Planning Poker: How to Estimate Time for a Project

Why Estimate Project Time?

Projects are a dynamic, ever changing undertaking. And with everything you do, you have the “human risk factor” involved. So, you wonder, why even bother accurately estimating the time when we all know no one can predict the future? That’s right and it’s wrong. Even though you cannot predict the future, time estimation is essential for successful project management; without it, you won’t even have an approximation of how long your project will take. And this means you won’t know whether or not to agree to a delivery date your client suggests. Moreover, if you can’t provide an expected completion date, you also won’t get the commitment from anyone who needs to sign off the project.

Even more importantly: The success or failure of a project will be judged according to whether the goals have been achieved within the project timeframe. To even stand a chance to successfully complete a project, you need to know what your minimum time requirements are to negotiate reasonable deadlines when planning the project as well as while the project is underway.

How to Estimate Project Time?

There is a great number of techniques you can use to estimate your project timeline. Your estimations depend on a number of factors, including your own experience in project-based work, the resources available, if you are working with external partners and the project-related information your client provides. No matter which technique you use, you want to make sure the results you get are realistic given the nature of your project. Here is a time saving process, the so-called Planning Poker, you can use when scoping the time commitment for a new project.

Planning Poker

Planning Poker time estimating was invented by James Grenning in 2002. His method focuses on reaching a consensus within the team on the amount of time needed to complete tasks and parts of the project. Planning poker aims at simplifying this at times complex and lengthy process, drawing its basic rules from a game of cards.

Game rules

Think of the project team members as participants in a game of cards. Each participant is given an identical deck of cards. Before starting your game of planning poker, prepare the cards to every deck with numbers from 0 to 100. You can use real playing cards and modify them accordingly or simply take a bunch of paper cuts. Make sure that the gaps between the numbers on the cards do grow bigger as the numbers get closer to 100.

In a first step, divide the new project into smaller scope “sub-projects” or work packages and explain the sub-projects one by one to your team members. Let every team member estimate the time effort for the individual sub-project or work package. In order to give their estimate, the team members pick a card from their deck that corresponds to the time effort they think is required to get the job done. The higher the number on the card, the higher the estimated amount of time. Make sure that the individual team members give their estimates without consulting each other. It is best to keep the cards upside down with the numbers hidden and have them uncovered simultaneously.

Now it’s time for discussion. Starting with the team members who threw in the most extreme estimates – highest and lowest of all – all the team members should explain what reasons led to their estimates. After the initial explanation, everyone on the team should join the discussion and share their thoughts and reasons for their estimates. Repeat the estimation voting and discussion as often as it takes to get to reach a roughly equal estimation of the time effort.

You can nominate an objective moderator prior to starting the game, who doesn’t participate in the voting but presents the different tasks and sub-projects. The moderator is also responsible for setting time limits, ensuring that the team members’ discussions don’t become endless.

Advantages

The biggest advantage of planning poker compared to other estimation methods is that the participants don’t influence each other, thereby – mostly unconsciously – manipulating their original estimates. This makes the simultaneous uncovering of the cards a crucial part of this technique: No one feels pressured by other team member’s estimates. Moreover, this method is ideal for avoiding tendencies to over- and underestimate when planning the project. Team members who will be working on the project task later on, tend to overestimate the amount of time needed to complete it, in order to have more buffer time when actually working on the task. Project managers, on the other hand, naturally would like to present a rather short and smooth timeline to the client and therefore tend to underestimate the time effort.

During the game and the team’s discussions, project managers and team members alike, might learn about project related difficulties they didn’t think of themselves. You wonder why your colleague’s estimation on the other end of the table is triple your estimate or vice versa? Simply ask.