Tag Archives: Planning

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:

Planning Game Cards

(Please feel free to contact us if you would like some sets of Planning Game cards.  We will normally ship them to you at no cost!)

The Planning Game 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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Reader Survey: Important Topics for an “Agile for Managers” Workshop

Hi Everyone,

We have started putting together a list of topics / learning objectives for a new course: “Agile for Managers”. I am interested in getting suggestions from readers on topics to include. What are the challenges you have had with managing agile teams? If you are on an agile team, what are some of the challenges you have had with management? What are the burning questions you have as a manager about deciding to use agile methods? What have been some of the critical success factors in adopting agile methods? What about pitfalls?

I will summarize feedback in a future article as well as post a proposed agenda for such a workshop. In order to “give back”, I will also make the initial draft of the course materials available under a Creative Commons license so that others can use the materials.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


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Calculating a Budget for an Agile Project in Six Easy Steps

A former student of mine called the other day.  He asked a good question: how do you calculate the budget for a project if you are using an agile approach to delivery.  Here is the overview of the six steps to do this.  I will follow the overview with some detailed comments.

  1. Prepare and estimate the project requirements using Planning Poker
  2. Determine the team’s Velocity
  3. Using the team’s burn rate and velocity calculate the budget for the Iterations
  4. Add any capital costs
  5. Using the definition of “done” add pre- and post- Iteration budgets
  6. Apply a drag or fudge or risk factor to the overall estimate

Prepare and estimate the project requirements using Planning Poker

The project requirements have to be listed out in some order and then estimated.  If you are using Scrum as your agile approach, you will be creating a Product Backlog.  Extreme Programming and you will be creating user stories.  OpenAgile and you will be creating Value Drivers.  Kanban and you will have a backlog of work in progress.  Regardless of the agile approach you are using, in a project context you can estimate the work using the Planning Poker game.  Once you have your list, you need to get the team of people who will be working on the list to do the estimation.  Estimation for agile methods cannot be done by someone not on the team – this is considered invalid.  It’s like asking your work buddy to estimate how much time it will take to clean your own house and then telling your kids that they have to do it in that amount of time.  In other words, it’s unfair.  Planning Poker results in scores being assigned to each item of your list.  Those scores are not yet attached to time – they simply represent the relative effort of each of the items.  To connect the scores to time, we move to the next step…

Determine the team’s Velocity

The team needs to select its cycle (sprint, iteration) length.  For software projects, this is usually one or two weeks, and more rarely three or four weeks.  In other industries it may be substantially different.  I have seen cycles as short as 12 hours (24/7 mining environment) and as long as 3 months (volunteer community organization).  Once the duration of the cycle is determined, the team can use a simple method to estimate how much work they will accomplish in a cycle.  Looking at the list of work to be done, the team starts at the top item and gradually working their way down, decide what can fit (cumulatively) into their very first cycle.  Verbally, the conversation will go something like this:

“Can we all agree that we can fit the first item into our first cycle?”

– everyone responds “Yes”

“Let’s look at the second item.  Can we do the first item AND the second item in our first cycle?”

– a little discussion about what it might take to do the second item, and then everyone responds “Yes”

“Okay.  What about adding the third item?”

– more discussion, some initial concern, and finally everyone agrees that it too can fit

“How about adding the fourth item?”

– much more concern, with one individually clearly stating “I don’t think we can add it.”

“Okay.  Let’s stop with just the first three.”

Those items chosen in this way represent a certain number of points (you add up the scores from the Planning Poker game).  The number of points that the team thinks it can do in a cycle is referred to as its “Planning Velocity” or just “Velocity”.  With the velocity, we can then do one of the most important calculations in doing a budget…

