Planning Poker for Product Managers: A Strategic Tool for Agile Teams

Rohit Verma
Venture

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Planning poker, also known as Scrum poker, is a technique used to estimate the effort required to implement a user story or task. It is commonly used in Agile software development, and it helps teams arrive at a consensus estimate quickly and accurately.

This article explores the origin of Planning Poker, its practical application in real-life situations by Product Managers, and discusses its pros and cons with a detailed example to illustrate its effectiveness.

The Origin of Planning Poker

Planning Poker, also known as Scrum Poker, was first described in the book “Agile Estimating and Planning” by Mike Cohn in 2005. However, the technique itself predates its formal publication, having been used in various forms within Agile and Scrum environments.

The method was devised as a solution to the common challenges faced in project estimation, such as anchoring, where the first number spoken aloud sets a precedent for subsequent estimates, and cognitive biases that can skew accuracy.

How Planning Poker Works

Planning Poker employs a deck of cards, each bearing a number that represents an estimate for a particular task. These numbers typically follow a sequence that encourages relative estimation, such as the Fibonacci sequence (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc.). The process unfolds as follows:

  1. Presentation of the Task: The Product Owner or facilitator presents a user story or a task to the team.
  2. Individual Estimation: Each team member independently selects a card that represents their estimate of the effort required to complete the task.
  3. Reveal and Discussion: All team members simultaneously reveal their cards. If estimates differ significantly, the outliers discuss their reasoning.
  4. Re-Estimation: Steps 2 and 3 are repeated until the team reaches a consensus or the facilitator decides to move forward with the most common estimate.

Why Planning Poker is Used by Product Managers

Product Managers play a pivotal role in steering project directions and ensuring that the development aligns with user needs and business objectives. Planning Poker is particularly valuable for Product Managers because it supports several critical aspects of project management in agile environments. Below are key reasons why Product Managers are keen to use Planning Poker:

1. Fosters Collaborative Estimation and Team Ownership

Planning Poker involves every member of the team in the estimation process, encouraging a sense of ownership and commitment to the project. This collaborative approach ensures that the estimates reflect a comprehensive understanding from multiple perspectives, which is crucial for complex product development. Product Managers value this feature as it promotes team bonding and ensures everyone feels responsible for the project’s success.

2. Enhances Accuracy of Estimations

The methodology behind Planning Poker allows for a more accurate estimation by leveraging the collective knowledge and experience of the entire team. By discussing differing viewpoints during the poker session, the team can address potential misunderstandings and refine their estimates. This is beneficial for Product Managers, who rely on accurate estimations to plan sprints and allocate resources efficiently.

3. Improves Risk Management

During Planning Poker sessions, discussions often surface assumptions, dependencies, and potential risks associated with tasks. This early identification of risks allows Product Managers to devise mitigation strategies proactively rather than reactively addressing issues as they arise during development. Such proactive risk management is critical in maintaining project timelines and budgets.

4. Promotes Transparency and Communication

Planning Poker sessions help ensure that all team members, regardless of their roles, understand the scope and complexity of the work ahead. This transparency is crucial for Product Managers as it aids in managing expectations and improving communication across different departments. It also helps in aligning the team’s efforts with the overall project goals and milestones.

5. Encourages Continuous Learning and Improvement

The iterative nature of Planning Poker, where estimates are refined through multiple rounds of discussion, fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement within the team. Product Managers find this beneficial as it not only improves the team’s estimating skills over time but also enhances their understanding of project complexities and team capabilities.

6. Democratizes Decision-Making

By giving every team member an equal voice in the estimation process, Planning Poker democratizes decision-making. This is particularly important in agile settings where hierarchical decisions can stifle innovation and team engagement. Product Managers benefit from this democratic approach as it boosts morale and fosters an environment where creative solutions are encouraged and valued.

7. Aligns Team Towards Common Goals

Since Planning Poker requires consensus before moving forward, it naturally aligns the team around common objectives and understanding. This alignment is critical for Product Managers who need to ensure that every team member is working towards the same goals, which in turn helps in delivering cohesive and consistent increments of the product.

Practical Application by Product Managers

Product Managers often utilize Planning Poker to engage team members in the estimation process, ensuring that various perspectives and expertise are considered. This technique is especially useful in clarifying the scope and potential challenges of new features or during major project revisions. It also serves as an excellent tool for fostering team cohesion and synchronizing understanding among team members.

To delve deeper into its practical application, let’s take an example of Alex, a Product Manager who is leading the integration of a new chat feature into an existing application.

