A better way to do Agile Estimates

The standard agile estimation process falls into typical estimation traps that make creating accurate estimates difficult. Major traps are  relying solely on expert judgement,  rushing the team to estimate in a high pressure setting, like a sprint planning meeting, and we often estimate work without clearly defining the scope.

When estimating, we want to prioritize Counting, Computing and Judgement, in that order. The best way to estimate something is to have a record of how long things took historically, then create a complete set of stories for the work. To create the estimate you simply count up the stories. In construction you might have a certain number of feet of drywall you need put up in your house. To estimate the cost you would multiply the number of feet by the going rate per foot of drywall and end up with a pretty good estimate. 

In software we work with myriad heterogeneous tasks that we don’t have industry standard data for. So we have to rely on Computing and Judgement to create our estimates. To compute an estimate you could do something like reasoning that since your historical rate of completing stories is 2 days for the company, we will create an estimate based on (2 days * #stories). That is computation will create a rough estimate at best so it would be worthwhile to round it to one significant digit. What you should not do is use your judgement to tweak the estimate after you compute it. Don’t say to yourself, “Our team is the best in the company we will only take 1.5 days per story” if you don’t actually have data to back up that rate of 1.5 days per story.

Our last resort in estimation is to use the judgement of experts to tell us what they think is a reasonable estimate. The problem is that in Agile we rely on Software Engineers who have no training in estimation and our estimating process encourages them to take shortcuts when creating estimates. 

The standard agile process today is to put a bunch of engineers in a room and have them play ‘planning poker’ where they are expected to use expert judgement on a short timeframe, without access to any historical data. 

We want to avoid pressuring people to ‘rush’ when estimating. If data is available we should have time to look it up and compare with previous projects. 

I propose a tweak to the standard sprint planning meeting called ‘Serious Agile Estimating’. Before sprint planning most teams will have a backlog grooming session. After that meeting prepare a spreadsheet of every story that your team needs estimates for. Next fill out the estimation form with the stories for the next sprint and send it out to each team member before the sprint planning meeting. 

The sprint planning meeting will be split into 2 phases, estimation and discussion. The estimation phase will take up the first 30 minutes of sprint planning and should be carried out in silence. Each team member should have a laptop and the estimation form. Team members should take this time to read through the stories creating best, most likely and worst case estimates. After 30 minutes, ask everyone to submit their forms online. 

The discussion phase of the meeting is focused on discussing the differences between people’s estimates. Was there work that we forgot to break up into stories? Do members of the team have differing opinions on how much work different tasks are? What data did team members use to support their estimates? It is important to remember that we do not change estimates during the discussion phase. 

Never make estimates off the cuff or during a meeting while people are talking. Having a hard rule of ‘never make estimates during a meeting’ would be the best. But in my experience it is more reliable to block off focused time in a meeting than to have everyone do it beforehand. 

Serious Estimating Steps

  • Create a list of groomed stories to estimate ahead of time
  • Give each team member a checklist and estimation form (See the example form included at the bottom of this post.)
  • Have each team member estimate stories individually then meet to compare your estimates. 
  • Do not make any estimates during the discussion
  • Require team members to submit a complete set of estimates before the meeting. 
  • Don’t just average the estimates and call it good enough. You need to discuss the differences among individual results, don’t just take the calculated average automatically. 

The big difference is that team members create estimates on their own with ample time to think. No count downs, no poker, estimates are written down and then discussed. 

Finally, I strongly recommend reading Software Estimation Demystifying the Black Art by Steve McConnell which is the source of many of the ideas in this post. 

The book can be found here: https://www.construx.com/books/software-estimation-demystifying-the-black-art/

Google Docs Link:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1H0CkBlGcRCXxPFMQ3QlXuPzjEUJJRNw/edit?usp=sharing9y9dIw6HnRGm

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