SAFe Program Board 101: Everything You Need To Know

Co-workers looking at a transparent program board

To ensure your team’s never-ending list of tasks is carried out with better customer focus, you may have thought of implementing agile at scale using the Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe. And if you have done any research, you may already be aware of how critical a solid program board is for efficient Program Increment or PI planning.

Large enterprises face their own unique challenges ranging from product development to budget to implementing feedback to the final delivery — it’s a long, elaborate, and tiring process. 🥵

SAFe is designed to facilitate better collaboration and communication between multiple cross-functional groups. Not only does this help with transparency, but it also increases flexibility that, in turn, helps minimize delays and unhealthy dependencies.

PI planning sessions play a crucial role in enhancing SAFe events. These include stand-ups or other meetings held throughout a SAFe project. They help bring diverse teams together to achieve the same goal (in a shorter span of time and with greater accuracy).

Program boards are the crucial components of SAFe and PI planning that provide the user a visual summary of features or goals, cross-team dependencies, and other factors that impact their delivery.

In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about program boards, including why they’re important in the planning process and how larger teams can use them in PI planning.

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What is a program board?

Imagine a typical planning session at the office. Team members are sitting huddled together with an active brainstorming session going on. Great ideas are being thrown in at random.

There’s also a physical board on the wall with columns and rows and several colorful sticky notes. 🟥 🟧 🟨 🟩 🟦

While the rows are for the different teams of the enterprise, the columns mark the iterations for the increment. The sticky notes describe the features that every team has to work on. This will allow everyone to identify dependencies (features that affect other features), and then mark the whole thing up by connecting them with a string.

Sounds familiar, right?

Program boards are exactly like this physical board — but aren’t exactly physical. And no, they're definitely NOT Kanban boards.

They are a visual and digital document that teams within the Agile Release Train (ART) can modify and control as work proceeds forward, and include features that have to be completed to finish an increment. Moreover, program boards help define the responsibility of each team involved in making the idea a reality, which, in turn, helps to streamline the process as a whole.

On a program board, teams can visualize and track dependencies across their PIs, giving them greater clarity of the work in detail — what tasks are done, what tasks are currently in progress, and whether there are any issues that may cause delays. 🤩

Awesome, but how does a program board help the planning process?

Man looks at a post-it on a program board

A program board facilitates better team collaboration because it streamlines project communication and planning, while also ensuring better communication between the involved teams.

To understand how program boards help with the planning process, let’s go over the different components found on them.

A program board has a structured grid, where every column represents a sprint. The last column is often used to indicate the end of the PI for companies that use SAFe or a similar agile framework. The first lines of the grid indicate the deadline, which helps predict their impact on the overall progress of the team. Also, sticky notes that represent milestones can be placed in the top row of sprint columns to indicate when it’s expected to be completed.

Remember the string we mentioned before? 📈

Program boards use the red string to show the link between specific tasks and the feature that needs to start right away so that other dependent tasks are achieved.

Visualise dependencies between team with Easy Agile Programs. Red, amber and green dependency lines highlight where a Release Train Engineer or Program Manager should focus.

Visualise depedencies

Basically, program boards can help organize planning sessions by summarizing future dependencies across all teams and sprints. As a result, enterprise team leaders and product owners will be able to identify and prioritize cross-team conversations that matter the most.

How to set up your SAFe program board for successful PI planning

Program boards are created during scheduled PI planning sessions. In these sessions, not only do teams discuss and define the features and dependencies, but they also establish milestones — all of which are then included in the PI.

If you’re a remote team doing PI planning, you’ll particularly benefit from setting up program boards. Here are a few tips to help you create your SAFe program board.

1. Always start with the features

Teams should make a list of the features that should be included in the PI after considering business context and, of course, the shared mission. They may also need to determine backlog items, which are a prioritized list of deliverables (such as new features) that have to be implemented in the project to realize the features.

Every sticky note on the board should represent every feature, and its placement should indicate the team responsible for it, along with the time frame it should be completed in.

2. Identify dependencies between features

With the features done, the next thing that teams should look for is dependencies, which will be represented by a sticky note with the connector between the dependency and the feature.

To explain this, let’s consider an example.

Imagine Team X realizes they cannot develop a feature until Team Y develops an API thanks to the program board. So, what both teams can do is talk to each other and come up with a solution that works for everybody, leading to better collaboration among the teams. 👯

After an agreement is reached, a dependency will then be placed on the board so everyone is on the same page about the dependency, and how it’ll be resolved. A piece of string will be attached to each card.

3. Work on setting milestones or upcoming events

Milestones or deadlines act as a visual progress indicator towards a specific feature. This can be something like a ready demo that is to be showcased at a trade show, or a deadline for when a product release should be completed.

All in all, milestones have dependencies on different features. So teams need to work towards completing a specific set of features to meet a milestone.

Program boards are needed for better collaboration

Man looks at strings of code on a smartphone

Implementing SAFe is certainly not a piece of cake. 🍰

But if you’re successful in developing a solid program board as part of your PI planning process, you won't have to worry about chasing down your co-worker to meet your deadlines. Just take care to ensure you work on creating features, identifying cross-team dependencies, and setting realistic milestones

Make SAFe easier by setting up a digital program board with Easy Agile Programs, which also integrates directly with Jira to keep everything transparent and ensure better results. 😎

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