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What Makes Planning Poker the Best Estimation Technique?

Planning Poker is an easy and engaging estimation technique that has become a core part of most Scrum teams that regularly use it to do estimates in a fun way.
May 27 · 8 min read
Learn why Planning Poker is the Number One Estimation Technique

Whether it is a small or large project, there are three common things to know about any project, i.e., the requirements of the tasks, the size of the tasks, and the prioritized tasks. Over the past two decades, software project management and development has experienced a major change with the growing innovative and advanced methodologies and tools. Today most software firms are prioritizing their development projects using the iterative Agile approach that involves the whole team in the discussion, thereby resulting in better estimation of the lined-up tasks.

Out of many techniques available to assist Scrum teams in estimating and prioritizing tasks (product backlogs), Planning Poker has made its name as the easiest, widely used, and fun estimation technique. So, why Planning Poker is so special and how it managed to drag the attention of software firms are the questions we will address in this article. So, let's get started!

Planning Poker – A Quick Overview

The main idea behind Planning Poker is to do the estimation of product backlog items by playing numbered poker cards. It was first presented by James Grenning in 2002 and then made popular by Mike Cohn.

Planning Poker involves the whole team during the estimation session where each member is handed poker cards having values, like 0, ½, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, and 100 (modified Fibonacci sequence). When all members join the estimation session, the process goes as follows:

  1. The product owner reads the story in front of the team.
  2. Members start discussing the story and cover aspects like what to do, how to proceed, complications, etc.
  3. Once the discussion is completed, every member picks a poker card to provide the size of the story and then they all show the card at the same time.
  4. If there is a major mismatch in the sizes, then members who offered the lowest and highest scores are asked to provide their viewpoints.
  5. After the second round of discussion, everyone re-estimates.
  6. Once the re-estimate is completed and there is now a common size presented by most members, then that is declared as the team's estimate for that story.
  7. The above 6 steps are continued until all stories are estimated.

This way, Planning Poker makes estimation of product backlog items much easier and faster without involving any favoritisms to the process.

Key Advantages of using Planning Poker

Organizations love using Planning Poker for being simple and fun to use. Members feel engaged, while the estimation process is also elevated. But what's special about Planning Poker that no other estimation technique can offer? To understand it, let's explore key advantages of using Planning Poker:

1 Everyone's Estimate

Planning Poker makes estimates in a consensus-based style, which implies that everyone who is part of the estimation session gets a chance to give his/her input. One of the major benefits of this approach is that it empowers even inexperienced or new members to provide input without any pressure.

There might be some hidden challenges with the estimate that the other experienced members fail to address, but the newcomers might pinpoint those issues. So, when they estimate a big size compared to others, they will grab the attention and can then present the issue in a better way. So, the beauty of the Planning Poker estimation technique is that it removes the communication barrier between newcomers and experienced members and values everyone's voice.

2 Committed Team

Taking further the above everyone's estimate point, Planning Poker makes the team more committed to the project. It is common that when you contribute to planning, you will be more committed to executing the plan. The same implies in the case of Planning Poker.

Planning Poker values everyone's voice and lets all members provide their estimates. This way, everyone can contribute to the estimation. So, once the members start working on the tasks, they will feel more dedicated and committed to completing the tasks in a timely manner.

3 Relative Estimation

Most of the time, it is not easy for the development team to allocate the exact delivery time for the task. Scrum encourages estimation based on required efforts, not time. Planning Poker facilities here by allowing the teams to estimate tasks in a relative manner. What this implies is that team can take similar user stories they did in the past as a reference and make an estimate of the current story based on what went right or wrong at that time.

Moreover, relative estimation also helps the team to understand how difficult it will be to complete a task that is given a large score. For example, let's assume that the team struggled to complete a task in the past that was scored 20. Now again the team has given a score of 20 to a user story with somewhat similar requirements. So, what the team can do is split this story into smaller tasks to make it easier for the members to work on it. In simple words, the Planning Poker estimation technique encourages relative estimation that results in more accurate estimates.

4 Fun and Engaging

During the estimation of product backlog items, one of the issues is to keep members engaged. Usually, it takes 1-2 hours to estimate, so it is natural to feel tired after doing some estimates.

So, another major reason why Scrum teams prefer Planning Poker is its fun and engaging nature. Instead of making estimation a boring meeting, teams estimate the user stories in a gaming environment. The excitement of picking the right poker number and knowing the poker numbers of others keep the members engaged. So, despite it takes 1-2 hours to estimate all the user stories, Planning Poker is found to keep the members active.

