Scaled Agile Framework: I Learned about Weighted Shorted Job First (WSJF)

Among the great things I learned last week in London UK at the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) Program Consultant training is the concept of using the Weighted Shortest Job First method of prioritization for backlog items.  The concept is similar to the Relative Return On Investment (RROI) that I teach in my Certified ScrumMaster and Certified Scrum Product Owner courses, but adds a bit of sophistication both in the background theory and in the actual application.

Weighted Shortest Job First is a numerical score where the larger the score, the sooner the job (feature, product backlog item) should be done.  Scores therefore give a sequence to jobs.  The score is based on the ratio between two estimates: the estimate of the “cost of delay” and the estimate of the “duration to complete”.  The cost of delay is a more sophisticated version of business value in that it takes into account customer needs, time criticality and risk reduction or opportunity cost.

In SAFe, the WSJF is calculated at the level of the team’s backlog on user stories through estimates of effort by the team and estimates of the cost of delay that are done by the product owner in collaboration with program management and business owners.  The effort estimate is considered a reasonable proxy for the measure of duration, but there is explicit acknowledgement that this may not always be a reliable relationship.

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Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game: Adaptive Planning for Adjusted Team Capacity in Scrum

Author’s caveat:

Lots of smart people have already come up with lots of ways of doing adaptive planning, and chances are someone has already come up with some variation of this particular approach. I have not yet had the benefit of reading everything that everyone else has already written about Agile and planning, so this has been generated by my own experiential learning on the ground as an Agile coach.  Sometimes, as a ScrumMaster/Agile Coach, you are called upon to be a two-trick pony.  This is my other trick.

 Requirements for team estimation (and planning):

  • Product Owner
  • The whole Development Team (i.e. everyone who will be involved in doing the work)
  • Product Backlog
  • Definition of “Done”

 When team membership changes:

A Scrum Team that is estimating effort against Product Backlog items for project planning and timeline projections and changes team membership for one or more Sprints must also re-estimate the remaining items (or at least the items that will be part of the Sprints in which the different/additional team members are expected to participate) regardless of estimation method (Agile Planning Poker or otherwise). The people involved in doing the work (Development Team members/Sprint) must also be involved in providing team estimates. The Development Team is responsible for all estimates as a whole team and therefore should provide estimates as a whole team. The Planning Poker game is widely understood by Agile experts and successful Agile teams as the best tool for facilitating team estimation. Part of what makes Planning Poker so effective is that it does not only provide accurate timelines, but it also facilitates knowledge-sharing among team members as everyone on the team is required to endeavor to understand the degree of complexity of the work of all other team members in order to deliver each item according to the team’s Definition of “Done”.

When team member allocation is adjusted:

Sometimes, the Development team will have people partially dedicated to the team. After one or two Sprints, it becomes apparent that full dedication of all Development Team members is required for optimal team performance. As result, management can be assisted to reconsider allocation of team members towards 100% dedication to the work of a single Scrum Team. Increased (or decreased) dedication of team members can also be expected to have a corresponding impact on velocity (effort points completed per Sprint). However, the Scrum Master needs to help the team (and their managers) to be careful to avoid planning against the unknown. Scrum allows a team to adapt based on actual historical data. Therefore, planning against minimum historical velocity is strongly recommended as a general best practice. At the same time, if a team starts off with, say, 50% allocation of team members and management decides to bump it up to 100%, it is fairly safe to assume that you will actually get somewhat more out of the team. How much more is never possible to know, as human beings are reliably incapable of predicting the future. The moderate way to approach this is to plan the next Sprint based on previous velocity, finish the planned work early in the Sprint, get a bunch of “extra” stuff done, then calculate velocity of the new and improved team and plan against the new and improved velocity. This allows the team to adapt to actuals and not be blind-sided by unforeseen impediments/bottlenecks.

Sometimes, there is a need for management to get a sense of how much more velocity the team will get from increased team member allocation in order to feel that an informed decision has been made. There is a simple (though not risk-free) method for doing this that I have whipped up after being put on the spot on several occasions. I have decided to call this the Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game.

WARNING:

The purpose of this exercise is to provide decision-makers with a sense of how much they are going to get out of adjusted allocation of team members to Scrum Teams. Scrum Teams perform optimally when all team members are 100% dedicated to the team. This game should be used with caution and as a means to help organizations move closer to 100% dedication of all Scrum Team members (at least all Development Team members) and, therefore, eliminate the need for this game. Great care should be taken to not encourage perpetuation of dysfunctional Waterfall habits such as “we will now go twice as fast and get done twice as early with twice the allocation of resources because we have this shiny new crystal ball called Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game that tells us so.” As long as no one believes that this is magic, it is likely safe enough to proceed to Step 1.

Step 1 – What is our current velocity?

After the first Sprint, the team should be able to count up the number of Product Backlog items completed and add up the corresponding number of “Effort Points” established during its initial estimation (Planning Poker) sessions. Let’s say for our example that the number completed for Sprint 1 is 21 Effort Points. Therefore, the current velocity of the team is 21. Let’s say that this is not a comfortable realization for the team because at some point in the past it had been estimated that this project would take the team about 5 Sprints to complete. Now, the team has done 21 points in the first Sprint and the total number of Effort Points on the Product Backlog estimated by the team is just under 210. Uh oh… 10 Sprints! Whoops! Now what do we do?! Are the new estimation values wrong? Should we stick to the 5 weeks and just have everyone work overtime on this project? Should we take this to management? Let’s say that this team decides to take it to management. But what if management needs more information than “team velocity = 21, Product Backlog = 210, therefore it’s going to take us 10 Sprints instead of 5”? Never fear, Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game is here!

