Ouija Board Estimation

A fun technique for agile estimating

2 November 2010

Paul Goddard
Agilify

During a recent training course I ran, one of the delegates made a joke about the nature of agile estimation in Scrum teams resembling a "séance"; whereby the team gathers around the table and stares at a number of user story cards expecting something unnatural to happen. How true!  This gave me an idea for a different type of iterative estimation that I tried in practice with ‘Team Woodstock’.  I sat the team around a table and wrote the Fibonacci sequence’s numbers “1,2,3,5,8,13” and a “?” on post-its around the table in the design of a Ouija board.  Once everyone was sitting comfortably, had cleared their minds and entered a trance-like state the product owner read out the story and the team clarified the acceptance criteria.  Then the story was placed in the middle of the table and each team member put one finger on the story – in silence. Without discussion or argument the story started to move towards the number which reflected its size, by the act of the team members pushing or pulling the story towards their chosen number.

Good Stories = Faster Estimation 

The first observation was that this was encouraging the team to come to consensus – silently. For stories that were well defined and understood, the card movement was very fast and direct, which allowed the team to estimate these stories quickly and without unnecessary discussion.  However, I did spot more interesting dynamics occur when different stories were read out by the Product Owner.  For instance, when the team disagreed on a particular story, team members would uncontrollably break the silence with a restrained groan, as if the card was disobeying their command!  When this did occur I would stop the team and ask why that person disagreed.  Similar to the iterative nature of planning poker, we restarted the exercise with the same story once those concerns had been discussed.

How big… NO IDEA?!?

 Another ‘supernatural’ phenomenon occurred when the Product Owner read out a particularly ill-defined story.  As the estimation began….nothing happened.  The card did not move. Everyone in the team was waiting for some ‘spiritual guidance’, but no one in the team knew how big or small the story was!  So we then moved our ‘?’ post-it note to the centre of the table and deemed that if any card remained there for more than 10 seconds that we stop estimating that story and seek more information from the Product Owner.

 ‘Alpha’ Team Members

 As this team’s ScrumMaster observing this exercise, I saw the complex team dynamics and behaviours that can come into play even in such a simple exercise.  I could see dominant team members physically exerting more and more downward pressure on the card until their fingertips turned white.  From using this exercise on a number of different teams since, I have noticed that these ‘alpha’ team members, or influential people, are also likely to be the first people to break the silence after the card has come to rest on its chosen number; whether they agree with the estimate or not.  In some cases, I have even seen these people move the card to another size in defiance of the team’s view of size. ‘Alpha’ team members are likely to have a history of giving estimates on behalf of their team. This encourages more passive or even submissive behaviour within the remaining Scrum team members, which the ‘Ouija board’ estimation can highlight to an observant ScrumMaster or coach.  

Passive team members can be identified as people who will simply rest their finger on the card and allow themselves to be led by the rest of the Scrum team. This is not necessary a bad thing, but sometimes these people may need to be encouraged to ask questions of the rest of the team.

Submissive behaviour is less easy to spot. The same behaviour is seen in Planning Poker, where submissive members will deliberately delay playing their cards. In Ouiji Board Estimation, submissive team members will have to wait until the ‘alpha’ team member makes their move.  This can be spotted firstly by eye movement, as people tend to look at where they want the story to move on the Ouija board as they move it.  Once the ‘alpha’ team member’s intention has been noticed or felt, the submissive team members join forces and rally behind the dominant party. This can steer the story to a more biased outcome, hence why the ScrumMaster needs to facilitate this exercise mindfully.

Use the right furniture

I have been refining this exercise since I came up with it, and I would give you these tips if you are thinking about trying it:

  • Circular tables work best – this allows everyone equal reach around the table
  • Take away people’s chairs – estimation becomes faster, blood flow increases, less chance of passive people switching off
  • Equal and opposite forces can ruin story cards! – read the story first, and use a separate up-turned glass for the Ouija board activity
  • Shiny, polished tables allow the best story card movement

I have now run this exercise a number of times with a number of different teams, and as well as being a fun new way to estimate, it can be a great aid to allowing a ScrumMaster or coach to spot team foibles that they didn’t realise where even there!

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Comments

Prashant Pund, CSM, 11/9/2010 2:46:10 AM
Hi Paul, This is quite interesting! Cold you please explain further the mapping of iterations of Poker with this practice?
-Prashant Pund
Paul Goddard, CST,CSC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 11/9/2010 7:20:01 AM
I only tended to iterate the game if the team couldn't find consensus (just like planning poker). As they became more comfortable with the techniques the estimation got quicker and the need to iterate was less as they reached consensus quicker.
Geraldo Bonorino Xexéo, CSM, 11/10/2010 3:43:00 PM
Inventive solution. In your picture, only 3 of the 6 hands are actually touching the story. Can you discuss that dynamics?
Paul Goddard, CST,CSC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 11/12/2010 7:37:30 AM
Good observation. These photos were taken the first time I ran the exercise. In this case, the reason why people have taken there fingers off the story is because they couldn't reach the story as it moved towards size 8. This exercise works best on a round/square where everyone can reach all parts of the table. Also, we removed the chairs from the room next time around, and I found people are more attentive and focussed if they are standing up around the table.
Fernando Poblete Arrau, CSM, 11/19/2010 8:47:06 AM
Hi Paul, I think it's a great technique to make the estimation more eficient and fun, however I have a question.
In classic poker estimation all the 'players' show their cards at the same time. This prevents anchoring, wich it's specially important when team members has different expertise levels. Have you been in this situation and how do you prevent this from happening with this technique?
Paul Goddard, CST,CSC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 11/19/2010 12:46:51 PM
If you have dominant people in the team who always want to influence estimation this technique works well because that has to work against 5-6 other estimators and 'drag' the story to the number he/she wants. I also found some people would break the silence if they felt strongly enough about where the card was heading. Equally I have also seen 'limp fingers' on cards which shows passive team members who either don't know or need extra information from the team. Try it and see how it works for your team.
Arran Hartgroves, CSP,CSM, 11/19/2010 6:44:46 PM
Brilliant, I'll definitely try this, even the fun factor!
Richard Birch, CSP,CSM, 1/27/2011 9:45:59 AM
Thanks Paul. I'm going to try this next time round. we have tried a variety of retrospective activities, but story pointing is largely the same every time; so this will freshen things up, and as you say will give a fresh angle on team dynamics.
Stephen Beagle, CSM, 1/28/2011 11:57:43 AM
I just tried this with my team and I must admit it definitely freshened things up and got a lot of chuckles! It was also fun for me to watch the card head toward 2, then slowly turn toward 3 while the beads of sweat broke out on my team members' foreheads. However, the planning poker process is so ingrained in them they immediately started asking "who was pulling toward 3?" and we ended up in the old routine. We'll probably stick with regular planning poker, but keep the fresh ideas coming! It's nice to have fun with this stuff. One of my team members suggested next time we play "pin the story point estimate on the story" or darts.
Paul Goddard, CST,CSC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 1/28/2011 5:02:57 PM
Thanks for the feedback Stephen. Glad it helped to change things up a bit.

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