Maximizing collaboration is always a challenge when it comes to distributed teams. Chief among the challenges is creating a collaborative space for Sprint or Iteration planning. I firmly believe that teams who plan effectively together, succeed together. One way I found for my distributed teams to effectively plan is through the use of the virtual planning poker tool at planningpoker.com.
One of the nice things about the tool is that it is free. That’s right, it does not cost you a dime, except for your data of course. There is a way to shield sensitive information and I will share that in the examples below. That said, what I have enjoyed most about the tool and one reason I believe it has been so successful with my teams, is that learning to the use the tool is very easy. In fact, after a brief overview of 5 to 10 minutes, my teams have felt comfortable using planningpoker.com after the first few stories are sized. Put simply, it works.
So how does it work? To start, you and your team will have to register for an account.
Because I don’t want this to be a long winded instructional post on how to use the tool, I will leave it to you to experiment with the various settings. For freeware it is actually a pretty robust tool, so you’ll want to give it a good overview before you explain it to your team. Once your account has been created, and assuming you are the moderator, you will need to select “Create a new game” from the right menu bar and complete the game details.
To allow participants to join, you will need to send them the url specific to the game you just created. The URL is located in the right menu bar, once you open the game.
Planningpoker.com give users various ways to create user stories within the tool, including import from a format such as csv and manual input using the provided template or free form space. In my case, I often work in organizations or with teams where they are using another tool to track user stories and/or they wish to hide the details of their stories. For this, I have had teams use the user story id from their tracking tool as input for their stories in planningpoker.com.
Once a story has been created, teams can estimate the story. We used my client's user story tracking tool as the basis for the conversation around story intent and acceptance criteria, then we estimated in planningpoker.com. Additionally, planningpoker.com gives the user a full range of story points to choose from. As you may already be aware, research shows people do better with fewer choices. Whether I am playing planning poker in the real world or virtual one, I always constrain the points for the team, to include the Fibonacci sequence numbers 1 – 13. In the real world this can be done easily by removing the cards from the deck before handing them out to team members. On planningpoker.com, teams will have access to the full range (0-100), so make sure you set the constraints at the outset of planning. You’ll be glad you did, trust me!
Once the size of a story has been determined, input the value and select "Accept" to move onto the next story. Note that the number of participants was actually less than what is shown in the participants list in the preceding image. This project was at a global consumer products company and we had team members distributed across the US, Canada, Germany, India, and China, and for reasons unknown, some participants needed to login more than once. This was only a minor issue that we were able to work around.
At the conclusion of your planning session, select "Complete game" in the right menu bar. Completing the game will archive the game for future reference. Just click on the restore link and you will be able to review the planning session results.
Planningpoker.com is an excellent tool for creating a collaborative and effective planning environment when teams are distributed. The site is owned by Mountain Goat Software and for now it is not monetized. Hopefully it will stay that way, but even if not, I encourage you to check it out!