Distributed planning (from home)…

Back in 2005, a few months into working at my first gig as -what we now call- agile coach, we started to collaborate with a team in Yekaterinaburg.

At that time all the agilists I knew, told me, working agile remotely could not work. And yet here I was, skyping multiple hours a day, with a colleague in Russia. And it worked. 

(A few months later I found Jutta Ecksteins first book)


It was one of the many moments I realized that “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” does not mean that Individuals and interactions are good and processes and tools are bad. Indeed skype and some of the other tools, helped us. They helped me and my Russian friends to have our interactions.  


We are now 15 years laters and as you can read in my last book, I still reread the agile manifesto to look for tips.


After helping teams for a few years, I started helping larger companies. In most of these companies there are managers that know they have to change and go agile, to start creating the value, they know how to create, at a faster pace and better in sync with the vuca world we live in. Just like many people, a lot of these companies struggle with the fallacy between efficiency and effectiveness.  


One of the best examples of VUCA is covid-19.
At the start of March, we had a large planning event. We planned work for 12 weeks of work for +10 teams spread over 3 countries. It was the start of the covid-19 awareness in Belgium and abroad. The friday before the event we cancelled the scaling ball game I had been preparing to facilitate with +100 people. The first moment we talked about cancelling, I went through the stages of the grief made famous by kubler-ross. By monday I used my own risk management mantra:
Risk has two parts. 


  • The chance that something bad happens
  • The consequence.


Over the years I came to realize that if the consequence is really bad, like something that impacts life of dead, I rather not take the risk. No matter how small the chance is. 

So I saw two options if we would take the wrong decision:
A)  if the virus is not a problem and we killed the event for nothing, that’s not fun, yet no harm is done

  1. B) if the virus is indeed spreading and we did not cancel the event where people would be passing a few hundred balls in large groups, we would have spread the virus to a large group of crucial people for our project. 

The planning event, itself we did not cancel. And we asked everyone to wash their hands like we were advised by our government. Nobody was even considering wearing masks…

At the planning event, covid-19 come up as a risk, yet to be honest, most reactions were something like: oh yes covid-19 might be a risk haha,
yes, we had no idea how this would change our life, let alone the impact it would have on our planning, in just a few weeks.


From our business point of view, Covid-19, is for me what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a black swan. Before you encounter it, you have no idea it exists and how it can change your world. So we did not plan for it.

Yet based on the feedback after our planning event, we agreed that we would not wait another 12 weeks before we would hold our next large planning.
We agreed that we would do hold a mid term halfway planning.

This is something I see a lot of companies doing, after they organized a few big planning events. They realize that the last sprints of their planning events are not as well planned as their first sprints. We also see something similar happening in beyond budgeting, the modern accountancy system that advises people to do rolling budgets.
We had a few people that wanted to do a planning event every month and plan always for the next three months. In the end we compromised on having a mid event planning, with the idea to look at the next three months. 

And then covid-19 hit us. And it hit us hard.Without going too much into details, this company is in an industry that had lots of impact of covid-18. 
Luckily the IT-department had been experimenting already a little bit with homeworking.
The management took a few swift actions:

  • from one day to the next we would all be working from home
  • they looked again at the priorities and cut down the work to the biggest priority work. 


I’m happy when I see leaders ignore the political games and go for the real priorities and cut down on all the extra’s. 

This means that after the big planning priorities had shifted. 

All the teams worked (from home) to revise their plan.
And then we had our mid term planning event. 


A long introduction to give you the context we worked in.


This post is not about the best tools. This is not about best practises. What follows is a description of how I, with a couple of colleagues, set up a remote planning meeting with +100 people, in just a couple of days. It’s a report of what I did, I write it down mostly for my own memory. Feel free to get inspired, just don’t consider this best practises. 

As people working from home with limited time, I prefered to use tools that people in the organisation know. 

The goal of the meeting: review if what we plan to do is still feasible.

While I had been organizing distributed events, that meant a distributed over a few (read about 5) locations.  Now we had +100 people who would be working from home.

And we all know that in this pandemic, this is not the usual working from home.
F ex, for me, my partner is working with people who have autism and she would be of to work during the workshop. Luckily we have three teenagers, who are capable of working on their own, except if they have trouble with some of their work. Turned out during the event one of the kids did have a few questions, I asked him to skype with his grandfather. Later in the day, he helped out by cooking while I was debriefing the day. 

We all adapt, we all do what is needed to make it work, yet this is not your typical working from home. 


So how did we organize the interaction between the individuals?

We use Microsoft teams as our communication tool.

I created a special team for the event where I added everyone attending the planning.
Below that team, I created separate channels.


1 for each team

5 for break out sessions

1 for the impediments meeting we would hold


By having everyone in one team, I wanted to avoid that during the meeting we would have to add people to teams rooms when they were asked to join to discuss.


In Microsoft Teams there is a maximum of channels you can make visible to everyone, so I did send a (prepared) screenshot of the different channels in the general channel when we started the team break outs. 


When you go to a channel in microsoft teams, the first person can start a video/audio communication. Everyone who goes to this channel can join.
This feature was not well known to all teams. As I did not have created screenshot for this, I had to jump in, in two channels to start their communication. Luckily when I left the channel, the communication stays. (this works different with zoom, that closes the communication when the organizer leaves.) 


At this moment we still have many dependencies between teams. I personally rather remove dependencies between teams then manage them, yet we are still working on that, so at this moment it still is important to visualize the dependencies.
In the offline planning we used a large board to show the dependencies. As business did like that concept, they asked me to come up with a virtual version of this.

I selected Miro. I used it at previous companies and I knew that a few of my colleagues had tried it before.
I was afraid I would turn sea-sick from seeing +100 people moving virtual post it’s, yet that turned out rather ok.  

I know Miro offers ways to connect to different backlog tools, we did not setup this (remember, we only had a couple of days) as I wanted to focus on the biggest priorities first.

Just like in any meeting preparation is the key, I had a few PO’s who filled in their dependencies before the meeting, that helped to kickstart us. 


For the retrospective, we used retrotool.io. 

The goal here was to mainly to capture the data from all +100 people. That information will be used in a real retro with everyone who wants to join us, when we discuss how we can improve this remote planning workshop.


We also wanted to get a feeling how people felt about the plan itself.
I used doodle to create a virtual fist of five.
One of the advantages of using that, was that people more clearly saw what are the definition of the different options. 


Doing facilitation from home, also meant I had to create my own war room.

I have a laptop from my client, that I used to connect to the clients network, for teams, skype, and all other internal tools. That laptop is connected to an external screens.
I also used my own laptop and that one was connected to two screen. This way, I had 

5 screens where I could keep an eye on the different applicants we used.


And for those who were wondering, yes I did everything while working from my walking desk. I made 43.404 steps that day.


All in all, everything went fine. Most people were happy with the event.

Lot’s of small ideas on how to improve.

Murphy stayed away, or better, he was mistaken by a day, The next day we had a small power loss in our city. It was only for a second or so, yet it that disconnect my home office, for about 20 minutes from the internet. Glad that did not happen while I was facilitating.