Context and Setup

Alex’s company is preparing to add a real-time communication tool to enhance user interaction within their service platform. Given the complexity and the potential impact on the user experience, accurate estimation and comprehensive planning are paramount.

Team Composition:

  • Alex, the Product Manager: Facilitates the session, clarifies the scope, and ensures that the discussion stays on track.
  • Two Backend Developers: Responsible for the server-side logic including database management and server-client communication.
  • One Frontend Developer: Handles the user interface and user experience aspects.
  • One Security Expert: Ensures that the chat feature adheres to privacy laws and security protocols.
  • One QA Engineer: Tests and verifies that the new feature functions correctly across different devices and platforms.

Detailed Steps in Planning Poker Session

Step 1: Task Presentation Alex starts the session by presenting the user story and any relevant acceptance criteria: “As a user, I want to be able to chat with other users in real-time so that I can communicate seamlessly without leaving the platform.” Alex also shares mockups of the proposed chat interface and a list of basic functionalities like text messages, timestamps, and user status indicators.

Step 2: Initial Estimation Each team member independently thinks about the task. They consider technical challenges, their own workload, dependencies, and the complexity of integrating this feature with the existing system.

  • The Backend Developers might focus on the requirements for handling concurrent connections and data storage.
  • The Frontend Developer considers the responsive design and the need for updates without page reloads.
  • The Security Expert is concerned with data encryption and protecting user data.
  • The QA Engineer thinks about the different environments in which the chat must be tested, including stress testing the system.

Step 3: Reveal and Discussion When the team reveals their cards, the estimates vary: Backend Developers propose 13, the Frontend Developer suggests 8, the Security Expert gives the highest estimate of 21, and the QA Engineer chooses 13.

Discussion ensues:

  • The Security Expert explains the need for comprehensive security measures like end-to-end encryption and compliance with data protection regulations, which justifies a higher estimate.
  • The Backend Developers acknowledge the security concerns and adjust their estimation considering these additional complexities.
  • The Frontend Developer realizes that ensuring a seamless user experience with real-time updates is more challenging than initially thought.

Step 4: Re-Estimation After the discussion, the team revisits their cards with a better understanding of each other’s perspectives and the complexities involved. This time, the consensus converges around 13, acknowledging the medium complexity but significant effort required to ensure security and functionality.

Conclusion and Next Steps

With a consensus reached, Alex documents the final estimate and discusses the next steps. These include defining sprints, assigning tasks based on the estimates, and setting milestones for review. Alex emphasizes the importance of regular check-ins and updates to ensure the project remains on track and adjustments are made as needed.

Key Takeaways from Detailed Example

This detailed example illustrates several critical aspects of Planning Poker in practice:

  • Collaborative Estimation: It highlights how different expertise contributes to a holistic view of the project scope and effort required.
  • Knowledge Sharing: Discussions during Planning Poker sessions can educate team members on aspects of the project they might not have considered, leading to better-informed decisions.
  • Consensus Building: The process emphasizes reaching a common understanding, which is crucial for teamwork and project alignment.

Pros and Cons of Planning Poker

Pros:

  • Enhanced Team Collaboration: Planning Poker requires every team member’s input, fostering a collaborative environment.
  • Accuracy in Estimations: By facilitating discussion, it allows teams to consider different aspects of tasks and converge on a more accurate estimate.
  • Prevents Anchoring Bias: Since all cards are revealed simultaneously, it minimizes the risk of team members being influenced by the first spoken estimate.

Cons:

  • Time-Consuming: For teams or projects where time is a constraint, the process can be seen as lengthy, especially with larger teams or more complex tasks.
  • Possibility of Conformity Pressure: In some cases, team members might conform to a dominant estimate despite differing privately, particularly if hierarchical pressures exist.

Conclusion

Planning Poker is a versatile and dynamic tool in the arsenal of any Product Manager working within an Agile framework. It not only aids in creating more accurate estimations but also enhances team dynamics and ensures a deeper understanding of project tasks. While there are challenges, the benefits of using Planning Poker in terms of team engagement and estimation accuracy can significantly outweigh the drawbacks, especially in environments that value thoroughness and team input. As with any methodology, the key to success lies in adapting the process to fit the specific context and needs of the team and project at hand.

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Rohit Verma
Venture
Writer for

Senior Product Manager @AngelOne, ex-@Flipkart, @Cleartrip @IIM Bangalore. https://topmate.io/rohit_verma_pm