Using the team’s burn rate and velocity calculate the budget for the Iterations

The team’s velocity is a proxy for how much work the team will get done in a cycle.  However, in order to understand a budget for the overall project, we need to take that estimate of the team’s output and divide it into the total amount of work.  Our list has scores on all the items.  Sum up the scores, then divide by the velocity to give you the number of cycles of work the team will need to complete the list.  For example, if after doing Planning Poker, the sum total of all the scores on all the items is 1000, and the team’s velocity is 50, then 1000 ÷ 50 = 20… This is the time budget for the team’s work to deliver these items.    To do dollar budgeting, you also need to know the team’s burn rate: how much does it cost to run the team for a cycle.  This is usually calculated based on the fully-loaded cost of a full-time-employee and you can often get this number from someone in finance or from a manager (sometimes you can figure it out from publicly available financial data).  In general, for knowledge workers, the fully-loaded cost of a full time employee is in the range of $100000/yr to $150000/yr.  Convert that to a per-cycle, per-person cost (e.g. $120000/yr ÷ 52 weeks/year x 2 weeks/cycle = $4615/person/cycle) and then multiply by the number of people on the team (e.g. $4615 x 7 people = $32305/cycle).  Finally, multiply the per-cycle cost by the number of cycles (e.g. $32305 x 20 cycles = $646100).

This is the budget for the part of the project done in the cycles by the agile team.   But of course, there are also other costs to be accounted.

Add any capital costs

Not many projects are solely labor costs.  Equipment purchases, supplies, tools, or larger items such as infrastructure, land or vehicles may all be required for your project.  Most agile methods do not provide specific guidance on how to account for these items since agile methods stem from software development where these costs tend to be minimal relative to labor costs.  However, as a Project Manager making a budget estimate, you need to check with the team (after the Planning Poker game) to determine if they know of any large purchases required for the completion of the project.  Be clear to them what you mean by “large” – in an agile environment, this is anything that has a cost similar to or more than the labor cost of a cycle (remember: agile projects should last at least several cycles so this is a relatively small percentage of the labor costs).  In the previous example calculation, the cost per cycle was $32305 so  you might ask them about any purchases that will be $30k or larger.  Add these to the project budget.

Using the definition of “done” add pre- and post- Iteration budgets

Every agile team is supposed to be “cross-functional” but in reality, there are limits to this.  For example, in most software project environments, teams do not include full-time lawyers.  This limited cross-functionality determines what the team is capable of delivering in each cycle – anything outside the team’s expertise is usually done as either pre-work or after the iterations (cycles) are finished.  Sometimes, this work can be done concurrently with the team.  In order to understand this work, it is often valuable to draw an organization-wide value stream map for project delivery.  This map will show you the proportion of time spent for each type of work in the project.  Subtract out all the work that will be done inside the agile team (their definition of “done”) and you are left with a proportion of work that must be done outside the agile team.  Based on the proportions found in the value stream map, add an appropriate amount of budget based on the project’s cycle labor costs.

Apply a drag or fudge or risk factor to the overall estimate

And of course, to come up with a final estimate, add some amount based on risk or uncertainty (never subtract!)  Generally speaking, before this step, your project budget is going to be +/- 20%-50% depending on how much you have used this approach in the past.  If you are familiar with it and have used it on a few projects, your team will be much better at understanding their initial velocity which is the foundation for much of the remaining budget estimates.  On the other hand, if you are using this method for the first time, there is a high degree of anxiety and uncertainty around the estimation process.  Please feel free to add a buffer that you feel is appropriate.  But again, never, ever, ever remove time or money from the budget at this last step.

Please let me know if you have any comments on how you have done this – tips, tricks or techniques are always welcome in the comments.

Thanks, Mishkin.


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Excellent Article about Planning Velocity

J. B. Rainsberger has written an excellent article about the usefulness of planning velocity (and the places where it is not useful as well). I highly recommend reading it, particularly if you are a manager or a project manager.


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Agile Retrospectives and the Plan of Action

Bas Vodde has published a good article about making goal oriented action plans for agile projects. It is a nice piece of the puzzle on how to do effective retrospectives. It also nicely ties into the “Learning Circle” Reflection/Learning/Planning/Action steps.


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Agile Estimation and Pairing

I just read a recent article on PMHut called “Schedule Questions: Pair Programming and the PNR Curve“. There is much in this article that is important for agile project management… and much that should be avoided at all costs!

Estimating Projects

The bulk of the article is an explanation of the PNR curve (Putnam Norden Rayleigh curve). The explanation is sufficient and can be checked against other web articles about software estimation. The basic idea of the PNR curve is to find an ideal number of people with which to staff a project based on an estimate of overall project size (e.g. 72 man-months).

Take a moment to go read Fantasy Estimation (the comments here provide good additional material).

