Paint The Room!

I occasionally deliver internal Agile training classes, and one of the things I have struggled with is to explain the concept of Agile estimation. I’ve been searching for a good game to get the point across, but could never find anything that worked well. Some times I could work off a real backlog of items and features supplied by the class participants, but more often than not it was almost impossible to find a set of features that everyone in the room could relate to. So some people would get the point, others would not.

One day in such a training session I had a room full of people from various backgrounds and was silently stressing over how to best cover Agile estimation. Then, somehow, two previously unacquainted neurons connected for the first time and in a flash I had the solution.

This game will teach Relative Estimation, Planning Poker, Story Points, Backlog Refinement, Story Splitting and Story Elaboration all in one short 20-minute session. All you need is some Planning Poker cards. It’s so simple you just have to try it to see how effective it is.

If you’re not familiar with how to use Planning Poker, then this page from Mike Cohn (@mikewcohn) is a good start.

I call it the “Paint the Room” game.

Paint The Room

The game is played in whatever room you are delivering the training in. Chances are your particular room has at least four walls, a floor and a ceiling. Good – that’s all you need! Now here is the setup:

Working as a team we have been given the job of painting the room which we are currently in. The customer’s requirement is (intentionally) vaguely stated as “please paint the room” and we have drawn up an initial project backlog which looks like this:

  • paint the north wall
  • paint the south wall
  • paint the east wall
  • paint the west wall
  • paint the ceiling
  • paint the floor

You might of course give each wall a descriptive name such as “window wall”, “entry door wall” etc. instead of north/south/east/west. Many people can’t tell North from Up.

In the game you will represent the Customer/Product Owner when the team has questions about the job. The team has to come up with an estimate to paint the room. Distribute Planning Poker cards to everyone. Keep the number of participants to the size of a scrum team. Everyone else can just watch and still get the full benefit.

The nice thing about the game is that everyone can relate to the task of painting a wall, even if they have never touched a paintbrush. Furthermore, everyone’s assumptions about what is involved in doing a good paint job varies widely among white-collar knowledge workers.

Establish the “Anchor Feature”

In relative estimation it is useful to have an anchor feature that we can associate a known story point quantity with. Other features will be estimated relative to the anchor feature.

Pick one wall that looks like it is medium effort relative to all the others and tell the team that “this wall is a 5-story point wall”. That is your “anchor feature”. All other backlog items will be estimated relative to that wall. This establishes what a 5-story-point wall looks like.

Most engineers initially have a hard time separating the idea of Story Points from person-days when we talk about software features, but have no trouble at all accepting the abstract notion of a unit-less “5 Story Point wall”.

Now we’re ready to estimate.

Estimate one wall

Pick one wall that is a little less complicated than the anchor wall and ask the team to estimate how many story points that wall is relative to the anchor wall. Use the Planning Poker method to get input from each team member.

Simply ask “So assuming our anchor wall is 5 Story Points of effort, how many Story Points of effort is this wall?”

Make sure everyone provides an estimate, and that everyone flips their cards all at once. One of the key benefits of Panning Poker is to protect against the influence of expert estimates which may or may not be reflective of what the team can actually do. It’s essentially a variation of wide-band delphi estimation. And indeed you might get a wide range of responses in the range of 1 story points to 8 or even 20.

This is where the fun starts.

Talk about the high and low estimates. The value of Planning Poker is in the conversation which brings out unspoken assumptions, and you will really see that in this exercise. As the high/low estimators explain their reasoning for their estimates, you will hear things like

  • I assumed that we had to put masking tape on the trim and around the edges of the windows
  • I assumed that we had to remove all the covers on the electrical outlets
  • I assumed that we have to cover the floor
  • I assumed that the prep work was done (or was not done) ahead of time

In other words, different people make different assumptions about what the job really entails when the job is imprecisely specified, so they come up with different story point estimates. That is exactly what happens when software engineers with different skills and specializations give estimates on vague requirements. Many times you will find that there is an experienced handyman in the team, and he will be on one end of the scale relative to the others. That is ok, it’s usually that way with software experts too.