Step 2 – What is our current capacity?

As part of Sprint Planning, the team needs to have a sense of its capacity in order to create the Sprint Goal and Sprint Backlog. Therefore, the team should already have a sense of its own capacity. Let’s say for our example that the (fictional) Development Team had the following projected allocation for the first Sprint:

50%        Chris P. Codemuncher

50%        Larry Legassifulunch

25%        Beth Breaksidal

40%        Gertrude Gamesthadox

40%        Dana Deadlinedryver

The team is doing 2-week Sprints. After calculating the time that the team has allocated for Scrum Events, the remaining time for doing the work of the Sprint is about 8.5 days. Therefore, we can calculate the total allocated days per team member as such:

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days    Chris P. Codemuncher

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days    Larry Legassifulunch

8.5 x 25% = 2.13 days    Beth Breaksidal

8.5 x 40% = 3.4 days      Gertrude Gamesthadox

8.5 x 40% = 3.4 days      Dana Deadlinedryver

17.43                              Total combined available days per Sprint

Let’s round that down to 17. That’s the number used by the team to understand its capacity for Sprint Planning. This is a powerful number for other reasons than what we are trying to get at here, but they are worth pointing out nonetheless. For generating the Sprint Backlog in Sprint Planning, this is particularly useful if each task in the Sprint Backlog is a maximum of a one-person-day. Therefore, this team should have a minimum of 17 tasks in the Sprint Backlog and these tasks should all be a one-person-day or less amount of effort. If the team has more than 17 tasks which are all about a one-person-day of effort, chances are the team has overcommitted and will fail to deliver the Sprint Goal. This should trigger the adaptation of the Sprint Goal. In any case, it provides the team with simple transparency that can easily be inspected and adapted throughout the Sprint. For example, with one-person day tasks, each team member should be able to move at least one task into the “Done” position every day and point to that movement every day during the Daily Scrum. Also, this team should be burning down at least 5 tasks every day. If either of these fails to occur, this is a clear signal for the team to inspect and adapt.

Now, let’s get back to our Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game. As a result of Steps 1 & 2 we now know that the team’s velocity is 21 Effort Points and that the team’s capacity is 17 person-days per Sprint. For short, we can say:

21            Velocity

17            Capacity

21/17       V/C

(WARNING: This number is dangerous when in the wrong hands and used as a management metric for team performance)

 Step 3 – How much capacity do we hope to have in the next Sprint?

Let’s say a friendly manager comes along and says “you know what, I want to help you guys get closer to your original wishful thinking of 5 Sprints. Therefore, I’m deciding to allocate more of certain team members’ time to this project. Unfortunately, I can only help you with the ‘developers’, because everyone else reports to other managers. I’m concerned that Beth is going to become a bottleneck, so someone should also speak with her manager. But for now, let’s bump Chris up to 100% and Larry up to 75% and see what that does for you. We’re also going to throw in another ‘specialist developer’ that you need for some stuff in your Product Backlog at 100%. How much more velocity can I get for that?”

Okay. So…more allocation = more capacity = more velocity, right? If we acknowledge that this is highly theoretical, and remember the initial WARNING of the game, we can proceed with caution…

But just as we get started on calculating the adjusted allocation of team members, we find out that Beth was actually more like 50% allocated, Dana was more like 15% allocated and Gertrude was more like 30% allocated. We need to recalculate our actuals for Sprint 1:

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days    Chris P. Codemuncher

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days    Larry Legassifulunch

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days     Beth Breaksidal

8.5 x 30% = 2.55 days     Gertrude Gamesthadox

8.5 x 15% = 1.28 days     Dana Deadlinedryver

16.58                               Total combined ACTUAL available days in Sprint 1

16                                    Actual capacity (rounded-down)

21/16                               Actual V/C

As a side note, Beth had to work on a Saturday in order to increase her capacity but she spoke with her manager and thinks that from now on she will probably be able to maintain this degree of dedication to the team without having to work any more overtime.

Now the team can calculate its hoped-for capacity for Sprint 2 and beyond:

8.5 x 100% = 8.5 days     Sally Supaspeshalis

8.5 x 100% = 8.5 days     Chris P. Codemuncher

8.5 x 75% = 6.38 days     Larry Legassifulunch

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days     Beth Breaksidal

8.5 x 30% = 2.55 days     Gertrude Gamesthadox

8.5 x 0% = 0 days            Dana Deadlinedryver

(Note: Dana is also the Scrum Master with plenty of other work to do for the team)

30.18                               Total combined hoped-for available days in Sprint 1

30                                     Hoped-for capacity (rounded-down)

Step 4 – How much velocity do we hope to have in the next Sprint?

21            Actual Historical Velocity

16            Actual Historical Capacity

30            Hoped-For Future Capacity

x              Hoped-For Future Velocity

Some simple math, loaded with assumptions:

Actual Historical Velocity/Actual Historical Capacity = Hoped-For Future Velocity/Hoped-For Future Capacity

Therefore if 21/16 = x/30, then x = 21 x 30/16 = 39.375

39            Hoped-For Future Velocity

Step 5 – How do we adapt our planning in light of what we now know (assuming we now know something substantial enough to inform our planning)?

