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Demystifying Agile: Rants of a Madman – Getting Started – Planning Poker

May 8, 2012

So here is something that I’ve seen work really well with Agile teams:  Estimating how long a story will take with a deck of playing cards.  Yes, you heard me right…playing cards.  Hang tight and I’ll tell you how…

I’ve seen just about every type of bottoms up estimating technique known to man fail over the years.  I bet you’ve seen them as well.  You have the “Manager’s Choice” where he/she just makes stuff up.  You also have “Ask the smart guy” where the manager dumps all the estimating on one propeller head who codes better and faster than any other mortal and has no patience for slackers.  Then you have “Let’s have a group discussion and decide as a group” which turns in to a gripe session about how screwed up things are and nobody can agree on any of the estimates.  Another method that I’ve heard some Agilist use is “Fibonacci Numbers” where you simply assign an estimate according to difficulty based on where it seems to plot on a Fibonacci Sequence (and no, I’m not making this up).  Then you have “Planning Poker”, which I’ll describe as it is one of the few techniques I’ve actually seen work.

To hold a session of Planning Poker you need to have a group of stories written and in your backlog (fancy phrase for “they are queued to be worked on possibly sometime in the future”), a couple of decks of playing cards, and a room full of Agile team members who might actually touch the work someday.

You start out by handing each Agile team member a suit of cards (Ace through face cards).  Unlike Tarot these cards hold very simple meanings and that is an Ace represents one day (yes, that is one Earth day, not some arbitrary unit of Klingon time), the 2 is two days, etc. on up to the 10 being for 10 days.  Lastly the face cards mean “I have no clue how long this will take, but it is longer than 10 days”.

With the cards dispersed you then practice a quick game of speed dating with each Agile story.  The story is read and within about 5 to 10 seconds all Agile team members are given a chance to pick a card out of their hand and play it face down.  After the time expires they flip the cards over and everybody sees the results.

With this first round all you are looking for is who played the lowest card and who played the highest card.  They are the only players allowed to speak.  Briefly they say why they played the card they played.  They only get a minute each and make sure the leader of the session has a buzzer or a hook to shut them up and not run in to overtime.  The goal is that they share information that perhaps nobody else considered when they played their cards; information that might have the others change their minds.  What you find out is that either one of the two extremes shared useful information, one of them was way off base, or that they are both nuts when it comes to this story.  The cards are gathered up and the players play again in a sudden death match round for that story based on this newly shared information.  The bulk of the cards played wins and that is what is assigned as the forecast for how long that story should take.  If the bulk of the cards are face cards then that story needs to be broken down in to finer stories (at a later time) and those added to the backlog for another later session of planning poker.

You then rinse and repeat over and over for each Agile story you want to estimate.  I’ve seen teams blast through up to 45 to 50 stories in just an hour.  Don’t feel bad if you only get through one story every four to five minutes your first round.

Don’t ask me why, but Planning Poker works.  That’s right: It’s fast and it works.  Who knew?  I’ve never seen estimates that have been so close to being accurate in all my life.  Of course many are a little off at first, but as teams get comfortable estimating (using real time units known to all of man) they seem to get better at zoning in on the right answers Sprint after Sprint.

So, when will you play “Planning Poker” with your Agile stories?

About this series:  I love Agile; I also hate Agile.  I love how it can free teams to truly delight customers while delivering high quality products on time.  I hate how Agile zealots can use the Tower of Agile Babble to confuse the heck out of teams trying Agile on for size.  My goal is to help new teams actually embrace and become Agile without having to learn all of the pomp and circumstance in one big fat swallow.


From → Agile

  1. Hi Mark,

    It’s a good concept. I just wonder how many team members will perceive the idea of using playing cards for project estimation as sane!

    By the way Mark, you might be interested in reading this post we have published lately on PM Hut:

  2. jwgrenning permalink

    Hi PM Hut

    You will be surprised at just how widely used this is.

    Hi Mark

    PLanning poker works well, but there are better ways that work off the same principles, are faster and are fun. Take a look at:

    You might also be interested in the a presentation I did last year at Agile 2011. Beyond planning poker, found here:

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