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Effective Timeboxing in Remote PI Planning

Raphael Sigg

February 1, 2022

7 min read

We all know it. We've been in our team breakout session for 30 minutes and we have no user stories planned yet. Instead, our conversations revolve around details.

I am well aware that there is often more than one reason for this situation. Maybe our ART and/or team has been formed only recently and we are still in the discovery phase. Or we are shocked to discover that we don't know the requirements for our features as well as we thought we did (watch this video "Socialization"). But sometimes we can achieve a lot if we as a team have our time management under control. If we as a team want to refocus on the essentials at regular intervals, then timeboxing is an ideal tool.

How does timeboxing work?

Well, timeboxing is a time management method that is objective-oriented. In timeboxing, you assign a specific time to each agenda item or task to be accomplished in a collaborative session. For example, in PI Planning, it helps the RTE moderate through the agenda to also not overrun the agenda items. It can also help teams better structure their time in the team breakout session.

I think we've all been in a situation like this before: A group gets one hour to work on something. So they begin to discuss wildly about various topics. If you are lucky there is someone who at least jumps in to document what is said. After 50 minutes, someone says for the first time "Hey, we only have 10 minutes left, maybe we should take care of the real goal of this session". Suddenly panic sets in and either you feel like you've had the most productive 10 minutes of your life, or you've run out of time and the quality of your result has suffered.

With timeboxing, we reach these highly productive and, above all, goal-oriented phases much earlier. And the great thing about it: Anyone can timebox because the only thing you need is a timer. In the timer is even implemented in a way that it applies either to the whole Agile Release Train or to a specific board. For example the team board, where the team is located during the team breakout session. Ideally, the scrum master can set the respective timer there.

Set a timer for your team in

Soft or better hard timeboxing?

The only thing you need to know about timeboxing is that there are so-called soft and hard timeboxes. 

  • With a soft timebox, the end of the timebox is more of a recommendation to come to a conclusion and move on to the next point. Soft timeboxes help when you are not sure about the complexity of an agenda item before you jump in.
  • Now what is a hard timebox in reverse is probably clear. When the set time is up, you stop immediately and move on to the next item. Hard timeboxes can be especially helpful when the team tends to discuss points that have been resolved for a long time.

What to look for in timeboxes in PI Planning

I will mainly focus on the team here. Because for the teams it is often the biggest challenge to create a draft plan within a 2 hour team breakout.

In PI Planning the RTE timeboxes everything. Otherwise the Business Context, Product Solution Vision, Architecture Vision and Development Practices would be overdone and we would start our first team breakout on the second day. What the RTE can accomplish with timeboxing, the teams can do as well and the teams themselves should do it to get more out of their team breakouts.

Example Team Breakout Agenda

Here I have put together an example of a first team breakout.

  • Outline mini agenda for team breakout #1 - 5min (hard TB)
  • Estimate team capacity & set for every iteration - 10min (hard TB)
  • Identify backlog items for feature 1 - 45min (soft TB)
  • Quick optional break - 5min (hard TB)
  • Identify backlog items for feature 2 - 45min (soft TB)
Cheat sheet for team breakout agenda in

As you can see, this way you even have the possibility to give the team a 5 minute break during a 2 hour team breakout. But only under the condition that the team is very confident that they will finish their draft plan. But especially in a remote PI Planning the attention span is shorter and therefore a break can work wonders for productivity.

Timeboxing in remote PI Planning

In remote PI Planning it is always a bit difficult to keep everyone informed about the remaining time in a transparent way. This is the only way that the team members can push each other to achieve the best results within the given time. Someone should always keep an eye on the time and inform the team regularly about the remaining time. 

Team & ART level timer

With this problem does not exist. Here everyone can see at any given point how much time is left and everyone can hear synchronized when the time is up. If we even define in our working agreements that the teams should do timeboxing, then everyone can even see what the team is working on via the timer on the respective team board and thus decide if it is a good time to jump in and bring up a dependency or if it might not fit into the current planning flow.

Timer visible for everyone

A last tip for RTEs

If the PI Planning is held on a videoconferencing platform that allows to manage breakouts (like Zoom), it is a good idea to use their timed breakout capabilities for the big timebox. In addition, the RTE can also set an ART timer in This will appear on all boards of an Agile Release Train and we can count on everyone to be back in the general room when the time for the team breakout has expired.

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