Planning Poker — Agile Estimation Technique How-to Guide

by Jasmin Iordanidis, Product Marketing Manager

06 Apr 2021

One of the core functions of an agile software development team is effort estimation. You can't properly prioritize a product backlog without first having an idea of the amount of work it will take to finish each of its user stories. One agile estimation technique is planning poker. Agile development is a collaborative pursuit, and planning poker is a consensus-building exercise that gets your entire team involved in the estimation process.

Software development teams use planning poker to assign effort (for example, story points or ideal days) to items in their product backlog. Sometimes also called Scrum poker, it's a gamified way to build consensus by allowing all of the Scrum team members to participate in the estimation process. Physical or digital poker cards are used to facilitate a collaborative planning session. ♠️

Here, we give you a how-to guide to planning poker. First, we'll show you how to play it in the context of a sprint planning meeting. Second, we'll look at some of its benefits as an estimation technique. Then, we'll see why planning poker can be used in product roadmap planning. It can help get your stakeholders involved in a consensus-building estimation session around your product's customer themes.

Playing planning poker — agile collaboration

One of the critical activities for agile teams during a sprint planning session is estimating the amount of effort it will take to complete each user story in the sprint. A common way to do this is to allow a single person, like the product owner or a software developer, to assign story points to each user story. Alternatively, you can use planning poker as an estimating technique to get the whole team involved.

A planning poker session is a fun and collaborative way to gamify sprint planning. After all, the Agile Manifesto highlights the value of collaboration and interactions in software development. Planning poker is a great way to adhere to those agile principles.

So, it's sprint planning day. When your team members are gathered, do the following:

  • Set the stage. If your team is new to planning poker, explain the process. They'll use playing cards to estimate the size of each user story in the next sprint iteration. The product owner or Scrum master will act as the moderator, all team members will play, and there will be plenty of room for discussion and questions throughout the session.
  • Hand out the poker cards. Give each player an identical set of numbered cards. We recommend using the Fibonacci sequence — 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc. (To read why this sequence is so effective for estimating, see Mike Cohn of Mountain Goat Software's explanation.) And by the way, if you can't meet in person and are planning as a distributed team, then you can try planningpoker.com as a way to conduct your session remotely. 😃
  • Read a user story. The moderator reads the team members a story from the sprint. They should provide as much detail and context as possible to help the team estimate the work involved.
  • Discuss the story as a group. First, let the team ask any clarifying questions about the user story that was just read. Then, open the floor for discussion — each team member can describe what it will take to get the story done, any dependencies blocking the work, and who on the team might need to be involved in its effort.
  • Play cards. Now, it's time to play the game. Each team member submits a card (face down!) to the moderator. When all the playing cards are submitted, the moderator reveals what each one estimates. In an ideal world, all of the numbers match! This means there is perfect team consensus about the effort required for that sprint item and you can move on to the next one.
  • Discuss and estimate again. Most likely, there will be some difference in the initial estimates. This gives each team member a great opportunity to provide support for why their estimates were either higher or lower than the others. Then, you can do another round of submitting and revealing cards to see if there is further consensus. Tip: Let the moderator decide when to end the round. Remember, you don’t need a perfect story point consensus for every user story.

You did it! Your sprint is planned, and the entire team gained a shared understanding of how each member perceived the effort and work needed to get each user story done.

The benefits of planning poker agile estimation

Woman pointing at tasks on Post-It notes

As an agile estimating and planning technique, planning poker has its pros:

  • It encourages collaboration. As a cross-functional team, it's important that each team member has a voice during the estimation process. As each estimator provides their perspective on a user story, the group better understands how they arrived at their conclusion.
  • It drives consensus amongst your entire team. With each round of planning poker, the team’s estimates are more likely to converge.
  • It has documented merit as a more accurate way to estimate (versus a single person providing the estimates).

In a study published by ScienceDirect, planning poker was used to estimate half of the work of a software project. There were two discoveries. First, planning poker estimates were statistically higher than individual estimates. Second, the poker estimates turned out to be more accurate than the individual estimates for the same tasks.

Planning poker for roadmap planning

Planning poker is a fun and effective way to gain an accurate estimate for your product backlog items. But, why not also use it for strategic planning sessions like roadmap planning?

In our definitive guide to product roadmaps, we discuss how roadmaps focus on big-picture, customer-centric themes, as opposed to individual features. We also highlight that developing your product roadmap should be a collaborative process (just like sprint planning) and should involve multiple stakeholders.

So, go back to the steps above. Think about how you can use planning poker cards to get your relevant stakeholders to estimate the relative size of each customer theme in your product roadmap. It will be a fun way to get a big-picture consensus of your organization's product vision.

Grouping your themes

Planning poker is a collaborative way to get the whole team to help estimate the work involved in a user story. It drives consensus and tends to be more accurate.

If you use Jira to conduct your sprint planning meetings, you already have a tool that organizes your user stories and product backlog. As you try planning poker in your next product roadmap planning meeting, give Easy Agile User Roadmaps for Jira a look. It provides the ability to group Jira items into themes that your stakeholders can easily see. Happy playing!

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