It should be clear now that any initial sizing estimate based on units such as man-months is ridiculous. So what is our alternative? What about an agile approach to estimation and planning?

Agile Estimation

Well, at a minimum, in an agile approach to estimation, we need to resolve some of the problems identified in “Fantasy Estimation”. So, we:

  1. Get the whole team that will be doing the work to do the estimation
  2. We weight estimates based on team maturity, knowledge of tools, knowledge of the business domain and the physical proximity of team members to each other
  3. We adjust our estimates of work remaining based on our results for work completed

The great thing about an agile approach is that it allows all these things to be done and to be done well. Scrum has a specific set of “Drag Factors” that can be used to weight the team’s estimates. And using a team’s past estimates vs. “actuals” is possible on an iteration by iteration basis… and this is possible because every iteration the team is doing the “same thing”: delivering an increment of valuable results (working software, edited video, organizational change, whatever is contributing to the project goals).

The other thing that agile methods allow is to make a distinction between estimation for planning and estimation for commitment.

So. It’s cool to learn about the PNR Staffing curve and the thinking behind it. It’s a little scary to see it being applied in an agile context when we have tools that are much better.

Pairing and Estimation

At the end of the PMHut article, the author, Mike asks a question:

What about pair programming? When using pairs on a team we could either:

  1. Continue as is, use the model to determine optimal team size and then encourage pairing to increase efficiency.
  2. Treat a pair as one hyper-effective person, so count pairs not individuals and increase team sizes accordingly.

This second option seems counter intuitive to agile, we strive for small teams to reduce communication channels, so I’m not convinced by this idea. I would be very interested to hear people’s thoughts on agile staffing curves. So, lots more questions than answers in this post, please let me know if you have any research or thoughts on the matter.

I wrote in response:

Mike, I feel like the options you present in your question at the end actually miss the true point of pairing which has to do with communication. I have never seen pairing done in such a way that two people always work together as a pair. Rather, pairing is promiscuous: people switch pairs frequently throughout a day, iteration or project. This switching has two communication effects: 1) the human interaction and gradual diffusion of information as people switch pairs 2) helping everyone understand all parts of the work as a result of frequently working on many different things. From an estimation standpoint, I expect that neither of your two options is quite right. Rather, the third option is to continue as is with existing estimation and then encourage pairing to increase communication. Increased communication shows up in a number of different ways, not just efficiency: risk mitigation, accelerated individual and team learning etc.

I would like to expand on this just a little. To me, pair programming or pair work of any kind has always been able to provide a number of benefits to projects. Problem avoidance is one benefit (lower defect rates, better code quality through constant inspection, spotting each other). Better communication is another benefit. Increasing the Truck Factor is yet another benefit.

None of these benefits have any direct bearing on estimating a project at the start, particularly since most projects sacrifice quality for schedule. From an agile perspective, since planning estimation is not commitment, it actually doesn’t even really matter! Get a conservative estimate for you project using whatever method you like, then start working and get a commitment velocity and see what the team can really do.


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Time is Not Negotiable

The Project Management Institute refers to three variables that can be negotiated or constrained for a given project: scope, resources and schedule. Schedule is an interesting “variable” in that we have no choice about how time flows. We can control how much scope to ask for, we can control how much money to put towards the work, but we cannot actually “buy” more time than, say, our competitors. This has important implications which deeply challenge the PMI’s PMBoK model of project management.

Continue reading Time is Not Negotiable


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Strategic Plan

Okay, this is only marginally related to agile, but I thought it was interesting nevertheless: How to Write a Detailed Strategic Plan. The main connection to Agile Work, is that you need to have a clear performance goal in mind towards which you are working. This may be a great way to clarify your thoughts about such a goal.


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Cancelled Iteration

Last week went totally wonko for Berteig Consulting. My planning was bad, bad, bad!

Continue reading Cancelled Iteration


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First Interation Ending

My first iteration using Agile Work for my business development has come to a close. Here is what I did for a “demo” and retrospective.

Continue reading First Interation Ending


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My First Challenge

Wednesday is nearly done and I’m looking at my list of tasks and cringing! I’ve only done a few out of the forty for this week. What’s going on?!

