Why Your Agile Teams Should Try Planning Poker

Humans are famously bad at estimating how much work it will take to complete a task. This is often the case whether you’re trying to clean your home or prepare a big presentation.

The problem is, consistent and reliable estimation is absolutely critical for ensuring balanced workloads when running Agile sprints. Getting this wrong means some team members might be overwhelmed and burned out while others feel underutilized. For longer-term projects, in particular, bad estimation can easily cause headaches for months.

On the other hand, easily getting task estimation right helps ensure balanced workloads, happy team members, and simpler planning. Fortunately, planning poker offers an easy and enjoyable way to hone and perfect your team’s planning.

What Is Planning Poker?

Planning poker was born out of frustration with how planning was being done. Too often, those who agreed with an estimation would dominate the discussion and inadvertently push away any disagreements. The result was usually that a single way of thinking about estimation would dominate, even if it repeatedly proved unreliable.

Much in the same way some retrospective formats are designed to ensure everyone’s voice is heard instead of the loudest, planning poker gamifies the process and ensures everyone’s opinions are heard. This gives you a more consistent and reliable estimation. As a result, you can ensure your workloads are more balanced, your sprints are more successful, and everyone on your team feels heard.

How Do You Play Planning Poker?

Six different hands exchanging cards.

Let’s start by understanding the roles involved:

  • The moderator: this is the person who manages the game and answers questions about the process.
  • The product owner or customer: this is the person who answers questions about the actual work that needs to be done.

Planning poker always begins with a user story. For example: As a manager of an Agile team I want a better way to do estimation so I can ensure my team members have balanced workloads. This explains who the work is for, what the work is, and what it will help that person achieve.

Step 1: User story and cards

So to begin, the product owner or customer will read the user story out loud to the group. The moderator should then distribute identical decks or cards with numbers on them to all the participants. Most commonly these cards will have the following numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, and 100.

The numbers can represent different things. For example, story points or the hours or days needed to complete the user story.

Step 2: Questions and discussion

At this point, the moderator and the product owner or customer can answer questions about the work or the game itself. The group can then discuss the story, answering questions like:

  • How many of us will be needed to work on this?
  • What resources will we need to complete the work?
  • How will we respond to potential blockers?
  • How will we approach the work?

Step 3: Select cards

Once you’re finished discussing the work, each participant should select the card they feel best represents the amount of work needed to complete the task. After everyone has chosen a card, the group can reveal their choice all at once.

Step 4: Reach a final consensus

If everyone has chosen the same number, you’re all finished and a consensus has been reached. However, if the card values vary, the group will need to discuss the story further until a consensus is reached. Members should explain their decisions to help everyone understand their perspectives.

Then, once this discussion is over, the group will repeat the process of selecting their cards and then revealing them. You should repeat this entire process until a consensus is reached. A typical planning poker session lasts 2-4 hours, though this should shorten over time as your team gets better at estimating.

An Example of Planning Poker in Action

Let’s say a team begins with the following story: as a user of our app, I want to be able to troubleshoot and solve problems I have without needing to chat with a help desk so I can resolve them more quickly.

The story is read out and a team member asks whether solving this requires simply creating an FAQ function in the app or also populating it with responses. The product owner clarifies that completing this task will require populating the section with some common FAQs.

Once questions are complete, the four team members present their cards representing the number of hours they think it will take to complete this. They are 13, 13, 20, and 8. The team members now explain their reasoning, with the person who presented the 8 arguing that they already have an internal list of FAQs that can easily be adapted to be customer-facing. The person who played the 20 explains they were unaware of that, but still think that coding the page will take some time.

Now the team starts another round. This time all four team members play 13 and the estimation for that task is complete.

Why Planning Poker Is so Useful

A man and a woman in an office environment looking at a laptop.

Put simply, planning poker is better at creating accurate estimates than simply asking individuals to make guesses. This isn’t just us, studies have been conducted on this exact question, determining that planning poker is more effective than standard methods.

But besides pure accuracy, planning poker also gives everyone on the team an equal voice in the discussion. This can often uncover perspectives and points that would have otherwise been missed, improving team dynamics and visibility. 

It’s also better at ensuring you’re not comparing apples to oranges by using different systems for estimating different tasks. When using a system like Scrum or Scrumban, this kind of consistency is important for managing the workflow and team effectively.

How You Can Use Planning Poker

The best way to use planning poker is to simply incorporate it into your sprint planning meetings. But when trying to use planning poker, many team leaders run into the common hurdle of simply getting enough cards for everyone to use. Obviously, you can make your own using index cards, but there are also many planning poker apps you can use to streamline the process.

Dealing with inaccurate estimations

Despite its ability to improve on regular estimations, teams can still occasionally struggle to deal with inaccurate estimations. One of the benefits of formalizing this process as a game is that the team plays it the same way each time. So if a previous estimate turned out to be off the mark, team members can point that out when they explain their reasoning. 

Over time, this pushes the entire team towards more accurate estimates. So don’t worry or get frustrated if you don’t get it right the first time. Honing your estimation skills as a team is a process and takes time.

Looking for Other Ways to Hone Your Agile Skills?

If you’re looking for other ways to improve your team’s Agile performance, training and coaching are among the best ways to improve everyone’s skills. Fortunately, our learning platform, The Ropes, offers a host of course options for everyone from individual contributors on a team to Agile leaders. So check out The Ropes for ideas on how to hone your Agile abilities and find success in 2023.

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