Hopefully, not much. The best thing for the team to do at this point is to plan against its actual historical velocity of 21. If team members finish their work in the Sprint Backlog early, they should help out with other tasks until the Sprint Goal is delivered. Then, if the team achieves the Sprint Goal early and has extra time left before the end of the Sprint, then the team can pull additional items to work on from the Product Backlog. If the velocity of the team actually increases as a result of actual increased capacity, then the team can safely plan against its increased velocity beginning in Sprint 3. However, Hoped-For Future Velocity is often way too tantalizing for a team that already strongly (and to some extent, logically) believes that it can get more done with more capacity. So, most teams will usually plan to do more in light of this knowledge and that’s fine. Scrum allows them to inspect and adapt this plan at least every day. The team will figure it out.

Thank you for playing Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game. I hope it was as fun to play as it was to create!

See you next time,

Travis.

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Full-Day Product Owner Simulation Exercise

This simulation exercise rests on the idea that people learn a lot better by doing something than by talking about it.  My Product Owner classes were getting great reviews, but I really felt like there was something missing compared to my ScrumMaster classes which have a full-day ScrumMaster simulation exercise.  It took a little while to figure it out, but this article describes in detail how I do the simulation for the Product Owner class.  I’m sure it will evolve and get refined from here since I have only used the simulation twice so far.

NOTE: Permission to use this exercise / print associated materials is granted with a simple request: please link to this page on your blog, in a LinkedIn group or Google group, like it on Facebook etc. or write a comment in our comments section!

Pre-requisites: None!  No prior Scrum or Agile knowledge or experience required.

Audience: Product Owners, Business Analysts, Project Managers, Product Managers and other people responsible for business results and who interact with a Scrum team.

Timing: This simulation takes at least 7 classroom hours.  I usually run it from 8:30am to 5:00pm with a one hour lunch break and two 15 minute breaks during the day.

Materials Needed:

  • Coloured pencils and/or coloured markers
  • Black Sharpie fine-point markers
  • Scissors
  • Rulers
  • Scotch tape and/or glue stick
  • Blank white printer paper
  • Pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners
  • Blank white 4×6 and 3×5 note cards
  • Blank white box (e.g. a shirt box from U-Line)
  • Planning Game cards (email me if you want a bunch for free!)

Room Setup: Round tables with 4 to 6 chairs at each table.  Materials distributed to each table.

Agenda (with facilitator’s notes):

  • Lecture: Simulation Overview, Backlog Preparation and Refinement
    The purpose of the overall simulation is to learn to create a good Product Backlog in preparation for a Scrum team’s first Sprint. Review the agenda with participants.
  • Discussion: Choosing a Product for the Simulation
    Give participants four product options (suggested options: “Doggy dating web site”, “iPad app for plastic surgeons”, “POS for food trucks with social features”, or come up with your own app idea).  A table group must agree to one of the options.  They will stick with this product for the remainder of the simulation.  5 minutes to decide (usually takes much less).
  • Part 1: Product Vision
    • Lecture: Innovation Games – Product Box
      Talk about the need for a compelling vision as a pre-requisite for high-performance teams, and a way to decide what is in vs. out of a Product Backlog.  Introduce “Product Box” as a way to do market research in an Agile compatible way (collaborative, light documentation, quick).  Talk about the pattern of a product box: front to attract, back to showcase, sides to deal with objections.  Use of online resources / web research is allowed but should not dominate the exercise.
    • Exercise: Building Your Product
      30 minutes, with warnings at 15 minutes and 5 minutes remaining.  Ensure that by 10 minutes in, the group has actually started using the craft supplies and isn’t just talking.
    • Exercise: Presenting Your Product
      5 minutes – give additional time to allow groups to prepare for a trade show (in their market) presentation where other groups (or yourself) will role-play sceptical trade show participants.
    • Discussion: Debrief
  • Part 2: Product Users
    • Lecture: User Categories
      Describe “end users”, “customers” and “admin users” as the three major categories.  Users can be in hierarchies where a general user type may have two or more specific sub-types.
    • Exercise: Identifying Users
      10 minutes.  One user of each main type (end, admin and cust), at least 5 users in total.  More is okay.
    • Lecture: Personas, Usability and Empathy
      Introduce Persona concept (great reference: “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” by Alan Cooper).  Usability as part of Agile, not separate (i.e. “working software”).  Identifying personas as a way to build empathy from the development team to the end users/customers.
  • Part 3: User Stories
    • Handout: User Stories and Splitting
    • Lecture: Writing Effective User Stories
      Use the example “As a Job Seeker, I can upload my resume, so that I get a job.”  Explain the user story template based on the handout.  Emphasize the idea of end user functionality.  Explain user stories as an important tool, but optional part of Scrum.
    • Exercise: Create User Stories
      Goal: 20 user stories for each group’s product, at least two user stories for each type of user, all done in 20 minutes.  User Stories must be written on 3×5 note cards with a 2cm blank area on right side of each card.
    • Discussion: Review User Stories
      Workshop examples from each group.  Ensure that the “benefit” section of each story does not contain a feature.
    • Lecture: Splitting User Stories
      Go through each of the “top” six splitting methods.  Provide simple examples where the group needs help.  E.g. error conditions as an example of splitting by business logic.
    • Exercise: Split Some
      Goal: result in at least 30 user stories, use each of the top six splitting methods at least once, give 15 minutes.
    • Discussion: Review Splitting
  • Part 4: Estimation and Financial Modelling
    • Lecture: Effort, Value and ROI
      Customers and business stakeholders estimate value, Scrum team members estimate effort, and ROI is the calculation of the ration of value over effort.  Discuss examples of ordering based on these ratios, e.g. 8/2 vs. 8/4 and 200/20 vs. 20/2.
    • Handout: The Bucket System
    • Lecture: The Bucket System
      Review process based on handout.
    • Exercise: Estimating Business Value
      10 minutes.  Goal: all user stories get a business value estimate written in the top right-hand corner of the user story card.
    • Discussion: Debrief the Bucket System
    • Handout: The Planning Game
    • Lecture: The Planning Game
    • Exercise: Estimating Effort
      20 minutes. Goal: estimate 3 user stories using the Planning Game.  Use the Bucket System to estimate the remainder with the ones already estimated as the reference points.
    • Discussion: Debrief the Planning Game
    • Handout: Methods of Ordering the Product Backlog
    • Lecture: Ordering a Product Backlog
      Review ROI as a method to order the PBIs.  Reminder that the Product Owner has final authority and can ignore the estimates in deciding on the order.
    • Exercise: Calculating ROI and Ordering
      5 minutes.  Just simple divide-and-conquer calculations of business value divided by effort for all the user stories.
    • Lecture: Simulation Wrap-Up – Where Does This Fit?
      Reminder of the idea of creating an initial Product Backlog that is “good enough” to start the first Sprint.