The other thing that usually happens is that the team starts spurring each other on with more clarifying questions:

  • are we using rollers or brushes?
  • do we assume that all preparation/making take is done before the job?
  • do we all work on one wall at a time, or several in parallel?
  • do we have to purchase supplies first?
  • Should we move the furniture out of the room?

and so on.

The conversation will flow back and forth a little as the team considers the now-spoken assumptions behind the high and low estimates. As the facilitator you just have to sit back and listen as the team starts peeling the layers off the onion. If the team gets stuck, you might volunteer some of the questions above, but never solutions. Your job is to make sure that the team talks about their assumptions and agree on the how between themselves.

It’s a game, so don’t waste the opportunity to have some fun with it. If you get questions from the team, don’t be shy to throw in new requirements or constraints to make the job harder. “No you can’t take the windows out of the window frames before painting” or “yes of course you must remove the windows from the window frames before painting” and “well yes, of course I want the floor painted in a black-and-white chequer-pattern. What did you think?” are good conversation-starters. The team may groan all they want, but every small requirement change makes the game a little more like reality.

As the team discusses their individual assumptions they will probably identify some new tasks. Most teams end up adding new items to the backlog:

  • remove electrical outlet covers
  • put masking tape around the windows
  • put electrical covers back on
  • Purchase supplies
  • clean up

After a few back-and-forth comments you might get to a point where the team has a new common enhanced understanding:

  • yes we will remove the electrical outlet covers
  • we will use rollers for painting large areas and special brushes around the windows
  • we will not cover the floor (it will be painted last)
  • etc.

Not too different from talking about how a given feature works, what the hidden requirements are an so on. The actual agreements and assumptions are not important, as long as the team ends up with a better shared understanding of the task. The new knowledge is an illustration of Story Elaboration, and you might even want to take the opportunity to specify some Acceptance Criteria, such as “no paint smudges” and “even color application” (might require two coats).

Do another round of Planning Poker estimation. The second round of estimation should have a tighter range since we have now had some conversations and clarification about the “requirements”.

Discuss the high/low estimates again and do one more round of estimations if needed. If you picked a good “anchor wall” and picked a slightly less complicated wall to estimate, then the Story Point estimates should settle around 3 or 5 Story Points. Good enough, let’s move on.

Estimate the ceiling

Now that the team has seen the Anchor Wall and produced a converged estimate for a simple wall, you ask the team to place a story point estimate on painting the ceiling. Again, it must be relative to the Anchor Wall of 5 Story Points.

Discuss the high and low estimates. Some people will estimate the ceiling as being easy, others will see added complexity in simply reaching high, using ladders, how to deal with light fixtures etc. In any case you will find more un-spoken assumptions that only come to light when you talk about the estimates.

This is also a good opportunity to point out that the customer requirement initially was just to “paint the room”. Nobody gave specific direction on what to do about things like the light fixtures. It’s a perfect way to illustrate that it’s critical to go back to your customer and clarify what the expectation is. I usually respond to the team, when they ask, that I like the way the light fixtures look so I don’t want paint all over them. Therefore I want the light fixtures removed and then put back in place after the ceiling has been painted. You can then show that it’s ok to split the story into three: (1) remove fixtures, (2) paint the ceiling and (3) reinstall fixtures. That is a lot more work than the initial expectation (do we need an electrician?), but hey that’s R&D. Sometimes we uncover unexpected complexity. Update the project backlog accordingly.

Check the backlog

As you have gone through the estimating process a couple of times you will see that the backlog has grown with new entries, and some stories have been split into smaller stories. That illustrates the mechanics of backlog refinement. In every case the refinement was a direct result of discussing with the customer and/or uncovering hidden assumptions.

Wrap it up

I never go through the whole backlog, but stop the game after estimating two or three backlog items. By then we have covered Relative Estimation, Story Points, Story Elaboration, Story Splitting, Planning Poker and Backlog Refinement. Not bad for 20 minutes of poker!

I’ve run the exercise a few times now, and every time the team has come out with a better understanding of how to use Agile estimation techniques in their projects. Hopefully it works for you too.

If it does, let me know!