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Estimating with planning poker

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Planning with poker, you say? That sounds as reasonable as planning a construction project by drawing plans on napkins. Unreasonable as it may sound planning poker works, but not as you would think. Planning in planning poker is just a by-product of the result of the poker planning session, and that is accurate estimates, not precise but accurate.

Planning Poker, is a consensus-based technique for estimating, mostly used to estimate effort or relative size of user stories in software development

Planning poker will provide you with estimates from the development team and from that estimates the project manager can with some dose of certainty put the estimate in the context of a project plan. Accurate estimates with which the development team is comfortable empower the project manager to create a executable project plan and to take required action to see out the user stories on schedule.

Common situation on any project is the clients demands delivery of “x” user stories on the fixed date “y”. With accurate estimations of user stories which can be depended on by the project manager, the project manager can outright see weather the required user stories can be delivered in the available sprints. With that information the project manager can negotiate with the client on reducing the scope, can add new team members, outright reject the clients request or do any of the actions in the project managers arsenal.

What’s the advantage of using planning poker over other estimations, you ask?

So how does the estimation go?

The estimation meeting should happen on a regular schedule, but you should adjust your meetings according to your needs. User stories should be estimated when they appear and re-estimated as new findings and information are known. The project manager should nominate the user stories for estimation by the team in the estimation meeting.

Estimating is done with card decks that have different values usually based on the Fibonacci sequence, the most common being 0, ½, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, 100, ? (unsure). This sequence reflects the inherent uncertainty in estimating larger items this ensuring that the estimation precision is correlated to the estimation value. This is very important because if you estimate one user story at 50.5 and an other at 47.65 that is very precise and probably wrong and very irrelevant to you needs. More important what is the quantifiable difference between 50.5 and 47.65 based on a 5 sentence description of the user story?

The meeting it self goes on in a few basic steps

  1. Product owner provides a short overview of the user story
  2. The team ask questions and discuss to clarify assumptions and risks
  3. Product owner records the summary of discussion to improve the user story definition
  4. Each individual lays a card face down representing their estimate
  5. The team turns card simultaneously
  6. People with high estimates and low estimates are given a soap box to offer their justification for their estimate.
  7. Discussion continues from step 2 to step 6 until a consensus is reached

The procedure continues until all of the user stories are estimated and the team is happy with the estimations. Then the product owners can re-prioritize the backlog and with them the project manager can re-adjust the overall project plan.

The estimation meeting must adhere to some rules

  1. During discussion, numbers and other forms of size (long, short, much, less, etc.) must not be mentioned at all in relation to feature size
  2. An egg timer is used to ensure that discussion is structured
  3. The developer who was likely to own the deliverable has a large portion of the “consensus vote”
  4. No more than 10 people are involved
  5. Moderator, product owner or project manager are not allowed to estimate.
  6. Units used vary – they can be days duration, ideal days or story points, but they must be announced by the moderator on the start of the meeting
  7. Each estimator is given one deck of the cards
  8. All decks have identical sets of cards in the
  9. Moderator can negotiate a consensus

Rules 1 and 2 are the basis of success of an estimation meeting, team members must not anchor to someones estimates and you wouldn’t want the discussion on user story to go on for hours, would you? The egg timer forces the team to re-cast their estimations based on the current state of the discussion to see how close is the consensus. If the consensus can’t be reached after a couple of iterations than the moderator can and should suggest to postpone the estimation of the user story for revisit on some other meeting or if that is not possible and an estimation must be made than the moderator should take the vote of the majority.

The planning poker estimates might not be the most precise estimates but the delivered estimates are dependable and a good basis for building an iteration plan to discus with your client.

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Written by Luka Ferlež

February 4, 2013 at 22:29