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An Agile Estimating and Planning Technique

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One thing that all Agile teams have in common is their capacity to have fun while they work.  are creative, flexible and think out of the box; and working on an Agile team is a far cry from working on a dreary, process-heavy waterfall project. By building in collaborative team activities and doing away with excessive documentation and rigid mandates, Agile team members are always on their toes and passionate about their work.  

Planning Poker

One of the innovative ways in which they work is by planning Poker, a consensus-based game that helps to arrive at estimates and work out timelines for releases. 

Let’s find out how to play Poker!  

What Is Planning Poker? Definition and Process

Planning Poker® is the secure, fun way for agile teams to guide sprint planning and build accurate consensus estimates.’ –  

There’s no doubting it; Agile estimation is very hard. A project in which the requirements are continually changing is definitely going to have volatility in terms of timeframes, budgets and schedules. How, then, can the team chalk out a roadmap and figure out milestones and releases? 

Arguably the most popular way to estimating schedules on an Agile project, Planning Poker is a technique that allows each team member to weigh in on the planning process for each user story.  

Here’s how the process plays out: 

The team uses a deck of Planning Poker cards which have values printed on one side, say  0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40 and 100. These values represent the units in which the team will be carrying out the estimation, which could be (for example) story points or ideal days. 

  1. The Product Owner describes a feature that needs to be developed. The team asks doubts, discusses the feature and gets the required clarity. 
  2. Each estimator holds a set of Planning Poker cards and selects one card in private. The number on this card will indicate their estimate for the work on the feature. 
  3. They place the card face down on the table. 
  4. All the cards are revealed at the same time, so that no one is influenced by another person’s decision. 
  5. If everyone has the same value, that is chosen as the estimate.  
  6. If not, outliers are discussed, and another round of estimation is carried out. 
  7. This process is continued till the team arrives at a consensus for the estimate. 
  8. The estimates for subsequent features are taken up one by one, in a similar manner. 

Planning Poker in Scrum Team

Common Pitfalls

The process is not completely intuitive, and while it is simple it could take a newbie some time to get used to the concept. 

Teams that are new will, therefore, often fall short of the estimate or go too long. However, with experience they will be able to arrive at more accurate estimates. 

For a sprint with many features, this process could take longer than expected as each estimate might run into multiple rounds of consensus building. 

If there is one experienced member who is very dominating, he or she might lead the discussions and quell the opinions of others on the team (who might be saying the right thing but might not be heard). 

Again, this method does not always work well with distributed teams, as for the process to work well, they should ideally be in a face-to-face session. 

If the story is not fleshed out well, the estimate might not be accurate.

Expected Benefits

Planning Poker Benefits

The most significant advantage of Planning Poker is that every team member’s voice is heard. This increases team morale and build the right rapport. 

The group gets into the rhythm of discussing and collaborating on the project, which will hold them in good stead for the rest of the journey. 

These discussions help to give clarity on the features to be built, and dispel any ambiguity around the user stories. 

This ‘game’ builds commitment and accountability. As each team member has contributed to the estimate, they will work toward achieving it wholeheartedly. 

Last but not least, Planning Poker is fun!  

Agile Estimation – Relative Vs Absolut

Agile Estimation with Planning Poker

Most of us are used to absolute estimates. Let’s take an example. If you’re asked, for instance, how long you would take to walk three rounds of a park, you’d probably say that you can walk one round at a brisk pace in 8 minutes. You are not going to tell them your answer in relative terms, for example, you would never tell them that you can walk one round in four fifths of the time it would take X to do the same! 

In Agile, however, we prefer to work with relative estimates, as this offers more flexibility. Story points are determinations of the effort needed to complete task A, relative to the effort needed to complete task B. As there is a lot of uncertainty around the requirements, and the team does not want to spend too much effort estimating on a task that might change very soon, story point estimation is the perfect way to arrive at a rough and ready calculation of the level of effort needed for a task. 

When Should We Engage in Planning Poker?

Typically, a Planning Poker session will be held just after the initial product backlog is written. It could take up to a few days, and is useful in creating initial approximate estimates that will be used to determine the scope, and plan and size the entire project. 

In an Agile project, it is only to be expected that product backlog items get added as the project unfolds. It would therefore make sense for the team to hold subsequent agile estimating and planning sessions during every iteration. These sessions can be held a few days before the end of the iteration, or whenever the team feels it is most convenient. 

How Does Poker Planning Work with a Distributed Team?

Planning Poker always works best with a team that can sit across a table and hold discussions. However, this is not always possible, especially when teams span geographies and work across different offices.  

In such cases, Planning Poker can work over a conference call or a Skype session. A Product Owner could share a set of items that have to be estimated, and the estimators log in at a prescheduled time and pick and show their cards over the video call, in much the same way as they would in a face-to-face session. There is a moderator, usually the Product Owner, who leads the discussions and makes notes. 

Does Planning Poker Work?

Yes, it certainly does, and teams that use this method report that they are able to arrive at more accurate estimates more consistently than when other methods are used. Averaging individual estimates will always lead to better results.Planning Poker Works

The reason for this is that when team members are all allowed to weigh in on the planning process, everyone’s opinion is heard. This is not the case when estimation is carried out by a project manager who does not take the team’s opinions into account. Since it is the team members who are ultimately working on the project, they will have the best sense of the effort needed to finish each task.

Tips for Planning Poker in Scrum

Playing Planning Poker for the first time? Here are some tips from the pros, to help you get your game going! 

  • While it is definitely a game, it’s a serious game and not to be taken lightly. Each member must carefully evaluate the feature and calculate the time they feel it would take to complete it in its entirety. If they have any doubts, they should get them clarified. The discussion that ensues will help the team to get going in the right direction during the development phase, as it clears the air and removes any ambiguity. 
  • Agile estimates are relative and should not be converted to work hours. This will negate the value of using flexible Agile story points. The estimate is team-level and not on an individual level, as the team drives the work. 
  • If your opinion differs from that of others, make sure that you speak up. Your understanding of the feature may be the right one. It’s also important to note that the team should never suppress the voice of each individual; rather they should hear what everyone has to say with patience and understanding. 
  • Keep the card sizes small. Most teams like to use numbers smaller than 13, as larger stories will not fit into one sprint. If the story is too large, it should be broken down into a manageable chunk of work. 
  • Even if someone on the team is new to Planning Poker, make sure that they are not excluded. The entire team must be engaged. 
  • Keep expectations realistic. Point value creep, which is a condition where the estimates of stories inexplicably become larger over time, leads to unrealistic expectations and too much pressure from stakeholders. This causes stress and burnout in the long run. 

In the End…. 

As with everything to do with Agile, Planning Poker is a process that sounds easy enough but might take time and experience to get right. Take our tips to heart and be wary of the potential pitfalls that we have listed out, and your team will be able to get the most benefit from this tool! 

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