Friday, January 20, 2012

White Elephant Planning

In a previous post, I discussed an agile estimation method called the White Elephant method. In that post I discussed some concerns that I had on it, but also noted that these concerns were not founded by any actual experiences with the method itself. Now that I've actually been a part of one, I wanted to share some things about it that I noticed.

Background
In my environment, we have 5 teams of approximately 7 people. Our product owner wants to have a single backlog for all teams. In order to fill out the backlog for the next release, we held a story estimation workshop that consisted of a representative from each team, plus the product owner. The product owner (along with some help) prepared by creating around 40 stories with descriptions and acceptance criteria. We time boxed the meeting at 3 hours and had lunch catered so we wouldn't have to stop. We usually went for about 45 minutes at a time with a 15 minute break in between.

The Game
Out of the 3 hours, we probably spent a little over 2 hours actually estimating (we started late, had some issues with lunch, etc). The product owner was hoping to get at least half of the 40 stories estimated. As it turned out, we got them all done! Just based on that alone, I would consider the exercise a complete success.

Moderation
I have to say right off that in order for this to work well, you must have a good moderator. Fortunately, we had someone that had done this before and he did an excellent job. He had a stop watch running on his phone and reset the timer each time a new story was selected. Once the timer reached about 4 minutes, he would let us know and try to push the current player to park his story in the 'Parked' column for later discussion so we could move on. Without this type of moderation, we could have talked on and on and the whole exercise might not have been as successful as it was.

Less Discussion
There were several occasions where a player muttered under his breath when it was his turn that he didn't agree with the placing of a previous story but decided not to use his turn to move it because he didn't want to re-open the discussion again. This only happened when there a one point difference between what the story was currently estimated as, and where the player thought it should be. This was interesting to me because not only did we cut down on more discussion, but the player immediately recognized the cost of such discussions and decided that it wasn't worth it over a one story point difference. I struggle with my own team on this sometimes. I don't like having to remind team members during planning that while the discussion they're having about the story is important, it's not going to make any significant difference in the planned estimate and should be taken offline. I really like seeing the player come to this conclusion on their own with the White Elephant method.

Tuning Out
I'll be the first to admit, that it was easy to tune out. When it wasn't my turn, I caught myself several times paying less attention to the current discussion of a particular story. Once the story was placed on the board, I really didn't know much about the story and therefore wasn't able to contribute to its estimate. It was too easy to just say, "I'll be happy with whatever he thinks it is." Since this was the first workshop for us, it consisted of all team leads, so most of us had strong opinions about the stories. I see the tuning out problem being more wide spread on teams with members that just go with the flow more. Planning Poker requires the team member to decide on a number, and then possibly defend it if it doesn't match the rest of the team.

Conclusions
I was surprised to find that some of the things I thought were going to be issues were not at all. Anchoring wasn't a problem for us. Players regularly took a turn to move an estimate and would confidently say, "No way this is a 3 because...". Then again, that might be due to the combination of personalities in the room. I also didn't find changing the discussion from story to story to be a problem. I never once felt that it impeded my ability to estimate.

Once of the biggest things I took away from this is that most of the positives I saw could be easily applied to Planning Poker. Timing story discussions, parking stories that take too long, visually seeing the stories and where they're placed in relation to each other. I'm definitely going to apply some of those things in my next planning meeting with the team.

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