Ditching planning poker

In a recent long-running agile project, we started out our story estimation process with a game called “planning poker”. Planning poker is a collaborative estimation technique, where all developers on a team determine estimates in stories in terms of points, and then reveal them to the team. The idea is both to root out any uncertainties, as well as come to a consensus on an estimate for a story.

A couple of years ago on this project, we noticed an interesting trend. For whatever reason, our numbers rarely deviated from the mean. That is to say, if one person estimated a 13 and another a 5, more often than not everyone else had 8. The tech lead also had 8. From story to story, the tech lead might have 3 and the team 8, but on another story it would be backwards.

The real value in the meeting was knowledge transfer from analysts to the team on what we would be building, but the actual estimation part was a waste. The conversations that came out were conversations we would have anyway as we were developing the story, and were rather inconsequential to the whole. Since the numbers all evened out at the end, the group estimation served no other purpose, other than to make developers feel good that their voice was heard.

But it’s quite expensive to take up everyone’s time to have your voice heard.

Instead, we established communication channels that when an estimate seemed too large, we’d feed that back up and make future adjustments as necessary. But as long as we were delivering stories in a timely fashion, and stories were not too large or too small, it all came out in the wash. It was a bit of a transition for developers on the team, as there was fear that this opened the possibility up for biting off more than someone else said you could chew. In the end, the trust between the team and the tech lead/analysts won out.

So in the end, we just ditched group estimation exercises like planning poker altogether. We didn’t ditch estimations, as it’s still important as a consulting company to set expectations on how much something is likely to cost. But the biggest help in estimations was simply keeping stories small, 1-3 days effort, not cathartic group estimation sessions.

Now what to do with 5 decks of used planning poker card decks…

Time to retire VB.NET