Friday, January 13, 2012

Alternative to Planning Poker

I recently came across an agile estimating method called the White Elephant method that is designed to speed up agile estimation. One of the complaints that new practitioners have when it comes to Agile is that planning takes too long. I definitely agree with this and have seen new teams plan well into 3 days for a 3 week sprint. If your team is having this problem, you might consider the White Elephant method.

Quick Overview
You can read the link above to get a good idea of how this works. In short, you do the following until all of your stories are estimated.
1. Create categories on a white board to represent each of the story point values (0,1,2,3,5,8,etc.).
2. The first person takes a story from the pile and places it on the board in the category that represents their estimate.
3. The next person can either change an existing estimate by moving a sticky on the board to another category, or select a new story from the pile and place it on the board.
4. The next person takes a turn and so on, until all stories are on the board and the team has consensus.
5. If a story is moved too many times (say 3 times), the story goes into a Discuss category.
6. At the end, any stories in the discuss category are discussed and eventually placed on the board.
The main idea is to get points on the stories that don't require much discussion first, then discuss the ones that may require clarification second.

My Thoughts
First off, I have to say that I have not yet taken part in this yet. Anything I have to say on this is really just my hypothesis. 
1. Anchoring - One of the things I like most about Planning Poker is that everything presents their estimate at the same time as to avoid any anchoring that might occur. That's why we do planning poker. I don't want my estimate to anchor the next guys one way or the other. This is especially true in teams where one or two people have stronger personalities than the rest and are more assertive in what they think. The White Elephant method allows one guys estimate to be swayed by what he sees on the board and the quieter folks on the team may be more inclined to just "go with it".

2. Go with the Flow - I have a lot of respect for people that are able to go with the flow. However, I don't like those folks during planning meetings. As a team lead, I make it a point to ask those people what they think because it's all too easy for them to just sit quiet and do what everyone else is doing. The White Elephant method makes it way too easy for quiet, go with the flow types to go along just for the ride.

3. Story Switching - It seems to me that switching back and forth between stories is going to make it more difficult for the team to really figure out what size the story is. Collective thinking on one subject matter is better than everyone thinking separately (which is why the 6 Thinking Hats retrospective is so effective). If the team keeps switching between stories, it seems like it would make it harder for team members to retain the whole picture on a particular story.
I think this type of planning will work, it just depends on what team you have and the mix of personalities on the team. I can see some benefits to this type of planning though:
1. Good Visual - I really like the way the stories are put on the board next to each other. It really reminds the team how relative this type of estimation is. It's hard sometimes to remember that you're really just trying to figure out how big a story is compared to the other stories. Seeing all of the stories together really drives this home. This is something I'm definitely going to go in my next planning poker meeting. After each story is estimated, put it on the board in a category.

2. Reduces Discussion - There's good discussion, and bad discussion. Anything that helps decide if a story is a 5 or a 3 is good discussion. Everything else is bad. I can really see how this type of planning game could reduce the bad discussion and promote the good discussion. Since only the person taking a turn can ask questions, it reduces the amount of cross talk that is prone to happen when playing planning poker.

Once I've actually experienced this approach, I'll let you know how it goes.

UPDATE: I've since experienced this particular estimating method and have written about it here.

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