SAFe PMPO Course – Lean-Agile Open Space Learning Plan (experiment)

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Background for the SAFe PMPO Lean-Agile Learning Plan with Open Space Experiment

Earlier this month I co-instructed the SAFe PMPO course with my coaching team (Papa Joe “The Marine”, Joe Sr. “The Arbiter of Lean-Agile Justice”, Giuseppe “Amazing Joe” (Joewe call them), and Scottie “The RTE Guy”). It was by far the most impactful course we have instructed as part of the transformation using the SAFe as best practice guidance. The team has been working for over a year to transform my client’s (FAA-ESC) organizational culture from traditional into a continuous learning and innovation culture based on trust, stewardship, servant leadership, systems thinking, empiricism, and the Lean-Agile value system and mindset (all as The Agile End Game).

We wanted to make this course the very best we had facilitated out of the 40+ classes/courses we have already instructed. One of the challenges with the SAFe instructional model is that there are no prerequisites. This often leads to considerable time spent on subjects that many students are already very familiar with, but still having a handful of students that were unexposed. While I appreciate review and repetitive learning I believe there is much more to be gained from building on prior knowledge with experiments. Hence our experiment with Open Space and back of the room training / learning (i.e. Sharon Bowman).

Lean-Agile Learning Plan Purpose

The primary purpose of the Open Space squares was to get the students involved in what they wanted to learn. As you can see from the picture provided from the course the 9 SAFe PMPO course learning objectives (overall summarized) were pre-loaded. Then I left the remaining squares open for new ideas. The students added an additional eight learning goals. There were 27 students in this course instance.

  • Backlog grooming and how that gets from the Program Portfolio Management level (Epics) / Epic Owner to the Agile Release Train (ART) and PMPO’s. (14 votes)
  • How to keep enthusiasm post deployment throughout and during sustainment of product [development] (5 votes)
  • How to integrate the PMPO role in a bi-modal [organization / ART / teams] (2 votes)
  • How to integrate change management (8 votes)
  • Communication across ART(s) by PMPO (14 votes)
  • How to do budgets? (5 votes)
  • How does resource management fit in this model? (11 votes)
  • How do the value stream and portfolio become integration into ESC [SAFe implementation]? (0 votes)

Remarkably, you can see that the most powerful ideas were not those directly related to the learning objectives in the course. One could argue that the added topics are part of the stock learning objectives. However, we wanted the students to drive the learning. The highest counts were used to focus the learning. During instruction, we would refer back to the learning objectives and drive our examples and discussions to those points.

Here are the SAFe PMPO course learning objectives from the course description for your reference:

Learning Goals (from Scaled Agile POPM)

After this course, you should be able to:

  • Identify the major components of the Scaled Agile Framework
  • Connect the Scaled Agile Framework to core Lean-Agile principles and values
  • Identify key roles and responsibilities within a SAFe implementation
  • Contribute to Portfolio content using epics and the Portfolio kanban
  • Apply Value Stream strategies to define and manage solution value
  • Engage in Product Manager strategies
  • Operate as a SAFe Product Owner
  • Develop a stakeholder engagement plan
  • Build and grow communities of practice

Topics Covered

  • SAFe PO/PM Introduction

  • Embracing the Lean-Agile mindset

  • Exploring Product Owner and Product Manager roles

  • Contributing to Portfolio content

  • Defining and managing solution value

  • Being an effective SAFe Product Owner

  • Being an effective SAFe Product Manager

  • Engaging stakeholders

  • Building your Communities of Practice


Instructors always have to be adaptable in my opinion. Teaching strictly to the book, content and context is very limiting. Lots of instructors can “know” the material, but have they truly internalized it as part of their ethos? Especially when your students are telling you “I want to focus on the something else because I already have knowledge of and understand of the other objectives.”

We had the students perform the first dot voting after Papa Joe and I did our openers. The gist of the vision for the open space as communicated was for the students to take into consideration all of the experience, training, knowledge and understanding of our purpose with regard to the Agile End Game. At the end of the first day we had the students check (three check rule) off the learning objectives that they felt we had covered sufficiently.

The process was intended to be repeated on the second day, but we got distracted a bit in the morning. Alas, the experiment. Next time, we will build more discipline.

Results from Students Experiment

Feedback from students was positive. I have yet to receive the course feedback from SAI, but one on one discussion and feedback since the course completed has been very positive. Several folks have stated, paraphrasing, “after the PMPO course I really feel like it tied everything about the SAFe and Lean-Agile together for me so that I have a deep understanding.” [I’ll seek specific commentary from students and add them here. Or they can comment below or in LinkedIn.]

Results for the Instructors Experiment

Generally as an instructor I found it much easier to focus my purpose motives for the course with direct and meaningful feedback from the students. I read and re-read the key ideas / objectives multiple times during breaks so I could keep my mind on them. This helped drive more value in the knowledge and understanding transfer.


UPDATED 7/12/2017:

Observations and Results from the second PMPO course Open Space Learning Plan experiment on July 10-11, 2017.

For the course this time I seeded all of the course lesson objectives onto the open space learning plan. There were 20 students in this course instance.

Key observations:

  • The number of votes were more evenly distributed across the learning objectives
  • There were no out of course context learning objectives added; There were no non stock objectives at all added.
  • Again, the majority of the votes were focused on objectives related to backlogs, communication, and most importantly… translation topics

One thing that I did different with this experiment compared to last time is to have the teams do open space again on the second day. Those votes are in blue dots compared to the red dots on the first day. As we completed learning objectives, I asked a student to check them off.