Continue reading My First Challenge


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The Seven Core Practices of Agile Work

Agile Work consists of seven core practices. These practices form a solid starting point for any person, team or community that wishes to follow the Middle Way to Excellence.

Self-Organizing Team

Any group of people that wish to be an Agile Team need to take the initiative to determine for themselves how they are going to work (process) and how they are going to do the work (product). The term “team” really applies quite broadly to any size group of people that are working together towards a common goal.

Teams go through stages of development as they perform their work. The most important result of team development is the team itself, and not the specific skills and abilities that the individuals learn.

If the team is part of a broader organization, that organization must give the team the authority, space and safety to learn to be self-organizing. The organization’s leadership is responsible for determining the “why?”, some constraints on “how?”, and then letting the team respond to the need as best as it can.

Also Known As: Whole Team (Extreme Programming), Cross-Functional Team (business management).

Deliver Frequently

Agile Work uses short fixed periods of time to frame the process of delivering something of value. Each of these iterations or timeboxes is structured so that the team or group actually finishes a piece of work and delivers it to stakeholders. Then, the team builds on what has previously been delivered to do it again in the same short amount of time.

The sooner that valuable results can be delivered, the more value can be obtained from those results. This extra value is derived from opportunities such as earlier sales, competitive advantage, early feedback, and risk reduction.

There is an explicit tradeoff: the shorter the time to delivery, the smaller the piece of value will be. But, like investing in one’s retirement account, the earlier you start, even with small amounts of money, the better off you are in the long run.

Also Known As: Sprint (Scrum), Iteration (Extreme Programming), Timeboxing (generic), Time Value of Money (accounting).

Plan to Learn

Every type of work is governed by a Horizon of Predictability. Any plan that extends beyond this horizon of predictability is bound to fail. Agile work uses an explicit learning cycle tied in with the planning of work to accomodate this inevitable change.

First, a goal is required. This goal can be long-term. Teams using Agile Work then create a queue of work items to be done in order to reach this goal. Each iteration, some of these items are selected, finished and then the queue is adjusted. The changes in the work queue are based on external factors, and learning that the team does as it goes.

One of the most effective methods for the team to learn about how it is doing its work is the retrospective. After each delivery of results, the team holds a retrospective to examine how it can improve.

Also Known As: Inspect and Adapt (Scrum), Kaizen (Lean), Adaptive Planning (generic).

Communicate Powerfully

A team needs to have effective means of communicating, both amongst team members and also to stakeholders. To Communicate Powerfully, a team needs to prefer in-person communication over distributed communication. Synchronous over asynchronous communication. High-bandwidth over low-bandwidth communication. Multi-mode communication over single-mode communication.

The results of failing to communicate powerfully include wasted time for waiting, misunderstandings leading to defects or re-work, slower development of trust, slower team-building, and ultimately a failure to align perceptions of reality.

The single most effective means to communicate powerfully, is to put all the team in a room together where they can do their work, every day for the majority of the work time.

Some types of work do not lend themselves to this approach (e.g. creating a documentary video), but every effort should be made to improve communication.

Also Known As: Visibility (Scrum), Whole Team and Team Room (Extreme Programming), War Room (business management).

Test Everything

Defects are one of the most critical types of waste to eliminate from a work process. By testing everything, by driving all the work of a team by creating test cases to check the work, a team can reach extremely high quality levels. This ability to prevent defects is so important that only an executive level decision should be considered sufficient to allow defects into a work process. Quality is not negotiable.

In Agile Work, removing a defect is the only type of work that takes priority over any new features/functionality/production. If the end result desired is to maximize value, then removing defects is an important means to that end.

A team has an ethical duty to discover new ways to effectively test their work. This can be through the use of tools, various feedback mechanisms, automation, and good old problem-solving abilities.

Also Known As: Canary in the Coal Mine (Scrum), Test-Driven Development (Extreme Programming), Defects per Opportunities (Six-Sigma).

Measure Value

Since Reality is Perceived, it is important for an agile team and organization to have a clear method of describing and perceiving what is important for the organization. Measuring value is a critical method for describing and perceiving what is important.

A single metric can be used to drive all the measurement and goal-setting and rewards in an organization. All other measurements are secondary and must be treated as such: limited in use and temporary.