5 Accurate Estimates

Estimation requires members to spare time for estimation. So, it does not make sense to waste the time with inaccurate estimates. For example, if the team fails to do an accurate estimate and later struggles with the timely delivery due to any complication, then what is the benefit of spending hours in estimation?

Planning Poker is found to offer the most accurate estimates owing to its collaborative nature. It engages the members with discussion on user stories, helps to achieve mutual understanding, and then lets them provide estimates altogether. This way, many hidden challenges are detected by the team beforehand and members become well aware of the efforts they have to put to complete the task. In addition, it also lets the team know its strength in completing the task or whether the team needs additional members. Overall, all these aspects of Planning Poker result in accurate estimates.

6 Better Guess of Team's Velocity

Team velocity is a determination of the amount of work a team can handle/complete during one sprint session. Knowing the team velocity is helpful to determine the pace of the project completion and expected delivery time.

Planning Poker helps the team to do accurate estimates, which implies that it results in a better guess of the team's velocity. Since the team will most likely address all the challenges associated with the tasks during the estimation session, they can size the stories rightly. Therefore, this helps product owners, key stakeholders, and customers when to expect the deliveries.

7 Improves Communication

Not every team member has the courage to speak up in the estimation session meeting, especially in the case of newcomers. There are strong chances that they might be thinking of a serious issue in the task but are afraid to speak up about it.

Planning Poker addresses this concern very nicely. It forces all the members to provide individual estimates and show them all at once. So, even if the members were hesitant during the discussion of the stories, their deviating estimates will force them to present their narrative. This way, the communication improves, eventually giving the whole team a sense of bonding and common understanding.

8 Focus on Efforts instead of Hours

Planning Poker estimates product backlog items in terms of the efforts required to complete them instead of the hours. If the team prefers hours-based estimates, then it can cause trouble near the deadline if the team fails to complete the work.

On the other hand, effort-based estimation frees the team from severe deadline pressure and lets them just focus on improving the team's velocity with every passing estimation session.

9 Self-Organizing Team

Another key benefit of Planning Poker is that it leads to self-organizing teams. Team members are communicating with each other, discussing hidden complications with the work, addressing confusion, and eventually estimating the required efforts. In short, they are becoming well-prepared for the upcoming work.

Moreover, each member becomes aware of his/her responsibility. This results in self-organizing teams that already know how to handle the upcoming work and what are the expected complications they have to deal with.

Challenges with Planning Poker

Although Planning Poker is one of the perfect estimation techniques, it does come with some challenges if done wrongly. So, let's quickly explore a few of those challenges and their simple solutions:

  • Scrum Master or senior members of the team sometimes influence the discussion and unintentionally make the team estimate as per their viewpoint. This practice discourages members' perception of mutual understanding, which is one of the core objectives of Planning Poker. Therefore, Scrum teams should ensure that everyone is given a chance to contribute without dragging them towards a forced estimate.
  • Product owners, key stakeholders, and product managers can be part of the estimation session, but should not be allowed to vote. It is because they are unaware of technicalities and their main focus is timely completion of the project. So, they should just input their thoughts where it's important but should restrain from voting.
  • If the number of user stories to be estimated is large, it means the team has to spend a couple of hours estimating them all. However, the team might feel tired after doing back-to-back estimates. So, the best strategy is to stop doing estimates when the team is tired and resume the session after either a break or some other time.
  • Planning Poker encourages teams to discuss the user stories before estimating. But sometimes members start talking deep into technical details. Although it seems good, it just prolongs the discussion, which is discouraged. So, the better approach is to keep discussions short and quick.
  • If the consensus is not reached during the first estimation round, Planning Poker encourages the team to do the discussion again and then re-estimate. If the team still fails to reach a consensus, then they can do the discussion and estimation again. However, if they struggle again to reach a consensus, then they should pick the largest size and move forward.
  • Planning Poker requires that team members join the session altogether and continue to be active in the session until the stories are estimated. But sometimes members aren't able to attend the session due to any reason. So, if an organization has this kind of problem often, then they can practice a modified form of Planning Poker known as Asynchronous Poker or Async Poker. Through this technique, members can estimate stories at their own pace and the moderator can later set the team estimate once the individual estimates from all members are received.

In short, Planning Poker does come with some challenges if done wrongly. But with experience and the proper use of reference stories, the team can improve the estimation accuracy and can even address the above issues before they become a concern.

Final Words

Planning Poker without any doubt makes estimation a lot easier, straightforward, and fun. It makes the whole team participate in the discussion, develop a mutual understanding of the upcoming work, and prioritize their work plan. Moreover, the relative estimation nature also helps the team to make more accurate estimates in the future. To sum up, Planning Poker encourages collaboration, mutual understanding, and accurate consensus-based estimates.

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