to keep calm when stakeholders moaned at me their story hadn’t arrived yet. Things didn’t seem much better at all but I couldn’t understand why. Surely more time = more work = more happiness? No, it seemed the opposite was true :-(

Roll forward a few ahemn more years and I was on another coaching assignment in the corporate world. A large portfolio, Scaled Agile FTW, working with Quarterly Planning, across multiple teams. Some new to the approach, some old hands. Two weeks in to the gig, I ran their first Quarterly Planning cycle and we were off and sprinting. After three months, with my coaching colleagues, we carried out a retrospective, reviewed the feedback and then tried to go again, for QP2, the sequel. It’ll be better, we thought. We will get better, we all thought. It’s the only way to learn, we thought. Hmnnn, maybe there is another way, that Charlie and his tomato soup might have taught us, if he were able to.

Coach Brian comes to the rescue!

What I love about being an Agile Coach is having friends who are, surprise surprise, Agile Coaches. Like every psychologist has a psychologist and most parts of healthcare for example have professional supervision, every coach really needs a coach. If you don’t have one, go out there and get one!

I am lucky enough to call Brian one of my coaching friends. We were kicking back one day, chatting about how important it was to have consistent cadence across a large set of Agile teams, trying to work together in a portfolio. Was it two weeks, four weeks, one week, three months, what did he think was best?

“Well Rich…I guess the way I see it….is it’s a bit like this. How quickly do you think the teams want to learn?”


Mic drop. Followed by an explosion. Possibly with glitter, but definitely with a lightbulb. I had been looking at this in completely the wrong way and Brian, was the spark that made me completely re-think this.

Tell me, oh wise Padowan, what is The Third Way?

If you are only planning once a quarter, you only review that process once a quarter. That means, although you might figure a few things out during that time, you possibly won’t learn until that retrospective at the end. One bit of learning every three months.

Think back to that lesson above. The soup. The croutons. The stains on the ceiling (sorry school cleaning team!). Teaching the same lesson twice in one week was great as I could learn quickly and repeat it again. Having to wait another year to do the same lesson again was not.

The key here is short learning loops, not long ones. What does that mean for PI / Quarterly Planning then?

Well, for teams starting to work in a Scaled Way, you could just crack on with start your first quarter plan and see how you get on.

OR….how does this sound?

  1. Plan one week of work. Hold a retro. Learn.
  2. Repeat next week.
  3. Repeat the week after.
  4. Repeat the wee after that.

In month one, rather than being only a third of the way through a quarter, you have learned, hopefully, four different things. Four times to review and change the way you do things. 4 vs 1/3. Looks better to me!

Even better, let’s work our way up to a quarter.

  • Month 1 = 4 * weekly sprints
  • Month 2 = 2 * fortnightly sprints
  • Month 3 = 1 monthly sprint - Month 4 = 1 monthly sprint - Month 5 and 6 = 2 monthly sprint

In 6 months, you have then have 9 times to learn vs just 2 if you were following a quarterly pattern. Not just that, but you are gradually increasing your sprint cycle and learning how to better estimate and form your stories to make sure you can deliver your commitments to your Product Owners and Portfolio Team. You get to practice that 9 times over just 6 months, instead of just 2.

If that still doesn’t grab you, just think of going to a fairground and trying to get that dart in the target to win the cuddly, fluffy bear. Do you want only 2 goes? The first dart bounces off and you have all that pressure with just one dart, the big crowd behind you thinking you are idiot who can’t aim?

So, what do I do now Coachy?

2 darts only? Nope, not for me. Do want to set up with the sub-machine gun version, 9 whole darts to hit that target? Course you do. Heck, you won’t just hit the target, you will ANNNIHILATE it! You’ll have to come back with a van to pick up all the toys you’ll win so much. Either that, or hand them out to the crowd and be carried out a hero, on everyone’s shoulders.

Charlie, and his tomato soup, would be proud. If you don’t do it for me, do it for Charlie. Also, he is 32 now, 6 foot 2 and bench presses more than I can tow with my car so please don’t annoy him. And just work up to Quarterly Planning, don’t just dive in. Charlie says so.

Until next time…hope your next planning session goes well and let me know your thoughts on this one when you have a moment. Thanks for reading!

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Written on July 4, 2022