Playing Poker Priority: Gain the Upper Hand in Backlog Management

Playing Poker Priority: Gain the Upper Hand in Backlog Management

In the often-serious world of product management, the concept of ‘Poker Priority’ brings a refreshing twist to the usual task of backlog prioritization.

It’s not your typical number-crunching, data-driven approach, but rather a game-like technique that adds an element of fun to decision-making. 

For those in charge of product management, this might seem like an unconventional method, but it can offer surprising benefits in team engagement and perspective-gathering. 

It breaks the monotony of traditional methods and introduces a lively, team-centric way of determining what’s next on the agenda.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into the mechanics and advantages of Poker Priority, as well as guide you through the steps of implementing this technique. 

What is Poker Priority?

Poker Priority is a dynamic and collaborative approach to backlog prioritization that borrows from the principles of poker, the popular card game. It stands out in the product management landscape as an innovative way to assess and rank tasks or features. 

Instead of working alone to decide what’s most important, the whole team gets involved in this method, making it a group activity.

The essence of Poker Priority lies in its interactive nature. 

To start, each team member gets a set of numbered cards. They use these cards to vote on how important they think each task in the product backlog is. Everyone picks a card for each task, but they keep their choice secret at first. After everyone has chosen a card, they all show their cards at the same time.

Any significant discrepancies in choices then lead to a discussion. This approach encourages team members to share their perspectives and reasoning behind their choices, fostering a rich dialogue.

This method does more than just make prioritizing fun. It gets everyone to share their ideas and reasons, which can lead to better decisions. 

It helps the team work together and understand each other’s points of view, making sure everyone has a say in what gets worked on first. 

For product managers, using Poker Priority is a great way to get the team working together on deciding the best way forward for their product.

The Origins of Poker Priority

The origins of Poker Priority in the world of product management can be traced back to the broader practice of Agile methodology, particularly to a technique known as Planning Poker. 

Planning Poker was first described by James Grenning in 2002 and later popularized by Mike Cohn in the book “Agile Estimating and Planning” in 2005. The concept was developed as a part of Agile software development, where it was used to estimate and prioritize tasks by involving every team member’s input collaboratively and interactively.

Drawing inspiration from the card game of poker, Planning Poker brought an element of gamification into the somewhat mundane process of task estimation and prioritization

It was designed to combat common issues in project estimation, such as cognitive biases and unproductive group dynamics, by encouraging each team member to think independently and then collectively discuss their rationale.

Over time, this practice evolved beyond just estimation and took on a broader role in backlog prioritization, leading to what is known today as Poker Priority. 

This evolution marked a shift from a purely technical tool used for estimation to a more inclusive and engaging method for prioritization, resonating well with teams seeking to democratize decision-making and foster a deeper sense of collaboration and team unity.

How to Play Poker Priority as a Product Manager

As a product manager, introducing and facilitating Poker Priority in your team can be both an effective and engaging way to manage your product backlog

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to play Poker Priority:

Step 1: Preparation

First, you’ll need a set of cards for each team member. These can be physical cards or digital ones if you’re working remotely. The cards typically have numbers indicating different levels of priority. For instance, a set may range from 0 to 5, where 0 could mean ‘lowest priority’ and 5 ‘highest priority.’

Step 2: Item Introduction

Start by presenting each item or feature from the product backlog to the team. Ensure that each item is described with enough detail so that all team members have a clear understanding of what it entails and its potential impact.

Step 3: Individual Voting

Once an item is presented, each team member selects a card that represents their opinion on the priority of that item. The key here is that selections are made individually and kept private to avoid influence from others’ choices.

Step 4: Reveal and Discuss

After everyone has selected a card, the team members reveal their choices simultaneously. This is where the interesting part begins. If there is a consensus or only minor differences in the team’s votes, the item can be quickly prioritized accordingly. However, significant discrepancies in votes warrant a discussion.

Step 5: Open Discussion

For items where there’s a wide spread of votes, encourage an open discussion. Each team member should have the opportunity to explain their reasoning. This process is invaluable as it brings different perspectives to light and can highlight considerations that others may not have thought of.

Step 6: Re-voting

After the discussion, you may choose to have a re-voting round if opinions were significantly divided. The goal is to reach a consensus or at least a majority agreement on the priority level of each item.

Step 7: Finalize Priorities

Once all items have been discussed and voted on, you can then organize them in the product backlog based on the agreed-upon priorities. This list becomes your guide for what to tackle in upcoming sprints or project phases.

The Role of the Product Manager

As a product manager, your role in Poker Priority is to facilitate the process, ensure that discussions stay on track, and guide the team toward consensus. It’s important to create an environment where every team member feels comfortable sharing their views and where differing opinions are valued and discussed openly.

Poker Priority is more than just a game; it’s a powerful tool for building team consensus and ensuring that backlog prioritization is a collaborative, inclusive, and well-informed process. 

By integrating this approach, you can not only make prioritization sessions more engaging but also harness the collective wisdom of your team for better decision-making.

When Poker Priority Fails

While Poker Priority can be an engaging and effective method for backlog prioritization, it’s not without its pitfalls. 

Understanding when and why this method might fail is crucial for product managers. 

Here are a few scenarios where Poker Priority may fall short:

1. Lack of Clear Understanding

If team members do not have a clear understanding of the items in the backlog, their votes may be based on incomplete or incorrect information. This can lead to skewed prioritization that does not accurately reflect the needs or goals of the project.

2. Dominant Personalities

In some teams, individuals with strong personalities or higher positions might inadvertently influence the voting process. If other team members feel overshadowed or reluctant to express their true opinions, the purpose of Poker Priority – to gather diverse viewpoints – is defeated.

3. Over-Reliance on the Process

Poker Priority is a tool, not a solution in itself. Over-reliance on the process without adequate discussion and analysis can lead to a mechanical approach to prioritization. This might result in important factors being overlooked or undervalued.

4. Groupthink

In a bid to reach a consensus quickly, teams might fall prey to groupthink, where the desire for harmony and conformity leads to poor decision-making. This happens when team members value consensus over the quality of the decision, leading to less optimal prioritization.

5. Inconsistent Criteria

If the criteria for assigning priority levels are not consistently understood or applied by all team members, the prioritization process can become inconsistent and unreliable. Everyone must be on the same page regarding what each level of priority signifies.

The PM’s Hot Take

Poker Priority can be a double-edged sword. It’s a fantastic tool for energizing the team and breaking down complex prioritization into digestible discussions. But, it’s not a cure-all. It works best in environments where there’s already a strong culture of open communication and mutual respect. If a team isn’t used to voicing diverse opinions or if there’s a hierarchy that stifles open dialogue, Poker Priority can quickly become just a formality rather than a meaningful exercise. The real power of this technique lies in the discussion it sparks and the insights it uncovers, not in the game itself. As product managers, your role is to ensure that this tool is used in the right spirit, fostering a platform for honest and constructive conversation rather than just going through the motions.

Conclusion

Poker Priority is more than a game; it’s a strategic approach that brings a lively and inclusive dimension to backlog management. 

While it has its challenges, when used correctly, it can enhance team collaboration and lead to more democratic and well-rounded decision-making. Remember, the effectiveness of Poker Priority depends largely on the environment in which it’s used and the discussions it fosters. 

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