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How to Play Planning Poker and Involve the Whole Team in Estimates

17, Jun 2021
Jasmin Iordanidis
Written by Jasmin Iordanidis, Product Marketing Manager

Let's face it! Project management for agile teams can include a lot of tough calls, from managing product owner expectations or undefined quality standards.

Sure, you have good days and bad days. But why not set your sights higher and aim for the ideal day?

To help you do just that, planning poker, also called Scrum poker, uses playing cards to simplify agile estimating and planning. The result? Your agile estimating and planning process runs more smoothly, and your development team increases its productivity.

In this article, you’ll explore the driving force behind planning poker,  how it helps estimation, planning poker’s history, and how to play this game.

The driving force behind planning poker

The purpose of planning poker is engaging the whole team in collaboration. Scrum poker makes it easier to make valuable time and effort estimates so your team can create satisfying deliverables.

Instead of team members verbally expressing their estimates, they use a deck of playing cards to speak for them. Drawing cards and simultaneously placing these playing cards face down eliminates bias. Everyone follows this route in the estimation process, which supports individual estimates and negates peer influence.

Other project estimation techniques use time to determine how long a task will take. Agile estimation uses story points. These story points refer to the level of effort to undertake a task. 

In planning poker, the whole team assigns story points to each task. Each story point is a visual representation of the amount of work to be done and the effort that must go into completing each task. This method wins out over time since it is visual and focuses on effort involved instead of time constraints

Work estimation in agile development

The estimation process is vital to team members because it determines how much work will go into each sprint. Dividing the product backlog into bite-sized tasks helps evaluate the workload.

As a Scrum master, you have a difficult role to play. At the end of the ideal day, you want the product owner's user story to be exemplary. Simultaneously, as the Scrum master, you have a Scrum team to manage.

Agile development is a critical process that you need to control. Get the user story and story points right, and you're halfway there. Master the estimation process and sprint planning, and you control the product backlog and retrospective.

Software development teams can either use physical playing cards or software for planning poker. Using software that includes a Jira plugin is vital when you have distributed teams. When you have a Jira plugin, everyone can participate in and streamline the estimation process.

History of planning poker

GIF of a man playing poker

Software development teams used to use another team-based estimation technique, Wideband Delphi. Although similar to planning poker, it took too much time to reach consensus with this technique.

James Grenning found that Delphi didn't work as a structured estimating approach and came up with the idea of playing poker in 2002. Grenning found that a physical deck of cards was an engaging approach for agile teams to make work estimates. He also found that Scrum poker worked better than Wideband Delphi.

Planning poker is more inclusive. The deck of cards ensures Scrum team participation in work estimates, and everyone must continue to participate until consensus is reached.

In 2002, Mike Cohn developed mountain goat software and stepped in with a deck of digital cards to use in planning poker. Scrum teams can use these digital playing cards from remote locations to improve agile estimating and planning and have some fun along the way.

Let's explore the ins and outs of the poker session and how to play the game.

What Scrum teams need for a poker session

Agile teams need a few essential items for their planning sessions. These items include:

  • A deck of cards
  • Estimators (the agile team)
  • A moderator
  • A features list
  • An egg timer

Choose your playing cards

In Scrum poker, team members (estimators) each have a deck of cards. They use these playing cards to indicate their high or low estimate on how long each item on the list of features will take to complete. These list features can be the user story, story points, or ideal days to complete sprint planning.

The playing cards the development team use will follow a Fibonacci sequence. This Fibonacci sequence follows the 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 pattern, where each consecutive number is the sum of the two preceding numbers.

Alternatively, team members can use a different deck of cards where the value of each number has a fixed ratio, such as 1, 2, 4, 8, 10, 12 and so on.

Different card decks provide adapted sequences, such as 0, ½, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, and 100. Other commercial decks have cards to indicate that the agile team needs a coffee break or an infinity symbol which means that it is impossible to complete a task.

Similarly, team members can adopt a standard deck of cards for Scrum poker. Here, the team members use the Ace, the 2, 3, 5, 8, and the King.

How to play Scrum poker

planning poker: Scrum poker

Every Scrum team will have different goals, but the general sequence for playing planning poker is as follows:

  • All team members have their own deck of cards except for the moderator.
  • Team members ask the moderator (often the product owner) questions about themes, user stories, story points, product backlogs, agile retrospectives, or whatever else they need for their agile estimating and planning process. Questions typically surround the product owner's acceptance criteria. Questions can include whether the backlog items are complete and what the next best step is to complete the sprint.
  • Once the moderator answers the agile team's questions, each team member selects a card estimate. That represents how long they think the work item will take.
  • Team members then place their cards, face down, on the table or use a Jira plugin for distributed teams.
  • Playing cards are placed face down to prevent anchoring, or influencing each other's evaluations.
  • The moderator reveals the Scrum team's cards to view their estimates.
  • If team members have a high or low estimate compared to other team members, they need to explain their reasoning. The agile team can ask more questions for clarification. This questioning period is often limited by using an egg timer.
  • The process is repeated until the agile team agrees on the estimate of how long it’ll take to complete each user story.
  • Agreement is frequently reached on the second or third draw of the playing cards for each work item.

Agile estimation that involves the whole team

Planning poker is an accurate, collaborative, team-building method of estimating the work for each user story.

While you prepare to use planning poker in your next product roadmap planning meeting, consider Easy Agile TeamRhythm. The app helps you group Jira items into themes so stakeholders can easily keep track.

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