NOTE: Permission to use this exercise / print associated materials is granted with a simple request: please link to this page on your blog, in a LinkedIn group or Google group, like it on Facebook etc. or write a comment in our comments section!

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The Three Fundamental Principles of Agile Estimation – The Third One Will Surprise You!

You probably already use an Agile Estimation technique such as the Planning Game or the Bucket System, but surprisingly few people understand the underlying principles of Agile Estimation.  This lack of understanding often causes confusion or stress for the people who try to use Agile Estimation techniques.  The discrepancy between traditional estimation techniques and Agile techniques is large and it is hard to bridge that mental gap without understanding the principles involved.  There are three fundamental principles of Agile estimation:

Principle One: Collaborative

Agile estimation methods are collaborative.  This means that multiple people work together to arrive at estimates for work in an Agile project or product development effort.  Traditional estimation techniques (such as those related to bottom-up or top-down) tend to focus on individuals estimating the work that they are responsible for doing and “trusting” those individual estimates.  Collaborative estimation means that most estimation is done by people in formally facilitated meetings where people are present in-person.

Collaborative techniques are generally used where there is some expectation that multiple minds are better than a single mind in discovering some new knowledge or solving a problem.  Teamwork and groupwork are based on this concept.  This idea of collaboration for problem solving is also applied to Agile Estimation and it has some interesting ramifications.

The most radical consequence of collaborative estimation methods is that there is no possibility to trace a particular estimate for a particular item to a particular individual person.  This lack of traceability is important to create a sense of safety on the part of participants in the estimation effort.  This safety is necessary to allow participants to be fully honest about estimates even if those estimates conflict with expectations of powerful stakeholders.  Another way of stating this principle is that no individual can be punished for a bad estimate.

Many Agile estimation techniques take this principle beyond just mere collaboration to the level of consensus-building techniques where everyone in a group doing estimation work must agree on the final estimate for each and every item being estimated.  This strengthens the idea of safety to the point where no participant in an estimation effort can ever say “I didn’t agree with that” and thereby leave other participants “on the hook” for a bad estimate.

Principle Two: Relative Estimation

Imagine you are shown a glass bottle with some water in it.  You can see the water sloshing around.  Someone asks you, “how much water is in the bottle?”  You might, at first, think about the overall size of the bottle and respond by saying “it’s 1/3 full.”  Or, if asked to provide a measure in units like millilitres or fluid ounces, you might mentally compare what you see in front of you to some container (e.g. a measuring cup) where you know the quantity.  In both cases, you are doing a relative estimate of the amount of water in the bottle.  You are comparing the amount of water to a known quantity.

Imagine a counter-example: someone walks up to you with a red pen ask asks you “what is the wavelength of the light being reflected from this red ink?”  If you are like most people, you have probably forgotten (if you ever knew) the wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum.  You have no basis for comparison.  You might take a wild guess, but it is just that.  Going back to our relative measure, you might be able to easily say if it is darker or lighter than another red colour, or you might even be able to tell what hue of red it is.  But those cases are, again, relying on our inherent ability to see relative differences.

So instead of ignoring this capacity, in Agile estimation techniques, we leverage it.  When estimating effort, we start by setting a clear baseline for what we are comparing: another piece of work.  The baseline piece of work is often given an “estimate” that is arbitrary and in some non-standard units.  For example, it is common to use “points” when estimating the effort for Product Backlog Items.

When doing relative estimates it is very important to ensure we are comparing “apples to apples”.  Both the piece of work to be estimated and the comparison piece should both be work items that are not yet done!  If you have already completed one of the pieces of work, you have prior knowledge that you don’t have for the work to be estimated.

This last point is subtle, but important.  If you have already done something, you know much more about it.  If you try to compare to something you haven’t yet done, you will be tempted to assume that the two things will be more similar than they may be when you actually get to work on it.  By comparing two pieces of work that you have not yet done, you become much more conscious of the risks of comparing, and that consciousness will help you make better relative estimates.

It is important to note that one side advantage of using relative units for estimation is that it makes it much more difficult to use estimates as a baseline for either measuring performance or for tracking schedule variance, both of which are essentially meaningless in a good Agile environment (which should be almost entirely results-oriented).

Principle Three: Fast

In Agile estimation we don’t care (!!!) about accuracy nor about precision of estimates.  Whoa!  Why is that?  Because estimation is waste.  You can’t sell estimates, and estimates don’t affect the “form, fit or function” of the thing you’re building.  Therefore, both Agile and Lean concur: do your utmost to eliminate that waste.  There are actually lots of Agile practitioners who think estimates are evil (and they have some good arguments!)

