The Planning Game – An Estimation Method for Agile Teams

The Planning Game [PDF] – printable reference.

Purpose: estimate the effort for User Stories (Product Backlog Items, Value Drivers)

Prerequisites: all items have a value estimate, each item is written on a separate note card, full team membership is known and available for planning, each team member has a set of planning game cards:

Planning Game Cards

(Please feel free to contact us if you would like some sets of Planning Game cards.  We will normally ship them to you at no cost!)

The Planning Game Process

  1. The team goes through all the items and chooses the one which has the lowest effort. Write the number “2” on this card (usually in the bottom right corner).
  2. The team looks at the item with the highest value.
  3. Each team member thinks about how much effort the team will expend to fully complete all the work for the item. Comparing this work to the work effort for the smallest item, each team member selects a card that represents this relative effort. For example, if you think that it requires ten times the effort, you would select the “20” card. It is not permissible to select two cards.
  4. Each team member places their selected card, face down, on the table. Once all team members have done this, turn the cards over.
  5. If all team members show the same value, then write the value on the item and go back to step three for the next item. (Or if there are no more items, then the process is complete.)
  6. The person with the highest and the lowest value cards both briefly explain why they voted the way they did. If there is a Product Owner present, this person can add any clarifications about the item.
  7. For any given item, if a person is highest or lowest more than once, then each explanation must include new information or reasoning.
  8. Once explanations are complete, the team members collect their cards and go back to step three.

– it is extremely important that the voting for an item continues until all team members unanimously vote the same way (this way team members and outside stakeholders cannot blame any individual for “wrong” estimates)
– in Scrum, it is normal for the Product Owner to be present during this process, but not to participate in the voting
– in OpenAgile, it is acceptable for people serving as Growth Facilitators for a team to participate in the voting
– voting should not include extensive discussion
– if more than one person has the lowest or highest vote, usually just one person shares their reason in order to help the process move quickly
– the first few items will often take 10 or 15 rounds of voting before the team arrives at a unanimous vote
– later on, items may take just one or two rounds of voting to arrive at a unanimous decision
– some teams, where trust levels are high, will discard with the use of physical cards and just briefly discuss votes

The planning game is used at the start of a project with the full list of user stories. In this case, it is reasonable to expect the team to average two minutes per user story, and an appropriate amount of time needs to be set aside to accommodate going through the whole list.

The Planning Game is also used any time that there is a change in the list of user stories: re-ordering, adding or removing user stories, or changes to a single user story. When such a change happens, the team can re-estimate any user story in the whole list. When starting a Cycle or Sprint or Iteration, all the user stories in the list should have up-to-date estimates so that estimation work is avoided in the Cycle planning meeting.

Finally, the team can decide to re-estimate any user stories at any time for any reason. However, it is important for team members to remember that estimation is non-value-added work and the time spent on it should be minimized.

NOTE: The Planning Game is described as Planning Poker on wikipedia.  The version described there has some minor variations from this version.

A closely related method of Agile Estimation is the Bucket System.

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8 thoughts on “The Planning Game – An Estimation Method for Agile Teams”

    1. Hi Henrik,

      Thanks for the comment. I recommend the smallest story because it is often easiest for the team to agree on “smallest” and it gives the team an opportunity to briefly review all of the stories in the backlog before beginning the voting process. That said, I understand there can also be problems with this approach.

      I will give your suggestion a try with a team sometime soon – thanks!


    1. There are a couple reasons to start with 2:

      – A typical product backlog has a large range of sizes for product backlog items with small items typically at the top and large items typically at the bottom. Because of this range, it is important to start estimating with the smallest PBI having a small baseline. This gives lots of room for estimates on other PBIs to be much larger.

      – Starting with 2 gives room for smaller PBIs as well, without worrying too much about detailed granularity. Many original Planning Game cards had “1/2” as an option and recommended starting with a first small estimate of 1. Using 2 and getting rid of the “1/2” card simply shifts the scale over a bit.

  1. I’m curious about your take on Planning Poker. In my CSPO training with Jeff Sutherland he talked about averaging the cards as long as everyone was within three cards of each other. If the spread is greater than three then the highest and lowest explain why the estimated as they did and hen the team re-estimates and so on and so forth.
    I like the method because we spend less time arguing about a 2 or a 3 and more time discussing what I view to be the more meaningful aspects of our stories. However, there’s been a fair amount of push back outside of my teams.

    1. It depends on why you are doing Planning Poker. If you are doing it to get estimates as the primary outcome, then Jeff’s approach is a good one. However, many people use planning poker as a technique to create shared understanding in a team – it’s more about the communication than the numbers. In this case, coming to a unanimous decision about the number forces the team to have much more in-depth discussion and exposes far more of the assumptions that people are making about the work itself.

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