# 9 Agile Estimation Techniques

Many people have used a variation of Planning Poker to do Agile estimation.  Here is a reference of 9 different Agile estimation techniques for different circumstances.  I have seen all of these techniques work in practice, except one.  Try a new one each Sprint!

Planning Poker

Participants use specially-numbered playing cards to vote for an estimate of an item.  Voting repeats with discussion until all votes are unanimous.  There are lots of minor variations on Planning Poker.  Good technique to estimate a very small number of items (2 to 10).

The Bucket System

Using the same sequence as Planning Poker, a group or a team estimate items by placing them in “buckets”.  The Bucket System is a much faster Agile estimation technique than Planning Poker because there is a “divide-and-conquer” phase.  The Bucket System can also be used with larger groups than Planning Poker and with very large numbers of items to be estimated (50 to 500).

Big/Uncertain/Small

For super-fast Agile estimation, the items to be estimated are simply placed by the group in one of three categories: big, uncertain and small.  The group starts by discussing a few together, and then, like the Bucket System, uses divide-and-conquer to go through the rest of the items.

TFB / NFC / 1 (Sprint)

This Agile estimation technique is similar to Big/Uncertain/Small but puts a specific “size” into the mix, namely 1 Sprint.  The categories are “Too F-ing Big”, “No F-ing Clue” and “1” Sprint (or less).  I learned this one recently from someone in one of my CSPO classes.

Dot Voting

Dot voting is usually considered a decision-making tool, not an Agile estimation technique.  However, for estimating small numbers of items, dot voting can be a super-simple and effective technique.  Each person gets a small number of “dots” and uses them as votes to indicate the size of an item; more dots means bigger.

T-Shirt Sizes

Items are categorized into t-shirt sizes: XS, S, M, L, XL.  The sizes can, if needed, be given numerical values after the estimation is done.  This is a very informal technique, and can be used quickly with a large number of items.  Usually, the decisions about the size are based on open, collaborative discussion, possibly with the occasional vote to break a stalemate.  There is a brief description of T-Shirt Sizes here.

Affinity Mapping

Items are grouped by similarity – where similarity is some dimension that needs to be estimated.  This is usually a very physical activity and requires a relatively small number of items (20 to 50 is a pretty good range).  The groupings are then associated with numerical estimates if desired.

Ordering Protocol

Items are placed in a random order on a scale labeled simply “low” to “high”.  Each person participating takes turns making a “move”.  A move involves one of the following actions: change the position of an item by one spot lower or one spot higher, talking about an item, or passing.  If everyone passes, the ordering is done.  The Challenge, Estimate, Override and the Relative Mass Valuation methods are variations on the ordering protocol.

Divide until Maximum Size or Less

The group decides on a maximum size for items (e.g. 1 person-day of effort).  Each item is discussed to determine if it is already that size or less.  If the item is larger than the maximum size, then the group breaks the item into sub-items and repeats the process with the sub-items.  This continues until all items are in the allowed size range.

## Principles of Agile Estimation

Agile estimation techniques are collaborative.  All appropriate people are included in the process.  For example the whole Scrum team participates in estimating effort of Product Backlog Items.  Collaborative techniques are also designed so that it is impossible to blame someone for an incorrect estimate: there is no way to trace who estimated what.

Agile estimation techniques are designed to be fast (-er than traditional techniques) and deliberately trade off accuracy.  We are not trying to learn to predict the future… or get better at estimation. Instead, we recognize that estimation is a non-value added activity and minimize it as much as possible.

Most Agile estimation techniques use relative units.  This means that we don’t try to estimate dollars or days directly.  Instead, we use “points” or even qualitative labels and simply compare the items we are estimating to each other.  This takes advantage of the human capacity to compare things to each other and avoids our difficulty in comparing something to an abstract concept (such as dollars or days).

Check out my recent “Agile Planning in a Nutshell” article.

What Other Agile Estimation Methods Are There?  Please let me know in the comments and feel free to include a link!

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# Foundations of Excellence

I was thinking about the concept of becoming excellent at something.  My son is a budding artist.  He and I had a conversation a few months ago about talent or aptitude.  I said to him that I felt that aptitude is only latent: you need to put effort into something in order to expose your talent.  He was concerned that he didn’t have any aptitude because he had to work so hard to become better at drawing.  I compared him to myself and my brother, Alexei: when we were growing up, we both put a lot of effort into drawing.  Quickly, I fell behind my brother in skill.  He clearly had aptitude.  But he also put in a lot of effort into exposing that talent.  I was reminded of all this because my son is struggling with math.  He has aptitude, but he hasn’t put much effort into it.  I was wondering why?

Then I realized that aside from aptitude and effort, two more things need to be in place to achieve excellence: willingness and confirmation.

Willingness is the internal drive, usually motivated by an unconscious set of factors, but sometimes also coming from a strong conscious decision.  Willingness can come from unusual combinations of circumstances.  I was extremely willing to learn mathematics in my youth.  This came from two experiences.  One, in grade 2, was when my teacher told me that I shouldn’t be learning multiplication (my dad had taught me while on a road trip).  I was upset that I shouldn’t be able to learn something.  Then, in grade 3, I had a puppet called Kazir (a gift from my babysitter who told stories about space adventures with Azir and Kazir the Baha’i astronauts).  I brought Kazir to school one day and while doing math problems, I pretended that Kazir was helping me.  Suddenly I found math easy.  These two events plus a few others contributed strongly to my desire, my willingness to learn math.

Confirmation is the set of environmental factors that helps keep us on a path of learning.  These environmental factors are sometimes mimicked in the corporate world with bonuses and gamification, but these are really distant shadows of what confirmation is really about. Confirmation is when the stars align, when everything seems to go right at just the right time, when the spirit inspires and moves you and the world to be, in some way, successful.  The trick about confirmation is that success is not usually about monetary success.  It’s usually about social, relational or even sacrificial success.  As an example, when I was in grade 7, I was chosen with a small group of people in my class to do accelerated math studies.  This was a great honour for me and was a confirmation of my interest in math.

In organizational change, and in particular in changing to an Agile enterprise, we need to be aware that excellence requires that these four factors be in place.  Aptitude is, to some degree, innate.  We can’t trick people to have aptitude.  If someone is just fundamentally bad at a certain thing, despite vigorous educational efforts, then that person likely doesn’t have the aptitude.  Effort is about both having time and resources, but also, then about willingness.  And willingness, in turn, can only be sustained with confirmation.  Too much discouragement will break a person’s willingness.  The Agile enterprise requires a great number of skills and abilities that are not normally part of a person’s work environment prior to attempting to adopt Agile.  Keeping these four things in mind can help people in an organization to reach excellence in Agility.

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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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# 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.

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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