There’s a lot of chatter about whether or not agile estimation techniques are reliable and realistic. However, they have undoubtedly been popular in the past, and are still very much in the scene.
Traditional vs. Agile Estimation
Let’s begin with what agile estimation is. These are simply estimates for any particular project in hand. Whilst traditional estimations make use of time, some agile estimations prefer to use story points.
Instead of assigning a time estimation for a project, story points are assigned as measures of relative effort. This allows the team to consider other work they know they have to complete simultaneously in their estimations, and the skills of the team relative to each task. Story points don’t measure time-efficiency – they measure problem-solving abilities.
Traditional estimation is a different ballgame and uses methods that follow ‘bottom-up’ estimating. This means that teams inspect each element of a project, estimate the hours or days required to complete, and then use this information to develop a schedule for the project.
Agile estimation techniques use a ‘top-down’ process. This encourages teams to propose a gross-level estimation for how long the project should take, or how much effort it will take. This is then broken up and applied to different elements of the project. Teams drill farther into those elements, uncovering more and more details until the task level – which is looked at through a just-in-time lens.
In this article, we’re going to run through five of the most used agile estimation techniques. We’ll also briefly look at any pros and cons that are worth mentioning.
Agile Estimation Techniques
1. Planning Poker
Planning poker is an agile estimation technique that makes use of story points to estimate the difficulty of the task at hand. Based on the Fibonacci sequence, the story point values that can be assigned are 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40 and 100. Each of these represent a different level of complexity for the overall project.
Planning poker starts with the team members involved in the estimation process sitting together for the session. Each member holds cards with the story point values described above. The next step is for either a leader figure or the customer to read out the ‘user story’ (which is essentially the project), and describe all the requirements and features.
The stakeholder reading out the story will engage in discussion with the team members who are estimating, who will, in turn, discuss with one another. In this phase, they can ask the customer or owner questions for clarification and express any reservations they have.
When the discussions are finished, all of the estimators will select a card with the story point they believe needs assigning to the project. If the story point estimations match up – then that will be the final estimate. However, if they do not match up, then estimators who gave the lowest and highest points can voice their reasoning, and more discussion will ensue until there is a consensus.
This technique is not good for large teams, or when there are a large number of items that need estimating. If you only have a selected number of items (between 2 and 10) and a small band of teammates, then this is a good technique to use. It’s also one of the most popular estimation techniques.
2. T-Shirt Sizes
If you think about T-shirts, there are multiple sizes to choose from. More specifically – there is extra-small (XS), small (S), medium (M), large (L) and extra-large (XL). This technique uses these sizes as story points for the size of the project, and it is a useful way of thinking when estimation needs to occur.
This is a useful method for being time-efficient. It can give a quick and rough estimate for how much work is expected for a project. The sizes can be converted into numbers at a later stage – when the team assigns a relative size to the project on hand. This is decided through discussion and collaborative efforts to understand everything that needs to be done.
If estimators propose sizes that do not match up, then the team voices their opinions on the topic and must eventually reach a consensus.
This is a pretty informal method that is great to use for a large number of items. Unfortunately, story points can be tricky. What might seem one size to one person could be perceived as another by someone else. Whilst this can create some confusion, this method is based on open discussion, and everyone should get the chance to have their say.
3. Dot Voting
Sometimes it can be hard to order the items in the product backlog. This ranking method enables you to sort these items from highest to lowest priority, so you know where to focus your efforts. To do this, you need to select the most important user stories.
Start by posting all of the stories you need to deal with on a wall somewhere (or a board, if you’re feeling more conventional). The posts should contain the story description and should look unique so that they are easily distinguishable to voters.
Team members involved in the process are all given 4 to 5 dots to dole out. The use of stickers or markers can be effective for this process. Team members place these dots on the user stories that they would prefer to start working on and distribute them throughout the options.
A leader then orders the stories from most preferred to least preferred (most preferred would be the story with the most marks or dots on it). If there is any stakeholder who is not happy with the order, then the items are divided into three groups – high, middle and low priority. Team members vote on the high priority stories again until they reach a consensus.
This is not necessarily an agile estimation technique – it’s more of a decision-making tool. But if you have a small number of items – it can be very efficient. It’s also really simple and is a good visualization tool.
4. The Bucket System
This method relies on placing different values on a table. We call the placements ‘buckets’, but you can just use cards. The values are generally 0,1,2,3,4,5,8,13,20,30,50,100 and 200 – although these can be expanded if necessary.
Estimators need to take stories and collectively choose which buckets each item falls into. To do this, place cards with the items written on them into the buckets. Before placing each item, it is important to have discussed the features and requirements of each with the estimator team. All items must be assigned and placed in the buckets upon consensus.
The buckets can also be changed and rearranged if the group feels it necessary to reassign an item. There is a ‘divide and conquer’ phase after assigning important items. Estimators get the remaining items and can place them in buckets that they believe the items should sit in – without consensus.
If a participant does not understand a story, it can be transferred to someone who does. If someone does not agree with a certain item placed in a specific bucket, further discussions takes place to agree on where to place the item and why. This ‘sanity check’ is critical to this process.
This method is more time-efficient and reasonable than Planning Poker. It is a great agile estimation technique to use if you have a large number of items and a big team.
5. Affinity Mapping
Firstly, silent relative sizing needs to occur. To prepare for this, place two cards on opposite sides of a wall. One should say ‘small’ and the other should say ‘large’. The leader (or product owner) needs to provide each estimator with a subset of items and should remain present during the process to clarify anything. Estimators then place the items on the wall, relative to each item’s perceived size. The size depends on the effort expected to complete them. There is no discussion at this point.
Team members can then change the location of wall items, discussing as they go. Once teams finish editing the wall, they can finalize product backlog items in their positions. However, just before this, the product owner may step in if they spot a discrepancy between what the team members have estimated in comparison to their ideas.
Using a project backlog management tool can help ensure that the finalized estimations are saved. This is a good technique to use for a smaller team. Also, if you have a large number of backlog items, this is a bad choice. You might find it to be time-consuming with too many items.
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