Planning poker with Microsoft Outlook

© by InDezign. All rights reserved.

Jira or TFS (…or even Excel! Really?) are great tools to work with your Product- & Sprint-Backlogs.
But when it comes to estimating the PBIs (=Product Backlog Items) with your teams some of you will use plugins (mostly for remote teams), some physical poker cards or rather a smartphone app in the refinement meetings, right?

Although I support the #NoEstimates movement by Ron Jeffries … there are still many teams/companies doing estimations and this blog post is for them to maybe optimize it and reduce the amount of waste in estimation meetings.

What’s the current situation?

Let’s assume, you are running Jira or TFS and your Product Owner
prioritized your Product Backlog and your Development Team refined it.

To know which of the PBIs (=Product Backlog Items) can be moved into the Sprint Backlog, the whole team and the product owner might even want to have some estimations.
Normally, you (the Scrum Master) would ask your team members to give an estimation, right?

In my opinion, this is pure waste of time.
Have you ever measured, how long this takes?
There’s a question here and a question there, some are not sure and look around what others might guess, some others have never seen the particular PBI before and need to read it first… and finally, when you really got the estimations of all team members they might differ so much that an additional discussion is needed to clarify the aspects.

Don’t get me wrong – this is necessary since the team needs to understand what a PBI is about to give a valid estimation and it’s the Scrum Master’s job to keep these discussions short.
But sometimes it’s not that easy and sometimes these discussions throw new aspects on the table.

But again – is it necessary to have all the team members sitting around while just 2 or 3 of them discuss the item?

Nope. Period.
Definitely not and it hinders the whole team in doing what they want and what they are supposed to do – delivering value.

So, what else?

And this is where Microsoft Outlook came into my mind – we all use it day by day and we all are used to work with it.
But did you know, Outlook has some pretty neat feature which can be easily adjusted and used for Planning Poker?
The feature I’m talking about is called „voting buttons„.

At first sight, it’s nothing spectacular and I doubt lots of you have used them, right?
But it is a cool feature which is very helpful when an estimation is needed.

Voting Buttons? Really?

Yep… when you take a closer look, these are awesome and estimation are much better.

This is how it works:

Send estimation emails to your team members

Create a new email in Microsoft Outlook.

In the subject line write something like

[♠ ♣ ♥ ♦ ] Your estimation is needed

I personally like to add something in square brackets at the beginning of the subject line to ensure the team members know what it’s about (aren’t suits perfect for planning poker?) and that it’s part of our Scrum process.

Then put some nice lines in your email including the description and the link to the PBI (simple copy & paste), e.g.:

Hey guys/gals,

I kindly ask you to estimate the item TDX1234 – Add bullet points to the list of available customers.

Oh… and please use the voting buttons on top of this email to set your personal estimation.

Thanks for your help and kind regards
Eric

Make sure you only send one email for each PBI you want votes for since Outlook cannot handle multiple votes in one email.

Fyi, I’ll create another blog post in the future with a simple solution for Microsoft Outlook which supports several items in one email.

Now, let’s add some „magic“ to the email. :)
On top of your email select Options – Use Voting buttons – Custom…

We use „Custom…“ since we don’t want to use the standard voting buttons (Approve;Reject / Yes;No / Yes;No;Maybe) but rather our Scrum planning poker values (you may copy & paste the following lines directly in Microsoft Outlook) :

0;0.5;1;2;3;5;8;13;20;40;100;?
XS;S;M;L;XL;XXL;XXXXXXL

Do you have another order or system agreed upon with your team?
Perfect, simply create a semicolon separated list – no spaces before and after each semicolon.

Now, select the checkbox „Use Voting buttons“ and replace the existing entries with yours.

Finally, you may even define an expiration date.
This might be helpful if the product owner needs the estimation until a given time and if you don’t want to get votes after this date.
I personally never used it – but hey, who knows?

Now, you’re done and you can send the email to your team.

Your team members will get an email which will look like this:

Pay attention to the red marked area – it says
This message contains voting buttons. Click here to vote.

When your team members click on it, they’ll see the list of the values for estimation and can select the value (after they clicked on the link to the PBI in your email and read it).

After selecting one of the values they’ll get a short notice that they an send the voting without any comments or they can add some comments before.

Well, I said something about „magic“, right?
This „magic“ happens now!

Receive the votes of your team members

When you receive the emails with the votes you’ll see not only the votes at first sight in your inbox…

…but also the results (so, you don’t have to look them up yourself).
To see them select one of the emails with a vote and click on „The voting of the sender was:

Now, select „Show voting results„…

… and you’ll get a table with all results and those who didn’t vote yet:

That’s it!
Maybe I should add another nice feature – a team member who already voted this way, can’t vote again since Outlook doesn’t accept a withdraw of a given vote.

What are the advantages?

It’s time-saving and a reduction of waste.

  • No plugins or additional tools needed
  • Works even mit Microsoft Outlook without Exchange Server
  • Team members can take the time frame that works best for them to read through the PBI,
  • they can select an estimation based on their understanding and feeling,
  • they have no time-pressure to decide,
  • have no team members watching them or their votes and
  • they may even discuss the item in a smaller group or one of their team mates.

My experience shows that the teams I practiced this with, loved the idea and also wanted to use it in the future.

At least that’s one small step away from estimation meetings but a giant leap into the direction of #NoEstimates… ;)

Enjoy this new way of planning poker and maybe also your team members love this new and disruptive way.

Now, what do you think?
have you already tested it yourself?
I’m pretty sure you’ll come up with some nice improvements and ideas (maybe other voting series or maybe even some symbols?).
I’d be very happy to hear about them in the comments!

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