Should You Include or Exclude the Agile Product Owner when Estimating?

Anthony Mersino
March 29, 2015

Earlier this week I was facilitating a discussion on agile estimating at a Meetup. A question came up about whether or not the product owner of a scrum team should participate in team estimation via planning poker. The majority of the people felt that the PO should not be included. A minority of the people felt that it was OK to include them, and I agreed. What do you think? Do you include or exclude the Product Owner when estimating?

The main reason given by those who wanted to exclude the PO was that the PO wasn’t doing the work in the sprint. That is a really good point, though that isn’t a rule of planning poker. The principle of having the people actually doing the work do the estimating is a principle that pre-dates agile and scrum. It is about getting better estimates and more ownership for those estimates. Great idea, but not a rule of planning poker.

I’ve also heard the argument that excluding the PO protects the team from a PO that might bully them into accepting a lower point estimate. This is a true red herring; even if the team allowed that to occur, it would only be one vote of many. And the results would be a slightly lower story point estimates for that story, which would result in lower velocity and capacity. It’s a wash.

The jury is out among Agile experts. Ron Jeffries of XP fame says no, the PO should not be included in estimating unless they are coding. Hmm, does that mean that other members of our cross-functional team like business analyst and testers should also be excluded? They're not coding after all. BTW, Jeffries also wrote that Estimation is Evil.

James Grenning is credited with creating planning poker (though it was Mike Cohn who popularized it in his books and online tool). James doesn’t mention the PO in his original article, though he mentions customers and programmers as in XP. He describes the programmers as estimating, not the customer. Mike Cohn on the other hand, says that the PO can estimate if the team invites them.

I personally think that the benefits of including the PO far outweigh the risks. The PO should be present anyway. This is a great opportunity to educate the PO about how big or small things are by allowing them to participate. It makes them more effective! Sure they could get some of it by watching the team estimate, but I think they will maximize their learning by actually participating in the estimates. It’s like the difference between getting the answers right on Jeopardy while watching it on TV vs. actually competing on the Jeopardy show. 

My final reason to include the PO is that it reinforces that they are part of the team. I know there is also debate about Team and Scrum team and whether the PO is part of the team. We’ll save that debate for another post. But my point is this - why exclude them and make them feel like an outsider, when there is little downside risk from including them?

What do YOU think? Would you include or exclude the Product Owner when estimating via planning poker?

Cheers!

Photo Credit: Unfinished Business

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

Comments