How to conduct planning poker for remote teams

In a Scrum environment, planning meetings are an important part of the work estimation process. Planning poker is a de facto scrum planning and estimation technique, where the team hops into a meeting room and every participant estimates the complexity of the task and decides on the story points or time they believe is needed to complete the task. But the onset of the pandemic in 2020 pushed teams to change their working style with teams going remote globally. As the pandemic settles down, discussions sitting in a physical meeting room are still not commonplace and agile teams are not sharing office space and in some cases, time zones. In this context, it is important to conduct your planning poker sessions in a remote-friendly fashion.

Challenges faced by hybrid remote teams

1. Even the most experienced agile teams can encounter limitations with conducting remote-friendly planning poker sessions online.

2. Conducting planning poker sessions as free form chat discussions can get a little biased by the fact that the participants can see the inputs of others.

3. Conducting planning poker sessions over a zoom call can seem almost as effective as physical meetings, but it’s not easy for distributed teams. Especially if your team is not co- located and is sharing different time zones then it is a challenge to find time that works for  everyone.

4. Lack of proper written communication over tasks can create a gap between how tasks and goals are understood by in-office and remote team members.

5. In-office unplanned work discussions can make it difficult for everyone to get equal  opportunity to share their thoughts on the assigned work.

What is a remote friendly planning poker session

A remote friendly planning poker session creates a level playing field for all of your employees irrespective of the preference for work schedule. As a team manager, it is important to facilitate and encourage remote friendly planning poker sessions that ensure the following:

  1. Equal participation opportunities
  2. Remote friendly meeting format
  3. Avoids unconscious bias
  4. Automates scheduling overhead

Equal participation opportunities:

For distributed teams, finding a suitable time for everyone that doesn’t interrupt the work/sleep schedule is a key challenge. Most teams are now moving to an asynchronous mode of meetings where the participants respond at their comfortable timings. Even co-located teams benefit from the uninterrupted nature of async meetings and defaulting to async meetings, keeping your team processes remote-friendly and future ready.

Remote friendly meeting format:

Psychological comfort and safety are key to effective meetings. Synchronous meetings work well when all the participants are comfortable speaking their minds and contributing to the estimation process. However, it is likely for some team members to feel more comfortable writing something down, rather than having to express their thoughts in a meeting room. Creating a level playing field for all team members is important to get the best out of your teams. In the case of a planning poker session, asynchronous mode comes with the added benefit of revealing the responses together after all submissions.

Avoids unconscious bias:

A remote first planning poker session where every participant is required to join the session online even if they are in office will avoid unconscious bias against participants who join from remote locations. As a manager, you can facilitate and encourage such meeting expectations.

Automated scheduling to save time:

The typical meetings involve a person dedicated to arranging the meetings, taking notes, and following up on actions post the meetings. This is not the best use of your time and is also prone to errors. It makes sense for teams to switch to tools that automate meeting logistics and reporting.

Preparing your team for the remote session

Successful remote planning poker session starts with preparing your team on what they should expect and how to participate in these sessions.

1.  Spend some time to familiarize participating team members with the concept and process of participating in asynchronous planning poker sessions before initiating one.

2.  Decide on a scoring method in consultations with your team (more on that below).

3.  Work out a schedule that maximizes participation of your team. Allow enough waiting time for the session to ensure everyone can participate comfortably.

4.  Set expectations on how to collaborate to achieve consensus on task estimates. This  can be by just discussing them in Slack until there is agreement.

Picking a scoring method

The scoring method forms the essence of a planning poker session because it helps agile teams to reach a consensus around a task. Deciding on a scoring method or scale is done by picking the estimation method which comprises the numbers or units that you will be answering in the sessions.

Here are some popular estimation scales used by agile teams:

  1. Fibonacci: Fibonacci scales are based on Fibonacci numbers- a sequence where each number is the sum of two preceding numbers, starting from zero.

The example of a Fibonacci sequence is something like this:

1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on….

The numbers on the scale help you to decide the sizable effort for a task, 1 will be used for a task that will require considerably a small amount of effort when compared with a task numbered on a larger end of the scale like 13 or 34.

Task estimation in Planning poker

2.  T-shirt: Another common scale is t-shirt sizes like S, M, L, XL, XXL used to determine the task effort with the smaller size requiring less effort than a task with XXL.

Task estimation in Planning poker

3.  Linear: This scale follows the arithmetic series like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7….. With the smaller number displaying a small priority task.

4.  Custom: The estimation scales don't have to be rigid and a session can be more fun for your team with customized scoring or estimation options. Ask your team to make the most of their imagination and come up with relatable and creative scales.

Some ideas from us would be to add dog scales if your team shares a common liking for dogs with Chihuahuas being the smallest scale and Great Dane being the largest.

Task estimation in Planning poker

Planning poker report and next steps

The discussion to reach a final consensus starts once everyone in your team has cast their votes. This step defines the success of your planning poker session as it studies the estimates chosen by your team.

The final estimate reflects the effort needed from the team. In case of a discrepancy in results, choose the optimal way to resolve differences including running another poker session or discussing the differences with your team.

If you need help with this process, you can use Troopr’s planning poker Check-ins that work in Slack for both voting and further collaboration on the report. To learn more about how Troopr’s planning poker works, click here.

How we automated our Planning Poker meetings

We leveraged Slack, our team communication platform where all our team members are available, and set up Troopr to configure and send the Planning Poker questions to the participants at say 11.00 am in their local time-zone.

Troopr provides a proven template to build upon that sets clear encouragement for  everyone in the team to fairly contribute to the estimation process.

Conduct automated Planning Poker meetings‍

Everyone can cast their votes at a comfortable time during their day. Troopr sends out  an actionable reminder if someone fails to cast their votes.        

The team responses are aggregated into a beautiful web report and shared on common  Slack channels and web portals. We also made the Slack reports actionable to update  the final estimates to the Jira issues in a single click of a button in Slack.

Final estimated in Planning poker

Troopr also provides a history of team estimates, so that we can catch up on that       anytime when required. Troopr engagement reports and analytics also help managers       see how the team members are contributing over time.

Final thoughts

As long as your work estimation sessions are remote-friendly and effective, the how is up to you. Modern estimation techniques enable a faster and efficient way to conduct your scrum ceremonies. To automate Planning Poker sessions in Slack, get started with Troopr here.


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