One of the difficulties with estimating story points is ensuring that the whole team’s input is considered without members input being influenced by the views of other members of the team. Planning Poker is one of the approaches used for obtaining story points. It’s a consensus based approach that values input from all team members, by avoiding estimate anchoring.
Typically the method uses a deck of cards to allow members of a team get to provide their estimate without influence from others, by simply selecting the card with the appropriate value from their deck and placing it face down in front of them. When everyone in the team has placed a card face down then all cards are turned over at the same time and estimates are revealed.
After the estimates have been revealed discussion can then take place regarding any differences of opinion. This discussion may not have taken place had estimates of the team been anchored to those viewed as more senior or more knowledgeable about the topic being estimated. This helps to improve the quality of the estimates provided as well as the understanding of the requirements by the team.
Estimating in this way with all team members in the same room is relatively straightforward. Using Planning Poker with a distributed team risks adding the cognitive bias of anchoring back into the mix. If estimates are spoken over a conference call they may sound like suggestions to other participants and will influence the estimate that they themselves provide. Incidentally when explaining a User Story to the team and introducing it as a “complex”, or “simple”, item of work will also influence the team’s estimates.
Estimates could be provided to the ScrumMaster ahead of the conference call or could be provided via online chat directly to the ScrumMaster using Skype or WebEx. The important factor is that the estimates are only shared with the rest of the team after all team members have provided their own estimate.
Another method that has worked well is to use an online tool. One of the simplest being a shared Google Sheet. Each team member should be added as a column to the worksheet. When providing an estimate they should enter a value in the cell below their name. It’s important the they don’t press Enter or move the cursor to another cell on the sheet. This is because when a number is entered but the cell still has focus it will show as a grey cell to other users. Thereby indicating that the person has voted, whilst still not revealing their vote. For example:
When the cell below all team members names has gone grey, indicating that everyone has voted, the estimated can then be revealed by the team pressing Enter at the same time. This will then cause the estimates to be revealed to all team members at the same time.
Discussions can then take place about why different people have very different understanding of the size and complexity of a task (for example Person 2 and Person 5 in the above screenshot).
This process is reliant upon all team members co-operating with the process and not having their own side conversations during the conference call. Reminding people that it’s their opinion that matters and that there is no wrong answer may help. Above all try to make the process as relaxed as possible to avoid it feeling like a test of the participants. It is after all a gamified estimating technique so should have an element of enjoyment about it.
Sadly this approach does not seem to be possible with Excel Online as changes show up immediately to all users of the shared document even before the cell focus is changed.
It’s also worth pointing out that all participants will also need to be able to view the User Stories that they are providing estimates for, and if this is via desktop sharing then the host should ensure that they don’t accidentally share their Google Sheet as well!