I went to a breakfast meeting of the PM PM SIG (Project Management Special Interest Group) today to hear Kevin Thompson of cPrime talk about “Wideband Delphi (Agile) Estimation for Project Managers”. It turned out to be a fun talk about an easy-to-use estimating tool called Planning Poker by Mountain Goat Software. I was surprised by the similarities between the Planning Poker estimation method and the participant selection method we have used for many years for Sun’s SEED worldwide Engineering mentoring program.
Planning Poker is based on the Delphi estimation method pioneered by the Rand Corporation in the 1940s, then refined by Barry Boehm in the 1970s.
I volunteered to participate in the demonstration during this morning’s meeting. I pretended to be an Expert on Chickens. I was quizzed by a team of three estimators who had to decide how many chickens would be needed to feed dinner to twenty people. Here is how we used the Planning Poker estimation cards:
- Discuss the work to be done, clarify details, each estimator gets a set of cards
- A Facilitator asks each estimator to pick one numbered card from their set (each card has one number: 0, 1/2, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13…).
- Once each estimator has picked his card, the Facilitator asks that all the cards be shown
- If estimates differ (for example: two people estimated 5 chickens and the other estimated 13 chickens), assumptions which drove selection of the low and high numbers are discussed
- More operational definitions and details are requested from the Expert as needed (for example: I said that one third of the twenty diners were vegetarian but the chickens were very small)
- The estimation cycle repeats until there is agreement (our group agreed that 13 chickens would feed 20 people)
This method reduces bias of team members just agreeing with each other’s estimates for social or hierarchical reasons. Since everyone picked his number card in private then turned over the cards simultaneously, each had to make a first estimate based on his own understanding.
Here is how SEED selection for Recent Hire mentoring terms works:
- Each SEED application is read independently by at least two executive Selection Committee members. Each member ends up reading about the same number of applications.
- Each Applicant is ranked H-High, M-Medium or L-Low, with roughly 1/3 of the names in each category. For example, if there were 84 applications and 7 on the committee, if the goal is 40 Participants, each Selection Committee member would read 24 applications and have more-or-less eight High, eight Medium, and eight Low rankings to distribute.
- The committee gets a week to make their evaluations. Then, they meet by phone for a one hour meeting. During the first half of that meeting, a Facilitator says the name of each applicant and the two Selection Committee members who have rated that person give their rating: H, M, or L. After all applicants have been given two ratings,
- Discussions are often around differences of interpretation of the application materials and relative value to Sun Engineering of the applicant. Energetic discussions happen when the same Applicant is rated High by one and Low by another.
- Another common discussion is about how many Medium/Mediums to include to achieve an appropriate and balanced diversity among the Participants. Diversity of demographics, geography, and professional area are all considered.
- All SEED applicants rated H,H and M,H and L,H are accepted and also some rated M,M. SEED does not accept applicants rated L,L (low by both reviewers) or M,L.
Because the Selection Committee are all executives who may be rating staff reporting to other committee members, keeping the ratings private until the actual phone meeting helps reduce bias of members just agreeing with each other’s ratings for social or hierarchical reasons. As with Planning Poker, discussions start with outlying values rather than discussing all the details and assumptions for each rating.
Using Planning Poker or the SEED selection method means that potentially complex decisions can be made very quickly and with relative ease. This makes it easier to recruit team members, especially in the case of SEED where the members are very busy executives.
Read more about the SEED mentoring program in Sun Mentoring: 1996-2009 by Katy Dickinson, Tanya Jankot, and Helen Gracon (Sun Labs Technical Report TR-2009-185, August 2009).
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Images Copyright 2010 Katy Dickinson
Links updated 25 March 2014
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