In order to do Agile estimation in a maximally non-evil way, we need to make estimation fast!  Really fast!!!  Many of the Agile estimation techniques allow you to estimate a product release schedule lasting as much as a year in just a few hours given a reasonably well-crafted Product Backlog.

There are really only two modestly good reasons for doing estimation in an Agile project or product:

  1. Estimates provide simplified information to the Product Owner to allow him/her to make sure the Product Backlog is ready for the next Sprint (ordered, refined).
  2. Estimates allow stakeholders, including the team doing the work, to generate high-level common understanding and expectations without dwelling on details.

As a business stakeholder, one can do a simple mental exercise.  Ask yourself, “how much money would I be willing to spend to accomplish those two objectives?”  Whatever your answer, I hope that it is a very small amount compared to what you are willing to spend on getting results.  If not, perhaps you haven’t really embraced the Agile mindset yet where “the primary measure of progress is working software” (the Agile Manifesto).

Bonus Principle: We Suck at Estimating

Most people doing estimation in traditional project management try to measure in units like person-days or dollars.  There is no doubt that these units are useful if you can get good estimates.  However, most of the people doing estimation are fundamentally and irredeemably bad at it.  How do I know?  Because they are not wealthy… and have thereby proven that they cannot predict the future.  If you can predict the future, even just in limited circumstances (like estimating effort or revenue), you can leverage that to generate almost untold wealth.  Given that, it is fruitless and wasteful to try to get better at estimating.  Instead, the principles of Agile estimation help us focus our attention on the right things: collaboration, comparative estimates and doing them fast so we can get to the real work, and most importantly: delivering valuable results now.  Understanding these principles helps teams overcome many of the struggles they have in using Agile estimation techniques.

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Updated: Agile Estimation with the Bucket System

I have added a pdf download of this article about Agile Estimation with the Bucket System.  It’s just a handy, nicely-formatted document that can be used for quick reference.  It is now part of the materials I give out for my Certified ScrumMaster training classes.

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Updated: Planning Game for Agile Estimation

I’ve made a minor update to my article about Agile Estimation with the Planning Game to include a downloadable pdf of the article for easy printing.  The downloadable version also includes a tiny bit of commentary that comes from my upcoming Agile Advice book.  There are also two links added at the end of the article.  One is the the wikipedia article about Planning Poker (which describes the method slightly differently), and the other is to an article I wrote a long time ago about the wideband delphi estimation method.

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Agile Estimation with the Bucket System

Estimation – The Bucket System [pdf] – printable reference version of this article.

The “Bucket System” is a way to do estimation of large numbers of items with a small to medium sized group of people, and to do it quickly.  The Bucket System has the following qualities which make it particularly suitable for use in Agile environments:

  • It’s fast!  A couple hundred items can be estimated in as little time as one hour.
  • It’s collaborative.  Everyone in a group participates roughly equally.
  • It provides relative results not absolute estimates (points vs. hours).
  • The results are not traceable to individuals and so it encourages group accountability.
  • Works with teams to estimate effort or with stakeholders to estimate value.

BucketSystem3

The Bucket System of estimation works as follows:

  1. Set up the physical environment as per the diagram below.  Ensure that all the items to be estimated are written on cards.
  2. Choose an item at random from the collection.  Read it to the group.  Place it in the “8″ bucket.  This item is our first reference item.
  3. Choose another item at random from the collection.  Read it to the group.  The group discusses its relative position on the scale.  Once consensus has been reached, put the item in the appropriate bucket.
  4. Choose a third item at random and, after discussion and consensus is reached, place it in the appropriate bucket.
  5. If the random items have clearly skewed the scale towards one end or the other, re-scale the items (e.g. if the first item is actually very small and should be in the “1″ bucket).
  6. Divide and conquer.  Allocate all the remaining items equally to all the participants.  Each participant places items on the scale without discussion with other participants.   If a person has an item that they truly do not understand, then that item can be offered to someone else.
  7. Sanity check!  Everyone quietly reviews the items on the scale.  If a participant finds an item that they believe is out of place, they are welcome to bring it to the attention of the group.  The group then discusses it until consensus is reached and it is placed in one of the buckets.
  8. Write the bucket numbers on the cards so that the estimates are recorded.

Bucket SystemSome important points to consider:

  • Multiple items can be in the same bucket.
  • Items cannot be placed “between” buckets to represent a more precise estimate.
  • If the distribution of the items is skewed to either end of the scale, then during the sanity check step the group should also discuss if the items can and should be spread out more evenly along the scale.  If so, then the group does it collectively.
  • The facilitator should watch to make sure that no one moves items that have already been placed until the “sanity check” step.
  • The division of items among participants does not need to be exactly equal – don’t worry about “dealing” out the items.  Instead, just divide them up roughly.
  • If the “divide and conquer” stage has one or two people working very slowly through their items, it is acceptable to suggest that they share their remaining items with people who are already finished.
  • It is not acceptable for an individual to completely abstain from the process.  If someone desires to abstain, they should be counselled that this means they will not have any future say in the estimates.
  • During the “divide and conquer” stage it is critical that absolute silence is maintained.  In particular, there should be no bilateral discussion of items.  This is to protect the anonymity of individuals placing items as much as possible.

The Bucket System

 

The bucket system is a good alternative estimation method to try instead of Planning Poker.  It is much faster than Planning Poker and still gets reasonable results.

