Technical and product teams can spend a lot of time estimating the effort involved in a proposed piece of work. But how many of us even bother to write a value on a piece of work?
Over time I’ve become fed up with seeing product people managing story backlogs where, at most, they had an effort estimate on a story. People wanted “quick wins” and “the biggest bangs for the buck”, but without considering the value as well as the effort it is little more than opinion.
It’s easy to say “Write the value of a story” but the value is very subjective. Calculating a value based on analysis and hard data is time-consuming – and always involves some assumptions and subjectivity.
But, if estimation is good enough for effort why not use estimation for value?
And if wisdom of crowds style “planning poker” works for effort, why not apply it to value?
All I needed to do was work out how to run a “Value Poker” session, and then I remembered Dragons’ Den, aka Shark Tank, aka Money Tigers, aka Lions’ Den…
What began as an idea for simply getting an idea of relative values on stories turns out to have a lot of additional benefits.
How Value Poker Works
First you need Entrepreneurs: I like there to be small team to give your Product Manager some help, so Business Analysts, Product Owner and similar are obvious candidates.
Next you need Investors. You need at least a couple more Investors than you have Entrepreneurs but the upper limit is defined by how much time and space you have.
It would be great if your Investors are people with a commercial role, other Product Managers, Portfolio Managers, executives and such, but that isn’t essential. The technique works just as well with a bunch of coders and testers – you’d might be surprised how business savvy these people can be.
Depending on who you have playing Investors you will learn different things from this exercise. If you have executives you will get a serious debate, if you have coders you will at least get a straw man to show to executives – who may then want to play themselves!
Just like on the television programme we have Investors on one side of the room and Entrepreneurs, with their opportunity backlog, on the other. Entrepreneurs start by making a general pitch for their product or service and take general questions.
Instead of money I give Investors a set of planning poker cards. The technique also works with Monopoly money but limiting the amount of money the investors have means they will need to go back and revisit earlier decisions. That will take more time and more work.
Next I read out a story card I’ve agreed with the Entrepreneurs beforehand. I make sure the Investors understand what it means and then I assign it 10,000 London Dollars, Chicago Shillings, New Drachma, Business Points or whatever currency I invent on the spot.
Using an imaginary currency is important because it steps outside of reality and embraces wisdom of crowds thinking. What we want is relative values, putting a real value on the cards would open up a whole debate I won’t want in this setting.
I tell the investors that their planning poker cards are denominated in thousands of London Dollars. So a “One card” is worth “1,000 London Dollars” and a “21 card” is “21,000 London Dollars.”
Now it’s for the Entrepreneurs to pitch their first, highly valuable, story. After the pitch they take questions and after that we vote. Each investor holds up a card to indicate the value they put on the story being pitched. I usually average the scores, write the average on the card and pin it to the wall.
The Entrepreneurs keep on pitching stories and once value is agreed the story is pinned on the wall relative to others. Over time a value map emerges which offers a first cut at prioritisation. The map isn’t sacrosanct, when voting ends it is worth discussing the map, there may be good reasons for not simply starting with the highest value item and working down but these reasons deserve discussion.
Benefits of Value Poker
The values on the stories and the value map are the most obvious output and benefit of this exercise but they are far from the only benefits.
The questions and conversations that occur during the process are rich in opinions and insights. By licensing dissent and argument, assumptions and missing information are exposed, different understandings of the stories, the product and even the business strategy are highlighted.
When coders and testers play Investors the exercise throws up points on requirement and specification which may be otherwise overlooked. When business folks play Investors, synergies and conflicts with other products, services and strategies are revealed.
And whoever plays Investors, new ideas are generated. While one Entrepreneur is pitching the others on the team can write new stories that pick up on ideas and these can be pitched straight back to the Investors.
Making the Product Manager play Entrepreneur is no bad thing either, they are put on the spot and need to think on their feet – how well do they really know their business plan? That might be a scary position for someone who is happier sitting behind a desk drafting a business plan for circulation and polite review.
Apple and Oranges
By the way, I’m saying stories but it you can use whatever delivery unit you want, User Story, Use Case, Job-To-Be-Done, Functional Requirement, and so on. The key point is: each thing is expected to deliver business benefit in its own right – hopefully hard cash but it could be learning, risk reduction, customer retention.
One question that gets asked a lot when I introduce this technique is “How can you compare apples and oranges? – some of the stories are about market growth and others about future-proofing our technology?” Actually, this is one of the strong points of this technique.
Two very different stories, each with its own merits and demerits are difficult to compare. But they need to be compared, they need to be prioritised, ranked and scheduled just the same. The criteria for prioritising may be different but they still need to be compared, pitching them, and assigning imaginary currency forces that conversation out into the open.
Think about it this way: who is more valuable to your organisation, a great Product Manager, an ace developer or a “sell ice to eskimos” sales guy? Who knows? But at the end of the month you all get paid in the same units.
Put Value Poker in Your Toolbox
Value poker in the Dragons’ Den is another tool for your toolbox. It’s a fun way to talk about your product and generate a shared understanding of what you are trying to do. More importantly it allows you to start talking more about value of work and less about effort alone.
One last thing, there is a slight irony when business folk complain, as they do, about the difficulty of estimating value. You hear some very familiar arguments – arguments that you normally hear from programmers when they are asked for an effort estimate.