There are many things which are easier to measure than value. It is often easy to measure cost, or hours worked, or defects found, or estimate vs. actual… etc. However, all of these other measurements either implicitly or explicitly drive sub-optimal behavior.

Also Known As: Measuring Results (Scrum), ROI (business management), Economic Driver (Good to Great), Running Tested Features (Extreme Programming).

Clear the Path

Everyone in an organization using Agile Work takes responsibility for clearing the path, removing the obstacles that prevent work from being done effectively. Clearing the Path doesn’t just mean expedient, quick fixes to problems, but rather taking the time to look at an obstacle and do the best possible to remove it permanently so that it never blocks the path again.

In the Agile Work method, the Process Facilitator is the person who is responsible for tracking obstacles and ensuring that the path is cleared. To do this, the Process Facilitator maintains a Record of Obstacles.

Clearing the Path is sometimes painful work that exposes things we would rather not deal with. As a result, it is critical that people build their capacity for truthfulness and work to develop trust amongst each other. Building a capacity for truthfulness is not something that can be done by using an explicit process.

Also Known As: Removing Obstacles (Scrum), Stopping the Line (Lean).


Remember also, that these practices must always be viewed and implemented in the context of the Agile Axioms. These axioms provide a check to ensure that the practices are not being applied blindly, but rather applied appropriately to the given situation.


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Fantasy Estimation

In software development (and in many other types of projects), there is a typical non-agile approach to estimation of project size. This method starts with a high-level understanding of the work to be done, the requirements, and uses that to make an initial estimate of the project size. This estimate is often stated in units such as man-months. There is a very important piece missing here that makes this estimate completely useless… that makes it pure fantasy.

Continue reading Fantasy Estimation


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Iterative Delivery

Work can often be divided up so that the smaller pieces are valuable on their own. By dividing work this way, a team can deliver value incrementally. The team can choose a short period of time called an iteration and select a small amount of work to complete in that time. This work should be valuable on its own. For example, if a team is building something, then at the end of each iteration whatever is built is usable as it is. This means that each iteration includes all the planning and design as well as construction or creation necessary to deliver a final product or result.

For example, a volunteer group may desire to attract new members. A non-agile approach would have the group plan their membership campaign completely before actually executing on it. An agile approach using iterative delivery would have the group plan a small piece of work that will attract some small number of new members, execute it, and then start a new iteration. One iteration may cover the creation of and delivery of a door-to-door flyer in a neighborhood. Another iteration may cover the design, creation and publishing of a small advertisement in a local newspaper. Each iteration includes all the steps necessary to produce a furthering of the group’s goal of attracting new members.

In a business environment, iterative delivery allows for a much faster return on investment. The following diagram compares delivering value iteratively with a non-agile project delivery where results are delivered only at the end of the project:

One can see clearly from the diagrams that the non-agile delivery of value at the end of a project is also extremely risk prone and suseptible to change. If the project is cancelled just before it delivers, then a fairly substantial amount of effort is wasted. In the agile iterative delivery situation, an endeavor can be cancelled at almost any time and it is likely that substantial value has already been delivered.

Even if the work cannot actually be delivered incrementally, it almost always can be divided in a way so that it can be inspected in stages. Either method of dividing work allows us to do the work in iterations.

Iterations are fixed and consistent units of time during which work is performed and between which planning, inspection and adjustment is done. The empowered team will decide on the length of iterations for their work. As a rule of thumb iterations should be shorter than the horizon of predictability. Generally, iterations should never be longer than one month, no matter what the endeavor.

At the end of each iteration, a demonstration of the work completed is given to the stakeholders in order to amplify learning and feedback. Between iterations, the stakeholders collaborate with the team to prioritize the remaining work and choose what will be worked on during the next iteration. During the iteration, the stakeholders need to be accessible for questions and clarifications.

Iterative and incremental delivery is used to allow for the early discovery and correction of mistakes and the incorporation of learning and feedback while at the same time delivering value early.


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What To Do With the Horizon of Predictability

In a previous entry about constant change, the idea of a horizon of predictability was introduced. This concept, along with the agile discipline of amplifying learning, suggest a strategy for addressing problems in a project.

Continue reading What To Do With the Horizon of Predictability


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