Our story begins with a developer. She’s in total focus mode: headphones on and 12 levels deep in some legacy code, when she’s disrupted by the ping of a calendar notification. Backlog refinement starts in 10 minutes. She dismisses the notification but it’s too late - her concentration is broken, and she’s lost her place.
The developer loves the awesome people she works with, but the timing of this meeting couldn’t be more disruptive. She sighs and jumps into the Zoom call. It’s a distributed team, so half the team is groggy because it’s 8 a.m., and the other half is groggy because it’s 8 p.m.. They talk for seven minutes about the rain in Vancouver (as always) and another four minutes about cats.
Finally, after some screen-share fumbling, the scrum master brings up the team’s ZenHub Workspace. They open the first issue and spend way too long discussing whether it should be two story points or three. They decide it’s a three, then spend even more time talking about why it’s definitely a three. They repeat this process several times. After an hour, the team realizes they’ve hardly made it through any issues. They pick up speed and begin turbo-estimating, but it’s to no effect - the meeting still runs late.
Our remote team’s previous challenges with planning poker
This was our experience on Team Watney, one of the scrum teams here at ZenHub. We’d fallen into a frustrating pattern, but we didn’t want to stop using Estimates - we’d found them to be valuable to everyone on the team. Assigning story point values helps product owners prioritize work, communicate complexity to stakeholders, and make difficult trade-off decisions. Knowing our velocity helps the team and scrum master plan more predictable sprints, and coordinate dependencies. All of this together helps protect the developers’ time - there are fewer interruptions and stakeholder ‘whims’ that lead to project-hopping and a lot of context switching.
We spent time reflecting during a team retro and realized that it wasn’t the final estimates that were creating friction, but rather the process of assigning the estimates. We identified a few key issues in our approach:
- We were getting caught up debating minor story point differences (is it a two or a three?) instead of focusing our time on the issues that we really differed on (is it a two, a five, or an eight?) and would benefit from discussion.
- With a newly distributed team across multiple time zones, group meetings are difficult to schedule and our (virtual) face-to-face time is limited. Yet, we were still trying to adapt our old method of assigning estimates — getting together in a room — to this new style of working.
- The goal of ZenHub’s product is to minimize context switching, as that leads to happier and more productive teams. Yet the set time of our backlog refinement meetings mean that individuals didn’t have the flexibility to estimate issues when it was most convenient and productive for them.
- Group discussions always carry the risk that team members may influence one another’s votes, or that not everyone will have an equal chance to contribute. Fewer inputs leads to lower quality, and ultimately less useful, estimates.
Our Team Lead, Aaron Franks, shared, “keeping the whole team tied up for an hour of weekly refinement never felt like the best use of everyone’s time. Doing our voting asynchronously with ZenHub, and only discussing the issues where there was disagreement, has freed up more time for actually doing the work.”
How we made doing planning poker online effortless
Does your team struggle with similar challenges?
We created planning poker in ZenHub to solve exactly these problems. Planning poker focuses your team’s time on the important issues, reduces context switching, and allows your team to stay in ZenHub. It's optimized for distributed teams and provides an effortless way for everyone to contribute.
Let’s revisit our developer from before. Once again she’s in total focus mode, headphones on, etc. But this time she completes her task blissfully uninterrupted. When she’s ready to get into the context of estimation, she clicks the URL that her team lead shared. She’s taken to their ZenHub workspace where she sees the board filtered to only the issues that require her attention.
An issue slides open and the status indicates that she’s the last person to add their estimate. With a single click she selects a three, and the rest of the team’s estimates appear. They’ve all chosen a three as well, so the story point value is automatically applied to the issue - no other action is required. The issue is ready to be moved to the top of the backlog where it will be automatically added to the next Sprint.
When it does come time for a backlog refinement meeting, the team only discusses the two issues that they disagreed on - easily identified by the board status. Since the team is familiar with these issues by now, the discussion moves quickly and the meeting wraps up in no time.
Backlog refinement: From 1.5 hours down to a quick 10-minute sync
Since adopting planning poker in ZenHub, Team Watney’s weekly refinement meetings decreased from 1.5 hours to just 10 minutes. With six people on the team, we’re saving a total of eight hours of time each week! Everyone has the opportunity to contribute equally and when it’s most productive for them, which gives us even more confidence in our estimates.
Another benefit ZenHub Engineer, Jason Dippel, pointed out is,
It keeps track of what estimates I vote for. No more having to try to recall whether I estimated the issue as a 2 or a 5 while we're debating.
It’s not just us who’s had early success with planning poker. Several of our customers who took this feature for a spin in Beta had this to say:
Planning poker enhanced our estimation process with a fun, consistent, and interactive way to collect multiple estimates to help determine the right story points for an issue.
- Joe Kloepfer, Sr. Business Systems Analyst - IT at Equity Residential
We're excited to be able to do our asynchronous planning poker right in ZenHub - I can retire my spreadsheet! This works really well for the team who are distributed ‘round the globe.
- Andrew Kember, Platform Engineering Manager at Cloudreach.
Planning poker, paired with other features like Automated Sprints and Workflows, make ZenHub an increasingly powerful tool for Scrum and agile teams working in GitHub. Providing teams the tools they need to effortlessly ship code faster and spend less time worrying about updating status reports.
Getting started with planning poker is easy for teams already in GitHub. Simply download the ZenHub Browser Extension or hop into the ZenHub web app, and start your free trial today. Learn more about agile estimation techniques here.