Estimating is hardly an invigorating activity. It is however, critical to setting your project up for success. As I’ve said numerous times before here, good estimating will pre-emptively take care of many project headaches and stresses down the road. But how can you get “good” estimates? What are the characteristics and symptoms of a good estimating practice? One sure-fire way to get estimates from all viewpoints is to engage your team in collaborative estimating. But how can you make sure your team’s estimate reflects the collective understanding of the task? One method that I’ve used that I found brings out the most thought and discussion is Poker Planning.
What is Poker Planning?
Poker planning isn’t quite as fun as the name might imply. It does however involve playing cards. The basic principle behind poker planning is to make sure that everyone at the table has an equal voice as well as to try and generate questions and answers about the scope of work being estimated. A simple poker planning session happens as follows:
Using a special ‘poker planning’ deck of cards, made up of colored groups of cards, each card with a number on it (most decks will have only cards that reflect the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, but I’ll get into that a little later), each person at the table receives a group of colored cards. Joe will get the red cards, Paul will get the blue cards, Sally will get the yellow cards and so on.
The Project Manager (who will typically not take part in the estimating) will describe the scope of work to be estimated. By the time this estimating takes place, the project will typically be broken out into bite-size work packages that can be more easily (and accurately) estimated. It’s the responsibility of the Project Manager to make sure that everyone at the table understands the scope of what’s being estimated.
Once the scope has been described it’s time to estimate. Each “player” at the table will select the card that represents the level of effort they feel is required to complete the work. I mentioned above that poker planning cards are typically published with the Fibonacci sequence of numbers – this is an Agile technique with the number meant to represent a scale of effort for an Agile story. I’ve seen these numbers be representative of hours as well. Either way you want to score the cards is fine – it’s a representation of effort. Each player will put their selected card face-down on the table until everyone has a card down.
After everyone has their cards face-down on the table it’s time to flip them. At this point, everyone will see what everyone else estimated. The discussion usually goes one of two ways at this point – either most are in agreement (meaning most have the same or close estimates), or there is a large disparity (someone picks a 20 vs someone picking a 2).
At this point, the Project Manager will ask for discussion about why the disparity exists (again, it’s a good thing to have)– perhaps there was a scope misunderstanding. Maybe there was something that one person thought of that nobody else did. Any which way, it’s critical that the collaboration take place between the team members so that everyone has the same consensus understanding and then agreement is come to on what the estimate should be. Averages or voting should be absolutely disallowed in this exercise as it defeats the purpose of collaboration – getting everyone to buy into the estimates and the approach.
Estimating is vital to setting your project up for success. You and your team are responsible for delivering on budget and on schedule so it is critical that everyone have a voice during the planning (estimating) process. Poker planning is a fun and powerful way to generate valuable conversation while ensuring that your team has collectively thought the scope through to the finest detail when coming up with an estimate.
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