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The Rules of Scrum: The top PBIs are small enough (effort) that several can fit into a single Sprint

Product Backlog Items (PBIs) that are at the top of the Product Backlog (in other words, those which are to be done next), need to be small enough that the Scrum Team can comfortably complete all the work for them within a single Sprint.  The Product Owner should be spending a little time every Sprint to split “large” PBIs into small PBIs.  The Product Owner relies on the team to estimate if they are small enough.  If the PBIs are not small enough then large problems can arise.  Probably the most serious problem is that the Scrum Team may be unable to start and finish PBIs in a single Sprint which can seriously hinder the “inspect and adapt” process due to Sprint results that cannot be demonstrated in the Sprint Review.  Almost as bad, incomplete work can leave a mess in the system if the Product Owner for some reason decides to change priorities and not complete work started in a previous Sprint.  Finally, incomplete work dis-empowers the Product Owner from being able to make a business-based decision to ship or deploy the Team’s work at the end of the Sprint.  A smaller problem that can arise from PBIs that are large is that the Team may not be able to fill their Sprint as effectively.  One way to think about this is the difference in how much empty space there is in a cup filled with large pebbles versus a cup filled with sand.  The rule of thumb is that PBIs should be small enough that between five and ten fit into every Sprint.  This is often the right compromise between the effort required on the part of the Product Owner to write small PBIs and the risks mentioned above.

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The Rules of Scrum: PBIs are ordered by expected Value (ROI, NIAT, etc)

Product Backlog Items are ordered into a sequence in the Product Backlog in such a way that the Product Owner is able to maximize the return on investment (ROI) in the team.  The very first PBI in the Product Backlog should be the one with the highest expected value considering the effort to build the PBI.  There are many ways to calculate this expected value including Return on Investment (ROI), Net Income After Taxes (NIAT), Net Present Value (NPV), etc.  The Scrum Team members should be free to ask why one PBI is prioritized higher than another, and the Product Owner should be able to give a reasonable answer. Since the entire Scrum Team is accountable for its work, it is in the best interest of all members of the team to use expected value, so that both the Scrum team and the customer will be committed to the work that is currently being worked on and the upcoming work in the future Sprints.  If we don’t order the PBIs by expected value, then the Product Owner is likely to prioritize them based on dates, feelings, urgency, or other less valuable methods.  These other prioritization methods will diminish the trust of the team in the Product Owner and may lead to morale problems.

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The Rules of Scrum: PBIs have their effort estimated collectively by the team who will be implementing them

The Product Owner brings Product Backlog Items to the Scrum Team to estimate their effort (cost).  In order to create the right environment of safety and accountability, no Product Backlog Item is estimated by a single member of the Scrum Team, or even a subset of the team membership.  By having all the members of the Scrum Team participate in the estimation work for every Product Backlog item, it becomes impossible to blame a single Team Member for a poor estimate.  At a practical level, it is should be very rare that a single Product Backlog Item is fully implemented by a single Team Member.  Therefore, estimates should consider the collective effort of the Scrum Team, and this can only be determined by having all the Team Members participate in the estimation work.  If the team delegates estimation to a single person, or if one person dominates the estimation work, the other Team Members will not have ownership of the estimates and will be able to deny accountability.  The pressure on the team from collective estimation encourages teamwork, cross-training and these behaviours in turn promote the development of a high-performance team.

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The Planning Game – An Estimation Method for Agile Teams

The Planning Game [PDF] – printable reference.

Purpose: estimate the effort for User Stories (Product Backlog Items, Value Drivers)

Prerequisites: all items have a value estimate, each item is written on a separate note card, full team membership is known and available for planning, each team member has a set of planning game cards

Process:

  1. The team goes through all the items and chooses the one which has the lowest effort. Write the number “2″ on this card (usually in the bottom right corner).
  2. The team looks at the item with the highest value.
  3. Each team member thinks about how much effort the team will expend to fully complete all the work for the item. Comparing this work to the work effort for the smallest item, each team member selects a card that represents this relative effort. For example, if you think that it requires ten times the effort, you would select the “20″ card. It is not permissible to select two cards.
  4. Each team member places their selected card, face down, on the table. Once all team members have done this, turn the cards over.
  5. If all team members show the same value, then write the value on the item and go back to step three for the next item. (Or if there are no more items, then the process is complete.)
  6. The person with the highest and the lowest value cards both briefly explain why they voted the way they did. If there is a Product Owner present, this person can add any clarifications about the item.
  7. For any given item, if a person is highest or lowest more than once, then each explanation must include new information or reasoning.
  8. Once explanations are complete, the team members collect their cards and go back to step three.

Notes:
- it is extremely important that the voting for an item continues until all team members unanimously vote the same way (this way team members and outside stakeholders cannot blame any individual for “wrong” estimates)
- in Scrum, it is normal for the Product Owner to be present during this process, but not to participate in the voting
- in OpenAgile, it is acceptable for people serving as Growth Facilitators for a team to participate in the voting
- voting should not include extensive discussion
- if more than one person has the lowest or highest vote, usually just one person shares their reason in order to help the process move quickly
- the first few items will often take 10 or 15 rounds of voting before the team arrives at a unanimous vote
- later on, items may take just one or two rounds of voting to arrive at a unanimous decision
- some teams, where trust levels are high, will discard with the use of physical cards and just briefly discuss votes

The planning game is used at the start of a project with the full list of user stories. In this case, it is reasonable to expect the team to average two minutes per user story, and an appropriate amount of time needs to be set aside to accommodate going through the whole list.

