Planning Poker - how to streamline and gamify your estimation process

Dawid Tadel

12 Aug 2020.5 minutes read

Estimating a product’s backlog can be a daunting task but there’s one well-known method that can also be kind of fun… I’m, of course, talking about Scrum Planning Poker. This estimation technique involves everyone in the planning process: programmers, database engineers, testers, designers, and that diversity is exactly what is needed to make a fair product backlog assessment.

Planning Poker is a gamified technique used by many Agile teams for sizing projects and estimating their length. Each team will have their own strategy and approach when it comes to the type of deck they may want to use, but overall there are 2 main paths when choosing how the Planning Poker cards look and play:

  • Story Points: 0, ½, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, 100.
  • T-shirt Sizing: XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL.
  • Time Buckets: Days and hours.

The one which your team picks depends solely on your preference. But in this article we’ll focus on the most popular ones i.e. Story Points and T-shirt Sizing. Once a team has made up their minds and chose the right estimation technique that satisfies their needs, it’s best to stick to it for the consistency of future estimates.

What is Planning Poker: 1, 2, 3… Go!

Due to the fact that Planning Poker is an estimation technique that requires a reference point, it's best to start the meeting by first evaluating some stories that will serve as a reference later on. This can be solved in many ways but one approach would be to start by picking 2 stories: first that’s worth 1 Story Point and second worth 5 Story Points—it should be something obvious enough that the whole team agrees with.

This way you’ll have a reference measure for any future estimations, which you can expand upon, at any point, by including more stories for each segment. As you and your peers will get better and better you might want to lower the estimation for some of the stories on the list to reflect your gathered work experience. It’s a big motivator for the team, when a previously highly estimated story goes down a notch or two in Story Points.

Once you have your reference points ready, it’s time to continue. For the sake of this example let’s imagine that the team collectively decided to use a Story Points based system for evaluation. Now, every team member gets his own deck of cards, each card having a single value: 0, ½, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, 100. There are a few optional cards that can be included such as: "coffee break" (I need a break) or "infinity" (this task cannot be completed).

The game begins with Product Owner, Scrum Master or, if needs be, any team team member reading an Agile user story or describing a feature. Afterwards, all team members discuss it briefly to get a full understanding of the scope of work related to that story. Team members can ask questions, which should be answered by the Product Owner to understand the expectations better.

After a brief discussion, it’s time to vote. Each estimator thinks how to rate this story in terms of scope and length. Then everyone selects one card at private which represents their estimate for this story. Better start the countdown: 1, 2, 3… and everyone flips over their cards at the same time.

Let’s see it on an example below:

Peter: 3
Maria: 3
John: 3
Vasily: 3
Ruth: ½

In this case the results are fairly similar, we can take out any small discrepancies such as ½, and estimate that the Story Point for this task is 3.

Let’s have another go, Product Owner brings forth another story, and the results of the vote are:

Peter 20
Maria 1
John 5
Vasily 5
Ruth 5

As you can see, in this case the results vary greatly. When this happens the whole team should discuss the outcome but who should start? Let’s have a closer look at the results, we see two extremes here: 20 and 1. Identifying the largest and smallest value in the set is a great starting point as those represent two opposing views: Peter’s 20 would be a huuuge story to complete and Maria’s 1 is surprisingly low. In this case, Maria and Peter in particular should speak up their minds in order to explain the thought processes that went into their estimates. Once everyone has an opportunity to talk, it’s time to vote on the same story again. This process is continued until everyone reaches a consensus i.e. everyone chose the same or similar value.

If a couple of rounds go on without a clear winner, and each time the range of estimations still vary greatly, it’s better to put the story aside as it would be highly risky to add it to the Sprint at this point. It’s better to do a proper research on the issue in order to have a proper estimation on it during the next meeting, because it’s likely that you have one of the two problems:

  1. Product uncertainty.
  2. Technical uncertainty.

It’s Agile, it’s customizable

The best part about Scrum Poker, like with any other Agile tool, is that it's super flexible. Let's say you’ve noticed that any story with an estimation over 20 slows down your development processes significantly—you can introduce a rule that breaks down any stories estimated for 20 and above into smaller bits and that might help your peers to better handle this issue.

Planning Poker leads to more precise estimates as it gives your developers an easy and interactive way to share their expert opinions—and what better way of estimating a software project than combining the knowledge that comes directly from developers who cover different skill sets and play roles in a given project. If such an estimate would have been made by a Project Manager alone, it might lack the technical, business, and customer details necessary to make a fair estimation.

What’s important is that remote work doesn’t exclude the use of Scrum Poker Cards. The team can quickly gather for a Zoom call and show the cards on camera or even upload them on Slack and hit enter at the same time. Now that’s exciting!

If you’re looking for more useful Agile tools and remote work tips check our list of tools that make work faster and our remote software development eBook, which is our ultimate guidebook on communication and collaboration in remote environments.

There must be a way to make it even more fun…

If you’d like to try Scrum Poker Cards, or you’re tired of your boring cards, we have our own set of Poker Scrum Cards available to download for free with a cool theme of monsters and heroes!

Whether you or your team prefers Story Point Cards or T-shirt Sizing, we’ve got you covered with Heroes and Monsters decks full of Scrum Poker Cards. You can print them out or if you work remotely, like we do, you can just upload them during the meeting on your favourite communicator!

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