Planning Poker vs Table Sorting

Many agile teams have discovered Planning Poker, which is a well known and proven practice.

But there is an interesting alternative to Planning Poker that can work very well under certain conditions. I call it Table Sorting (don’t know the official name – and I am not the inventor).

Table Sorting works like this:

  • Prepare items on paper (or similar).
  • Put items on table so that they are all readable.
  • Team stand around table so everyone can read and move items.
  • Explain the mechanism behind Table Sorting.
  • Everyone moves items to where they think they belong in a sorted order. This is done in silence.
  • Put a token on items that are moving back and forth.
  • When all items have stopped moving, discuss the items with a token on them and try to agree on where to put them – after more information has been exchanged (just like in Planning Poker).

After this exercise you should have a team agreement on the sorting. I have done this for sorting both on relative size and on relative business value and it has worked really good. You should of course by able to do team-based sorting on any parameter using this method.

Sometimes you also might want to add an additional step by sorting into groups (columns) and put a number on them. For example if you are using Story Points for relative size.

Table Sorting is much faster than Planning Poker since there is less discussion and many items are moving simultaneously. That is both the strength and the weakness of the method. When there is good common knowledge and agreement in the team the discussions might not be needed – and you focus the discussions on the items where you really need them. But you always risk missing out on a discussion that was needed if you use Table Sorting.

So my advice is to try out Table Sorting if have a lot of items that need sorting and you are fairly sure the risk of missing important discussions is small.

If you have new members on the team or if knowledge is not well spread among all team members you should be really careful using the method. It might result in a few people who have the most knowledge that are the ones who are active and some people will be more or less excluded from the teamwork. Not good!

8 thoughts on “Planning Poker vs Table Sorting”

  1. Jelle van Wieringen

    Though your posting is “aged”, I still think it is a new idea. The first time I saw this technique was a posting from South Africa some years ago. They put the items on the floor.

    With planning poker one can download apps that offer selection of fobinacci numbers. I wonder if an app that offers any sorting of the backlog will be a good help. So it can be reused in the table sorting. The advantage will be for team members who are remote.

    1. Hmm, I haven’t thought about that. Interesting idea.
      I think it might actually be quite feasible to do in Leankit – it is very flexible when it comes to creating rows and columns and do drag and drop of cards. But the meeting would be bit challenging to facilitate I guess.
      I would be really interested to hear from you if you try it out!

  2. Hi Thomas!

    I am developing an online tool for estimation which uses exactly the same (or nearly the same) technique. I think you might be interested in it (link in profile)

  3. Peter Zurkirchen

    I really support what Thomas has written. We use these technique for our teams for years and it works well. We call it “Silent Sort” and I think that names it very well!

  4. There is a very similar technique to this that involves taking turns adding/moving stories, that has been attributed to Steve Bockman.

    I’ve heard people in the agile community referred to it as the Bockman Technique.

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