Playing Cards at Work: Planning Poker

by David Hinde on 16/06/2016

We constantly read about projects delivering months (or even years) late and coming in well over budget. This of course has a significant effect on organizations bottom line and cash flows. I think with all these situations there will have been a point, somewhere near the beginning of the initiative where someone accepted sloppy estimating, someone didn’t delve into a set figures and ask the question, why? Someone was in a rush and put a metaphorical finger in the air and came up with some time estimates with little basis in reality.

This article describes one approach to estimating: planning poker. You can follow it if it makes sense for your environment or discard it if it doesn’t. But the main thing approaches like this do is make us stop and think about our estimates and take more time considering the basis for our figures. So whether you use this approach or not, the key thing is to think carefully and challenge forecasts at the early stage of any project.

Planning poker comes from Scrum. Scrum is a way of managing projects so they are more agile and responsive to change. Planning Poker helps a group of individuals agree on an estimate for a piece of work.

A planning poker session starts with a group of people with knowledge of the area to be estimated agreeing on a benchmark task. Everyone in the group should understand how much work is involved with this benchmark task.

Next, a facilitator gives each person a set of cards. This could be a standard set of playing cards; however, many Scrum teams use special planning poker cards. Each planning poker card contains a number from an irregular series of numbers such as the Fibonacci series. (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on) The lack of regularity is supposed to reflect the randomness of estimating. Sometimes there is a card with a question mark in case anyone is stuck.

The facilitator then describes the task to be estimated and asks the group how much bigger (or smaller) they think it is compared to the benchmark task. Each person picks a relevant card and places it face down on the table. Everyone turns over their cards simultaneously. This method is used to avoid having any one person sway the estimates.

The people with the lowest and highest estimates then have an opportunity to explain their figures. The group repeats the process several times. The final estimate is the average of the last round of results.

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