Ouija Board Estimation / Seance Sizing

Saturday, 7 August, 2010

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!