How do you estimate items in the backlog?

Decoding the riddle 🤓

And believe me, estimating items in the backlog can be a riddle. At the very least, it’s an age-old Agile question.

I get this question frequently, and the answer can be simple and short, depending on the team’s experience and preference.

Seasoned teams often instinctively know the drill, diving straight in. But there’s an art and science to estimation, so let’s look closer at this question.

Experience Dictates Practice

An experienced team, well-versed in its tasks, might not feel the need to estimate. They just “know” what to do. But this doesn’t mean estimation is a redundant practice. 🌠

I like estimation and despite acknowledging the limitations of our human tendency to often inaccurately estimate, I think that the real gold is in the conversations it stimulates.

Even though I know all the science and all the research that’s gone into it, we’re rubbish at estimating.

A lot of what we do is understand the problem.

To estimate something, a team has to understand it, and when everyone agrees on an estimate, it signifies a unified understanding. ✨

More Than Just Numbers

Estimation matters beyond mere numbers. It’s the conversations around estimation are invaluable.

Conversations Over Figures: It’s not about the specific number. It’s the discussion around reaching that number that’s invaluable. Those interactions unearth assumptions, insights, and potential solutions.

T-shirt Sizing and Story Pointing: I’m quite a fan of two forms of estimation: t-shirt sizing and story pointing. For items lower in the backlog, t-shirt sizing (Small, Medium, Large) offers a quick assessment. For items closer to action, many teams use story pointing, utilising numbers or even the Fibonacci series.

Comparative Estimation: We want to pick a number based on what we think is roughly the same effort as that thing we’ve done before. Quick, relative estimation techniques, comparing new tasks with previous ones, help drive quick decisions.

It allows you to move quickly and create conversations that are important. ⚙️

This isn’t about complexity but sheer effort. As John muses, “What we want to do is pick a number based on what we think it’s roughly the same effort as that thing we’ve done before.”

Estimation in the Real World

I want to give you a real-world spin on estimation. 💡

Drawing from my years of experience in Agile, I want to share an interesting anecdote about a company that used varying sizes of their products, from a suitcase to a cruise liner, as metaphors for estimation. These visual metaphors helped the team gauge the effort required. 💡

And while no estimation method is perfect, the essence remains: the value lies in the discussions it promotes. ⚙️

The Heart of Estimation

Estimation is difficult; it’s going to be wrong, but I like quick, simple relative estimation techniques comparing things with things the team have done in the past.

What truly matters isn’t whether your team’s estimation is spot-on every time. Humans are prone to miscalculations. The crux is the discourse that arises from trying to understand the task.

Estimation is less about the numbers and more about fostering a collective understanding. 🔥

Unlock more insights with my comprehensive Agile and Scrum courses.

Understand the intricacies, master estimation, and catalyse meaningful team dialogues.

Together, let’s journey into the nuances of Agile and make estimation a powerful tool in your repertoire. 🚀

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John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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