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What is Priority Poker / Planning Poker?

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Definition of Priority Poker / Planning Poker

Priority Poker / Planning Poker is a tool used by groups, especially product development teams, to make decisions about how and where to direct their resources and efforts. It’s designed to be a more democratic, fair, and transparent way to make group decisions.

It’s named Priority / Planning Poker because each team member uses cards to rank the effort required to complete each task in the backlog. “Players” can select their scores anonymously and thus the tool delivers consensus opinion without any bias or influence from other members of the team. 

It also avoids a subconscious cognitive bias known as “anchoring”, which we’ll expand on shortly.

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But Priority Poker / Planning Poker isn’t just a more engaging way to make development decisions — its effectiveness has actually been backed up by academic studies. A 2007 study by Moløkken-Østvold and Haugen showed that tasks assigned via Priority Poker / Planning Poker resulted in a higher quality end product and that completion estimates were more accurate than those made during open group discussions.

The origins of Priority Poker / Planning Poker

The Priority Poker / Planning Poker method evolved in stages.

At its core, Priority Poker / Planning Poker is a variation of the “Wideband Delphi” method — a forecasting tool first developed in the 50s and 60s at the RAND Corporation. Of course, Wideband Delphi is also a variation on the Delphi method, which first came about in the mid-40s.

Priority Poker / Planning Poker, as we know it today, has its roots in a meeting room in Utah, USA. A team of software developers had reached deadlock between two senior staff members and didn’t know how to move forward. One engineer at the meeting, James Grenning, decided to get things back on track by suggesting a variation of the Wideband Delphi method. And thus, Priority Poker / Planning Poker was born.

The method sat in relative obscurity until the 2005 book Agile Estimating and Planning, by Mike Cohn, propelled it into the mainstream software industry.

How to play Priority Poker / Planning Poker

One of the most appealing aspects of Priority Poker / Planning Poker is that it can be carried out with minimal effort and resources. All you really need is a set of blank cards (or even pieces of paper) with numbers written on one side.

The scale of these numbers is up to the team in question, but the idea is that the numbers should go up in line with the amount of effort a particular task might require. For this reason, some teams choose a scaling sequence of numbers — such as the Fibonacci sequence — to ensure there’s a wide enough gulf between the lowest and highest priority items.

Once you have the prerequisite tools, Priority Poker / Planning Poker is played as follows:

  1. The Product Owner will open the team’s backlog and go through each story or task one by one. This will usually involve a quick summary of the task and its requirements.

  2. Each member of the team will choose a card from their deck — one that they feel represents the amount of effort required to complete this task.

  3. Once everyone has chosen, all team members will reveal their scores at once. If there are folks who’ve voted very high or low, they’ll usually be given a chance to explain their rationale.

  4. Repeat the process from step 2 until a broad consensus is reached.

  5. Move on to the next story or task, rinse, and repeat.

Above is the traditional “pen and paper” method of playing Priority Poker / Planning Poker, but digital versions of the method are much simpler for modern (and often remote) teams — including our very own airfocus Priority Poker tool.

The 3 key benefits of Priority Poker / Planning Poker

Priority Poker / Planning Poker might seem like a fun way to make group decisions, but there are actually some very good reasons to use it over other methods such as brainstorming.

Here are 3 of the biggest benefits of Priority Poker / Planning Poker.

  1. The elimination of bias or influence. A phenomenon known as “anchoring” comes into play during group discussions. If assigning priority values aloud, the team would subconsciously use the first number as an anchor point — making all subsequent choices less reliable. Priority Poker / Planning Poker eliminates this by keeping everything anonymous and allowing people to speak their minds.

  2. Task estimates are more accurate than other decision-making tools. As the 2007 study showed, the use of Priority Poker / Planning Poker results in more accurate predictions about how long tasks in the development backlog should take to complete. This benefit trickles down to the entire roadmap, hopefully resulting in a product delivered on time (and without the dreaded scope creep). 

  3. It brings teams together and makes voices heard. Sometimes, group discussions and decision-making can result in just one or two people dominating the conversation. This means that, in reality, the final decision isn’t really one of consensus. Priority Poker / Planning Poker solves this elegantly, by giving everyone in the room an equal voice.

General FAQ

Who created Priority Poker?
Priority Poker is a variation of Planning Poker, first developed and named by James Grenning in 2002. It was popularized by Mike Cohn as part of his 2005 book, Agile Estimating and Planning.
How can you play Priority Poker with your team?
Teams can play Priority Poker with a simple set of blank cards, on which you write numbers representing the effort a task might require. Players pick a card anonymously and the team discusses the outcome.
Why is Priority Poker useful?
Priority Poker is a useful tool for software development teams looking to prioritize their backlog in a transparent, democratic way. The gamified nature of the tool turns a potentially dry or confusing conversation into something engaging and productive.

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