The Planning Game is also used any time that there is a change in the list of user stories: re-ordering, adding or removing user stories, or changes to a single user story. When such a change happens, the team can re-estimate any user story in the whole list. When starting a Cycle or Sprint or Iteration, all the user stories in the list should have up-to-date estimates so that estimation work is avoided in the Cycle planning meeting.

Finally, the team can decide to re-estimate any user stories at any time for any reason. However, it is important for team members to remember that estimation is non-value-added work and the time spent on it should be minimized.

NOTE: The Planning Game is described as Planning Poker on wikipedia.  The version described there has some minor variations from this version.

A closely related method of Agile Estimation is the Bucket System.

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Estimation – Bad Advice

Here’s a fun article on PMI.org.  By omission, it gives some very bad advice about estimation.  What is it missing?  Asking the people who are going to do the work!!!  Any estimation method or approach that fails to ask the actual human beings who are going to do the work about the effort required is going to be badly wrong.  (Of course, even asking the people who are going to do the work is no guarantee of good estimates.)

The starting point of the linked article is a study that showed 90% of projects having cost overruns.  To me, this just shows the futility of predicting the future, not anything about how we can (and should?) make better estimates.

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Report average velocity and fail 50% of the time

The question of “expected velocity” and long-term planning has come up at more than one client. A recent client conversation got me thinking, however, questioning how to interpret velocity when estimating and plotting a roadmap based on a current backlog of features. Assume, for a moment, a backlog of story-pointed features, and 10 good iterations (consistent team, no odd occurrences that would affect velocity). Mathematically average velocity (well, a mean really) is a 50/50 proposition for any subsequent iteration. Some organizations don’t find this level of confidence acceptable. What velocity should be reported as expected for iteration/sprint planning and roadmap forecasting, and how should it be used?

Context

Interpreting velocity, before anything else, requires some context. An agile organization that sees estimates as hypothetical might find this article is of less use. In fact, a good question is whether estimation is even a value-added activity. For this post assume an organization that sees strong value in estimation and planning.

Culture

The biggest piece of context is to know the organizational culture. This is important in two respects, and both of these cultural factors are important because they impact how Velocity is understood within the organization.

What is Failure?

First is the meaning of failure in the organization. Is failure to deliver what was committed to by the planned date considered a failure of the team, or is it simply a fact to be understood and accounted for in future planning? Even in Agile organizations, the former is often true and a hard habit to break. If not delivering to expectations is considered failure and has negative consequences, then that means that estimation is being treated not as estimation, but as prediction and contract. Velocity is therefore a commitment, and should therefore be used conservatively.

Consistency or Speed?

The second item to know is whether consistency and predictability of delivery is of a higher strategic value than the actual rate of delivery. This is often un-stated. Usually people want fast and consistent delivery. The truth is that you can get consistent, or fast software development, or a balance between the two. Lack of trust is usually a strong motivation to encourage consistency over speed, or a history of quality problems, etc. In this case, as well, Velocity is more of a boundary than an indicator.

Emotional Loading in Estimation (or why not Low-ball?)

If estimation is seen as binding, contractual, or limiting, then additional emotions get overloaded. Trust, promise, and betrayal are words used in such organizational cultures. Distrust is usually a strong factor, especially between silos (business vs. technology, company vs. project management vs. customer, etc.). So when people are asked to give estimates, even using agile-friendly mechanisms such as story points, there is usually a process of cementing that estimate into a part of an accountability model, so estimates start to get conservative. People are then accused of low-balling, others are accused of irrational expectations… we’ve all seen this. The language clearly becomes one of contention and blame. Even the term low-balling is often an outright pejorative term for estimating too conservatively.

This doesn’t happen only in agile environments, and project managers in traditional PMBOK frameworks have long factored risk into “contingency budgets”. Interestingly, however, if a Project Manager were to factor risk into the task estimates, they’d be “low-balling capacity,” yet if they were to factor it out and layer it on top of the project work, it’s “contingency budgeting” (At least in a few experiences I’ve had). Either way, someone’s adding a factor for uncertainty, based on the need to predict conservatively or liberally or somewhere in between.

That’s the point of the article: how can Agile projects use velocity to estimate as conservatively (or liberally) as is appropriate?

An average is a 50% chance to succeed (or fail)

Velocity is not a constant. It’s a set of instantaneous values on a curve, with instances being iterations. That means that it varies, and is therefore only meaningful statistically. So how do you reasonably use velocity statistically, and improve confidence? One way is to stop delivering against “average” velocity.

A lot of coaches use average velocity over the previous N iterations. This is not helpful for all sorts of reasons, if estimation is a commitment. By definition, average (well, actually a mean, but they’re close) is a 50/50 proposition. If you report the average team velocity (assuming it’s accurate), then about half the time the team will be under and about half the time the team will be over, statistically. So basically an average is a crap shoot, when taken in any given instance. It’s can only be good in the long run. For this to work, the long-haul has to include permission to fail and a lot of trust. Teams need to be able to go miss dates but will sometimes exceed dates and it should all wash out in the end. In organizations such as I’m describing, that trust isn’t there, so. Additionally, if the language of commitment is around meeting instantaneous iteration commitments (as opposed to delivering high-quality customer value as quickly as is sustain-ably possible) then you aren’t playing the long-game, you’re playing a very short-game.

Simulate Velocity, not work

In a PMI training course I took when I was at Sun Microsystems, we were nicely informed that two point estimates of tasks are a perfect way to fail half the time, per the above logic. One point estimates are just idiotic. Three point estimates were better. We simulated with a monte-carlo algorithm and found a curve and a distribution, and then determined a confidence level yadda yadda. Well, we’re trying to avoid wasting a lot of time estimating up-front, but one way to start representing velocity properly is to do the same kind of statistical modelling done in traditional product management, only simulate velocity, not work items.

