Who doesn’t like a good game of Poker? It’s fun, exciting, possibly rewarding, and there are so many different types to choose from. You can play 7-Card Stud, Texas Hold’em, 5-Card Draw, and Omaha. Or you can leverage an Agile technique known as Planning Poker®.

Wait, what? What in the world do Agile and Scrum have to do with Poker?

You’re about to find out. We are about to explore the world of Planning Poker and its role in the Agile framework. And the beauty of it is, you don’t even have to ante up!

What is Planning Poker?

Before anyone gets too excited and starts buying poker chips, we should explain that this isn’t normal Poker, per se. Yes, it involves cards (unless you use the app version), indeed it is a tool used to aid agile teams in estimating and planning. You won’t find many royal flushes here.

Planning Poker, also called “Scrum Poker,” is a consensus-based Agile planning and estimating technique used to assess product backlogs, guessing how much time and effort is needed to complete each of the backlog’s initiatives.

It’s called “Poker” because everyone uses physical cards that resemble playing cards. The cards estimate the number of story points for each task or backlog story being discussed. This Poker tool cards are assigned numerical values loosely based on the Fibonacci sequence, where each successive number in a numerical sequence is the sum of the previous two numbers (e.g., 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34). However, sometimes the Poker tool uses this sequence: 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, and 100.

Here’s an example, courtesy of Visualparadigm.

Some Planning Poker decks also include three additional cards, showing an infinity symbol, a question mark, and a coffee cup. The infinity symbol (∞) represents “This item is too big for a number.” Team members use the question mark to show that they don’t understand the item and wish to ask the product owner additional questions. Finally, the coffee cup says, “I’m tired and hungry and want a break, like a cup of coffee or something!” Some decks have the symbol for pi (π) instead of a coffee cup, using a visual pun to say, “I want a break and go get some pie!”

But whether you use the physical cards or the online version, this Poker tool is gaining traction in the Agile community. It is a good skill for any Agile or Scrum professional to incorporate into their toolbox. Let’s figure out how to play it.

How to “Play” Planning Poker

Teams should conduct a Poker tool session soon after creating the initial product backlog. Depending on the size of the entire project, the process can stretch into several days. While this may seem time-consuming, it’s an up-front investment that winds up saving time in the long run.

The Scrum Master, the product owner, and the project development team “play” Planning Poker, and the development team is responsible for sizing the user stories.

The Poker tool session begins with the customer or product owner reading an Agile-based user story or describing a desired feature to the team. Each estimator has their deck of Planning Poker cards, with the values representing either a story point number, ideal days, or whatever other unit the members mutually agreed upon.

Once the customer finishes the reading, the estimators discuss the presentation, asking the customer questions as needed. When the team has thoroughly addressed the matter, each estimator discreetly chooses one card to represent their estimate.

The team members then show their cards simultaneously. If the estimators all chose the same value, that’s the accepted estimate. If not, the team talks about their estimates, why they chose that number, etc. Note that estimators who chose especially low or high should explain their choices.

Once the team has thoroughly discussed everyone's choices, the estimators repeat the estimation process, reselect a card, and show them simultaneously. The team repeats this process until they reach a consensus, or the group decides they need to table the Agile estimation and planning pending additional information.

There’s an important reason for hiding the number values. Hidden numbers prevent anchoring —  a cognitive bias where the first number sets a pattern for subsequent estimates. It’s like having six friends discussing where they want to eat, and one announces a clear choice. The other five friends are likely to go along with that first stated choice subconsciously. It’s easier that way.

By hiding the Poker tool values and showing them simultaneously, the team is more likely to get honest estimates. Team members can say what’s on their minds and offer unbiased opinions, rather than just saying what the customer wants to hear. This practice ensures an accurate and realistic assessment.

Why is Planning Poker Used in Agile?

The process sounds odd, admittedly, and you may be wondering, “Of all the tools you can choose from, why Planning Poker?” Through the Poker tool process, software teams can pinpoint realistic and accurate timeframes, strategically plan the team’s workflow, and build a consensus among the cross-functional team members.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the best way to handle an overwhelming task is to split it up into sub-tasks and focus on one at a time. You repeat the process with each task until you run out of them. When that happens, you’ve completed the big job! Planning Poker makes team members break a project down into such small pieces that it becomes easier to assess the amount of time necessary to do each part. This process helps teams to plan out how much time they will need for the whole project.

The Benefits of Planning Poker

We have already pointed out how this Poker tool makes it easy to form a consensus on a project’s many tasks, thereby ensuring an accurate assessment of how long it will take to complete the entire project. While this is certainly the most valuable benefit, there are other collateral benefits as well.

Planning Poker helps team members estimate tasks relative to each other. Sometimes, it’s hard, if not impossible, to estimate how long a task will take, especially if you’ve never done it before. However, the Poker tool gets you in the habit of assessing tasks, so after “playing” the game for a while, you will have built up a collection of tasks that serve as a future reference and basis for comparison. So, even if you’ve never had to perform a particular task before, you can look back at past tasks and find a similar one, using it as a benchmark.

Planning Poker also helps team members anticipate how many people they will need to work on a given task. This way, you will avoid the extremes of not having enough people or assigning too many people, resulting in a duplication of effort.

Planning Poker also increases team morale by giving everyone an equal voice. Everyone’s opinion matters and has weight. As a result, people feel they are being listened to, making them care more. Also, this encourages diverse opinions, which can help consider factors that a more homogenous set of views may overlook. 

Finally, and related to the previous point, this Poker tool makes everyone feel they have contributed something to the plan. People, in general, are more enthusiastic and dedicated to a plan that they helped create instead of simply being told what to do. If team members feel that they have a stake in the project, it becomes important to them, and they work harder to achieve the plan’s objectives.

Does Planning Poker Have a Downside?

No system is perfect. This Poker agile tool has its pitfalls. First, the consensus may still lack crucial information, resulting in people putting too much confidence in a flawed plan from the start.

Second, despite the egalitarian spirit of Poker tool, it’s still possible for an aggressive, dominating person to take control of the process. Such a condition can create a flawed estimate.

Finally, a group's estimate can be more hopeful and optimistic than the conclusions that team members would arrive at separately. In other words, there’s a risk of the group taking on more than they can handle or doing it in a shorter time frame.

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