The most popular learning objective open space votes on day one were as follows:

  • Develop effective PM Teams (7 votes)
  • Prioritize the program backlog (7 votes)
  • Define the PMPO roles (12 votes)
  • Develop vision & roadmap (6 votes)

The second day votes were very interesting. The students were really focused on how to estimate features, stories, and how to collaborate with Business Owners. This was great, as I was pleased to see the wheels turning as they were putting the pieces together. However, after continuing through the lessons and discussions something became very apparent. The students were having trouble tying together the chain of flow, estimation and possession of work through the backlogs from the portfolio to the teams. Reference slides: 6.24, and the wonderful slide 6.36.

Copyright Scaled Agile, Inc. - SAFe PMPO course
Copyright Scaled Agile, Inc. – SAFe PMPO course
Copyright Scaled Agile, Inc. - SAFe PMPO course
Copyright Scaled Agile, Inc. – SAFe PMPO course

This was a challenge already known to the implementation team. The man in the middle always seems to be the hidden or missing link. Also a very hard concept to tie together. So we went to the whiteboard for some deep diving. I had our FAA-ESC Director, Robyn Burk, who happened to be in the course (yup, our executives are ALL-IN and amazing!!) choose an Epic for the purposes of discussion and exam. We all walked through the process of ideation through delivery as flow through the SAFe constructs and existing client “Bi-modal Portfolio Management Process.” My client has updated their “intake” process to be compliant with the SAFe, Lean Startup Cycle, and Lean-Agile mindset while being bi-modal compliant. The room was so bright as the light bulbs were coming on.

The walk through was very effective at tying together the actual process we are creating in ESC based on the SAFe guidance. Observing the flow and what happens to an Epic, how and when it is estimated, and how often (preliminary, refined, actual plan, actual delivery). Moving on to the program level where we stepped through the PI Planning process, backlogs, estimation, and planning of user stories and sequencing. Also, how we perform empirical analysis and adaption of preliminary, refined, and actual estimates and actual delivery that are tied back into portfolio estimation (preliminary). This way the learning cycle is an actual loop instead of a one way trip to nowhere. Yes, “estimation improvement” backlog items should be planned for correcting estimation techniques and tools. My clients’ PMO created a sizing tool for use in their intake process.

The exercise in the class points to some room for improvement in the instruction model. There is much to learn and for many folks most of it is very new to them. We need to improve the way in which the course content drives towards a flow based understanding of the complete context of the SAFe. Often the material is focused on roles and we lose sight of the Big Picture. I call this translation topics. As in, translating from knowledge possession to understanding. I believe the information is provided, just in disparate chunks. Students really need to work exceedingly hard to tie all the pieces together in the two hard pressed days of material. I personally believe that a full three days with more open space learning time boxes would make all of the courses more engaging, more valuable and fun for students.

Look for an co-authored article in the future about how we created a Bi-modal Portfolio Management Process that is compliant with the SAFe, Lean Start-up Cycle and Lean-Agile mindset.


5 thoughts on “SAFe PMPO Course – Lean-Agile Open Space Learning Plan (experiment)

    Jérôme Froville said:
    July 13, 2017 at 12:15 PM

    Hi, Thanks for your post. I do not clearly understand how you proceed during these open space sessions. How many open space themes do you have at the same time ? How long do they last ? If many sessions at the same time, do you have an instructor in each one ? Are you animate each theme by mainly answering questions and using the SAFe PM PO course presentation when appropriate or do you have another approach ? I clearly see value to make people choose the order and the time to give for each course objective but I didn’t understand clearly how you proceed. Could you give more insights please ? Thanks.


      Marshall Guillory responded:
      July 13, 2017 at 4:37 PM


      I am using these experiments to support a larger goal of changing how we teach SAFe courses generally, improve PMPO, as well as to generate thought and information for a new proposed SAFe course. Beyond that I am adapting the open space technique to drive student engagement in the learning process. a1.) The themes are directly sourced from the course objectives as I described in the first and second experiments. a2.) The sessions are the course. I used the selections to drive focus for discussions, side-bars, and objective learning. a3.) I use the marker boards to have sidebars to illuminate or deep dive on the learning objectives. I also use the stock slides to spend additional time delivering more information about the topics chosen by the students. a4.) This is a longer term goal as the course lesson structure is not suited to this. I have a prospective idea that I’m sharing with Jennifer and Inbar. I considered going directly to the lesson and slide based on the focus points. However, the second experiment did not net any “non-course context” learning objectives so I just followed the lesson pattern. This is part of the problem, and the solution. The first experiment did generate several non-course context objectives and we covered those as we moved along in the course when the related course content came up.


        Jérôme Froville said:
        July 14, 2017 at 1:11 AM

        Thanks a lot Marshall, it is clear now for me. As we are giving PM PO class, I will suggest to my collegue your very interesting approach and see if we can study it and experiment it for our next sessions. If we do it we will share our feedbacks with you guys.


    Yuval Yeret said:
    June 24, 2017 at 9:05 PM

    Great post!
    To me this resonates with the SAFe invitations implementation approach (see especially the invitation based ART launch that talks about how important it is to “invite” or “open the space” when training / launching. (I’m going to talk about this in the SAFe summit ..).
    Inviting students to decide the training agenda is powerful. I do it non-SAFe classes (we have a class for boost contexts that uses this approach). Curious to try it for a SAFe class. At a minimum use it to decide which lessons to emphasize and which to skim over and then which to add.


      Jennifer W Fawcett said:
      June 27, 2017 at 8:50 AM

      Hi Marshall,
      Thanks for the experiment! We will be reaching out for further learnings and data.


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