A few years ago I did my Certified Product Owner training with Boris Gloger. He showed us the value of using planning poker to estimate the priority of features for software development. This comes in especially handy in organizations where there are multiple product owners with different agendas that need to reach consensus.
What is planning poker?
Usually, planning poker is used only by developers and technical teams to estimate the size of a feature, i.e. how much work it is. Each member of the team gets a pack of cards with values that they use to vote when asked how “big” the feature is.
Although the values matter, what matters most is the conversation that happens around the sometimes wildly different estimates by individual team members. These conversations help to elicit requirements from users and to clear up misunderstandings about the feature so that the team can arrive at a single estimate.
Recently, I discovered that this same technique could be very useful to clearly define priorities in personal contexts.
From Features to Finances
In any relationship between two people with individual life goals and dreams, it is natural to expect different priorities. But sometimes, these differences are unclear, or you make assumptions about the priorities of the other person. Trying to untangle these misconceptions and assumptions can lead to conflict without really resolving anything.
This recently happened when my husband and I couldn’t agree on new financial goals for our family. It almost seemed as if our priorities were completely irreconcilable. Numerous conversations weren’t helping. In fact, we were just becoming more and more frustrated with each other.
Enter Planning Poker
In a moment of clarity, I realised we needed a non-confrontational way to get all the priorities out in the open for discussion. If multiple product owners can use planning poker to reach consensus, then surely we could use it to get unstuck?
So armed with two home-made sets of planning poker cards (six each, numbered 1, 3, 5, 8, 13 and 21), I convinced my doubtful-looking husband that we should try a different way to talk about our priorities.
Making it Personal
Each of us wrote 12 cards (stories) about things we wanted or needed to do in the traditional story format of “I want (to)” or “I need (to)”. The only “rule” was that you had to be as selfish as possible with each story. The want or need had to be your own want or need, not that of the family.
Afterwards, we pooled our cards and voted on each of the 24 cards. As we voted, we discussed our scores to clarify any reasoning that could be misconstrued. On a couple of occasions, discussion led to revised priorities once more details about the goal became clear. For example, I wanted a new car, but that didn’t mean I wanted an expensive new car. Realizing that I wasn’t planning to break the bank on the purchase, my husband happily revised his vote upwards to accommodate me.
Surprisingly, there were many cards where our votes were identical or within one degree of each other. I say surprisingly, because by that point we had started to believe that we were on completely different wavelengths. Of the 24 cards, of which 3 were duplicates, only 6 had widely different scores that were at least two or more numbers apart.
Not surprisingly, most of these were items that had so far been known points of disagreement …
But somehow, the dynamics of planning poker had completely defused the tension around our differences, enabling us to discuss these hot topics honestly and openly. Perhaps that’s because planning poker had shown us that we agreed on far more things than we disagreed on? Agreeing (or agreeing to disagree!) on these items now seemed so much more achievable and likely. Or perhaps it’s just because we were having fun and not arguing each point?
Whatever the reason, planning poker helped us move forward collaboratively and positively. After this experience, I’m keeping the cards handy for the next major family budget planning meeting.