In this approach, you take the last N iterations (say 10). Determine the maximum velocity (optimistic) and the minimum velocity (pessimistic), and then the mode (the velocity value that seems to occur most frequently). Then you do monte-carlo simulation so you get a statistical pattern. Now, you actually can determine an answer based on confidence. If you want to be right with an 80% confidence, you pick a velocity where 80% of the simulated runs were successful. (Note – there are a paucity of excel templates to do this math automatically, and often they are for sale. It would be nice to have a few functions with arbitrary distributions based on min-max-mode to help this along.)

It’s not perfect, and it’s a potentially huge amount of administrative overhead. Elsewhere I’ve referenced blogs that entirely oppose any estimation at all, but if you are gong to, then working statistically with simulation is the only way to take small sample numbers meaningful.

Commitment Velocity: Low-Ball as a policy.

Another approach, one perhaps controversial, but taught by some Scrum trainers is to pick the lowest historical delivered velocity. This is a commitment-based approach, on the assumption that building trust around consistent delivery is critical to building sound relationships where product owners and teams can safely state their needs and get things done with a minimum of contractual behaviour. By taking the minimum, you force a low-ball capacity, which means you can have high-confidence of success after a few iterations. You have, likely, after a while, some spare time on your hands. Teams can then choose to pull more work in (without adjusting their commitment velocity), work on “technical debt”, improve their skills, etc. A team could raise their commitment velocity in certain inflection points in the project. A new team member is added that provides a necessary skill not previously available, and after a few iterations the team is consistently hitting a higher number, but this is a careful process to ensure that they are committing, and if they don’t make their new number, it goes down to what they got accomplished.

Indemnify teams’ learning

An arguably healthier option, if you have built enough trust, is to simply indemnify a team from failing to meet the estimate. Since you’re doing mathematics on actuals to generate an expected future number, everyone can acknowledge that past behaviour is no guarantee of future behaviour, and simply use it for capacity planning. In this case, estimation is actually estimation, not commitment or contract. The team is expected to be ahead sometimes, and behind sometimes. The upside of this is that a lot of extra time isn’t spent playing with fictional numbers. Teams are spending their efforts on delivery as quickly-yet-sustain-ably as they can, and the organization treats them as trusted professionals in this. The temptation to assume you can predict the future is seen as folly, and the estimates are used to guide overall direction, not to make outward customer commitments.

Don’t be mindless

There may be other approaches, I’m sure. The agile community is certainly not short of people who love this topic and can talk for hours on “proper” estimation. The point of this post is merely to point out some options, and ask you to look at your organizational culture, team culture, customer culture, the meaning of terms like commitment, failure, success, consistency, speed, etc. As you understand the culture, balance consistency vs. speed, trust, and other factors to choose a method of estimation that meets your goals. Don’t do estimation based on your own, internal cultural assumptions, as you may have developed or been taught techniques that are useful when and where they were taught, but may no longer be so. Or maybe they weren’t so useful then either. Regardless, this because estimation cuts at the heart of the dialogue between producer and consumer, and establishes parameters for that discussion, it’s critical that you think your choice through.

[Christian also blogs at http://www.geekinasuit.com/]

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Estimating Software Projects

There is an interesting article called “Software Estimates and the Parable of the Cave“. It starts out well. The cave parable is effective and clearly conveys the problem with estimating software work. However, there is a big section of the article called “Applying this Wisdom” which I think does a dis-service to everyone. Let’s look at this closely…

Continue reading

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Change is Natural – “Embrace Change”

Kent Beck’s book “Extreme Programming Explained : Embrace Change” provides a good introduction to how software development can embrace the constant change that affects our world. Some of the practices he introduces are very software-specific. However, the overall basic message is sound and provides a foundational principle for all agile work. (By the way, the book is excellent.)

Change really does occur everywhere. Change is constant. A google search for “embrace change” or “change is constant” will both turn up an incredible variety of articles, papers, discussions, books and viewpoints that all affirm the constant nature of change and the need to embrace it.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult to accomodate change when we also have a legitimate and deep desire to know what is coming next.

For many teams, the environment in which they work is constantly changing. This change can be caused by competition between organizations, scientific or technological advances, fads and cultural shifts, major events in people’s personal lives or even just a change of opinion with a stakeholder. Any change, even small change, can invalidate a planned course of action. However, goals (as distinct from plans) are more stable and often survive even major environmental changes. Therefore, rather than trying to plan the future, an agile team can focus on being able to respond to change while still reaching a goal.

Nevertheless, a team needs some sense of what it will do in the near future. A team can work with a “horizon of predictability”. This is the distance into the future which a team can be reasonably certain that plans will be stable. Depending on the environment, this may be as little as a few minutes, or as long as a month. It is rarely longer. The horizon of predictability is not a precise demarcation, rather, expect change with a probability based on the horizon of predictability. Then, plan to respond to change. Be detached from the concrete details of a plan, particularly if they occur outside the horizon of predictability.

Agile Work - Horizon of Predictability

Responding to change requires a major mental shift for many people that is difficult and takes time and environmental support. People are often penalized socially or formally for being flexible or adaptable. This quality can appear to be “wishy-washy”, uncertain, indecisive, uncommitted or even rebellious.

The terms “agility” or “agile work” refer to this principle of embracing constant change since it is the most visible of the principles. However, the ability to respond to change relies on the establishment of agile work disciplines and practices.

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