Product Prioritization: Planning Poker

Stop gambling on what to do next… by playing poker

Welcome to ‘Product Prioritization’ — our series of tools, tips, and best practices for the skilled Product Manager to determine priorities and get results. Each month, we will highlight one of the dozens of popular methodologies and explain how to use it.

For our fourth installment, we take a look at ‘Planning Poker’ also known as ‘Scrum Poker’.

At Left Travel, we enjoy using ‘Planning Poker’ when it’s important that the team needs to come to a consensus. This technique is perfect for:

  • Aligning different stakeholders
  • Extracting silo-ed information from stakeholders
  • Keeping meetings interactive and fun

What is Planning Poker and how does it work?

At a high level, ‘Planning Poker’ is a prioritization technique where multiple stakeholders get together and establish the value of a project, feature, or idea. For the purpose of this blog post, we’ll discuss ideas.

The technique is gamified to estimate value. Stakeholders are presented with an idea and each one of them votes on how valuable they think the idea is by using a set range of cards or poker chips with varying values. Votes remain hidden until all members have voted to avoid influence from other members. Once everyone is decided, the votes are revealed at the same time.

After everyone has presented their votes, the stakeholders who voted with the highest and lowest values explain their reasoning. The voting process repeats until the team agrees on a value for the idea.

How to Play

Step 1: Deal Cards or Poker Chips

Each person is given a set of cards or poker chips. The value of the cards or poker chips should be set as 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, 100. While ‘Planning Poker’ can be played with different values (like a Fibonacci sequence), what matters most is that the higher the bets get, the larger the gap is between the next lowest and next highest values.

Step 2: Rules & Establish Values

The moderator or scrum master explains the rules of the game to the group (explained in the following steps).

Next, the moderator establishes what the number value of each card or chip is worth. Since value is subjective, it is crucial to complete this step before starting the exercise. Take the time to go over a few past ideas that are complete and assign them a value. It is best to pick ideas that vary strongly in value to allow the stakeholders to be able to easily compare low, medium, and high-value past ideas to new ideas. Use the phrasing ‘X idea is a 40 because…’

Step 3: Present the Idea

Next, get the product manager or owner to present the ideas to the group and ensure that there is full clarity on every aspect of each of them. The moderator can also act as the product owner for some or all of the ideas that are being discussed. Allow time for Q&A from the stakeholders.

Tip: Standardize the way the ideas are being presented to avoid a stakeholder over- or under-emphasizing specific ideas based off of their personal opinions. Set timing and structure requirements.

Step 4: Voting

Once everyone has had a chance to ask questions about the idea, it is time to vote. Each stakeholder selects a card or chip and places it face down on each idea. The higher the value of the card or chip the more important it is to the stakeholder. Once everyone has cast their vote, all of the votes are revealed at the same time. It is important to keep the votes secret until everyone is ready in order to make sure that the stakeholders involved aren’t influenced by others in the company — no matter what their role is.

Step 5: Discussion

Start the discussion by having the stakeholders that cast the highest and lowest votes explain why they gave the idea that value. Through this discussion new data can be discovered as the high and low-value voting members will often have additional information about the idea that others didn’t have prior to voting. For example, a stakeholder might know how an idea may possibly have a massive impact on another feature, or how the idea would be a big waste of time because it doesn’t impact any key KPIs.

The moderator will typically only need to call on those who had the highest or lowest value, unless a stakeholder who voted in the middle is very passionate about an idea. At some point in the game, most stakeholders will end up on the high or low end so they’ll get the opportunity to participate. If there is someone who constantly votes in the middle, call on them at some point to make them feel included in the discussions.

Step 6: Assigning Value/Voting Again

Assuming that not everyone assigned the same value to an idea, after hosting a discussion, have the group vote again. Repeat the process until the group comes to a value consensus (they all vote the same). Once agreed upon, assign the decided value to the idea and move on to the next idea.

Tip: If the stakeholders aren’t coming to a consensus and a revote has been cast, it is helpful to ask the stakeholders that are not aligned if they are comfortable adjusting their vote up (or down) to meet with the group. This usually works.

If it doesn’t work, note down what the scores from the group were and the members who wouldn’t adjust their vote. This is done not to single them out, but to make a reminder to approach them later so that you can dive deeper into their reasoning.

Step 7: Finishing Up

Once all of the ideas have a documented assigned value, sync up with the team that estimates the size (level of effort) of ideas.

Once the size has been determined, create a ratio of the idea/ feature/ project, to the level of effort. Give bonus points if the team can take the information and get it down to story points, sprints, days, etc. Once completed, there will be a list of prioritized ideas.

Tip: A simple 4-quadrant list with value and level of effort will help identify ideas that stand out.

The Benefits of Physical vs. Software

Last week, the Left Travel team did a ‘Planning Poker’ session to value some of our upcoming data projects. When prepping for it, I looked into the benefits of using physical cards/chips compared to using a software program.

I ended up deciding to use physical cards. I found that many of the paid or free ‘Planning Poker’ software options were either too cumbersome or tied to a roadmapping system. For our team, the effort to go through the onboarding process was too much of a pain. In saying that, if you’ll be using the ‘Poker Planning’ technique often, it might be a good idea to use software.

You can purchase ‘Poker Planning’ cards on Amazon or Mountain Goat Software.

Other Uses of Poker Planning: Backlog Grooming & Remote Teams

Outside of assigning collective value, the ‘Planning Poker’ technique can be used to groom your backlog and development estimations (sizing). It is recommended to use the Fibonacci sequence instead if you’re doing one of those.

‘Planning Poker’ also works really well with remote team members. The moderator will have some extra prep to ensure that the stakeholders have the card or chips before you start (software may be a better option for remote teams), but the voting and discussions work well if everyone is on a video call.