People Polling

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Timing: 10 mins

Ingredients:

  • A good-sized audience – 10 or more (the bigger the better)
  • Pens & paper for all

Recipe:

It is best to sneak this exercise in when it is least expected.
Start by selecting something in the room that is not easily counted or estimated. Take the time to write the exact number down and hide it from the audience.
Then, have each individual quickly and privately write down their own estimate.
Gather all of the estimates and calculate the average.
Cross your fingers and unveil the number that you wrote down earlier. It should be relatively close to the group average.

I have done similar exercises about a dozen or so times and the results are usually spot on. However, there is always a chance that the results could be off, so always make sure to start by announcing that you want to perform an experiment together. Participants will understand if the results are not perfect.

Some things you can use to estimate:

  • Your weight – although people tend to be generous and the estimates are usually low. :)
  • Number of books available on Amazon.com
  • Number of words on a page – I’ve had the most success with this one. In a class environment, I’ll use the lab write-up and have the students write their estimate on the back.
  • Number of steps it takes to walk from one side of the room to the other – this one is fun, but you could get accused of rigging the outcome.
  • Balloons in the room – only works if you played the 99 Test Balloons game earlier. ;)
  • Please leave a comment to share some of your ideas and experiences.

Other helpful hints:

  • To keep things quick, open a spread sheet to type in everybody’s estimate as they show them to you. This also makes it easy to calculate the average in front of everybody.
  • Analyze the data with the class. You will likely get a very wide variance. I often find that no one individual estimate is as close as the average. This speaks to the true wisdom of the crowd and of the importance of diversity.
  • To make it even more interesting, give a prize to whomever had the most accurate estimate.

Learning Points:

  • The accuracy of the group estimate is usually stronger than any one individual’s.
  • The larger and more diverse the crowd is, the better the estimate.
  • Agile embraces this principle by involving the whole team in estimating and planning and by encouraging the creation of cross-functional teams.
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6 Responses to "People Polling"
  • Joe Krebs July 15, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Thanks for making this recipe available and sharing. I have used this tasty cupcake in the past, especially polling my weight. You are right, students were ususally flattering ;-)

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  • Peter Borsella December 2, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    I decided to give this exercise a try during a large group presentation. There were 14 tables of 5 – 7 people each. I had a handout for their reference, and late in the presentation I asked them to first take a minute to come up with an estimate of the number of words on the handout and write down that number. Then, as a variant of the exercise, I asked them to take a minute to work with their table-mates and come up with a consensus number. I then collected the team consensus numbers rather than the individual numbers. Here were the results:
    The average across all tables: 737
    The actual number of words: 635
    Not bad! They were quite impressed that the average was only about 100 words away from the actual, and they were able to come up with this in just two minutes!
    I then gave a prize to the individual with the closest number.
    Great exercise, and thanks!

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  • Mick Maguire January 12, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    First attempt for me didn’t work so well. I put 375 dots on a small whiteboard then showed it to my audience. Estimates ranged from 150 – 400 dots with an average of 252. The average fell only just within the top 50th percentile of averages from the group and was not clearly more reliable than asking an individual. As you say “there is always a chance that the results could be off”, and it did lead to a good discussion about the exercise itself.

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  • [...] People Polling by Don McGreal, an estimating exercise used widely in training and [...]

  • Ellen Grove June 6, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I’ve done this activity a couple of times asking the group to estimate the number of pages in a book. In one instance, the average of the group estimate (over 13 people) turned out to be exactly the number of pages in the book, which was impressive almost to the point of undermining the activity because of the perceived improbability of this happening. Lots of fun!

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  • Kathleen Ashelford January 23, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    I did two variations of this exercise with a group of 10 participants, estimating 1) the number of steps it took for one of our team to cross the room; 2) the number of pebbles in a jar.

    Amazingly, no one had seen this exercise before, and a few were skeptical of the premise. Each time, the average estimate of the group was within 10% of the correct number. However, in each case, one person actually guessed the exact number – but only one. It does illustrate that it’s better to go with group wisdom than trust your luck that one person will get it exactly right.

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