# 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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# The Start of a True Team

I wrote this article for our Real Agility Newsletter, but I wanted to share it here too, just in case some of you don’t get it.  I think this is important to share because it gets to some of the deep values of Agile and good teamwork.

– – – – – – – –

The team really is important. Last month I wrote about love. This month, I’ll write about commitment. Our team has gone through some extreme tests this last month. Commitment kept us together.

Our business has been through crisis before. In the second half of 2005, my own financial mis-management led to near-bankruptcy for the business and for myself personally. My dear long-suffering wife and business partner, Melanie, kept things under control as we recovered. In late 2009 the Great Recession hit us hard and we had to cut our staff back to just Paul and myself by laying off three talented friends and cutting work to a loyal subcontractor. That was incredibly painful for everyone involved. A similar crisis occurred again in late 2011, although it wasn’t as severe. In September last year, our projections were showing a looming crisis… but we narrowly averted any layoffs when a smaller consulting deal closed and one person was let go for unrelated reasons. We still needed more work, and in late fall we were expecting to close three important deals.

In January we knew we were in trouble. Business was not booming. In fact, those three important deals had fallen through with nothing obvious on the horizon to replace them. Our office management was in a shambles with two recent changes in staff and very little continuity. Our accounts receivable had several items that were waaaay overdue. We were starting to dig deep into our operating credit with no obvious way to climb back out. The partners, Paul, Travis, Melanie and I started to talk about serious stuff: deep layoffs. We were worried we may even have to cut all the way back to just me doing work (mostly CSM classes) – a staff level we haven’t seen since 2007!

Two weeks ago, the four partners had an emergency weekend meeting after our early February attempts to build sufficient immediate cash flow failed. We consulted for over four hours around a single question: what should we do? Our projections were showing us running out of credit in just four weeks, our business development pipeline was almost empty and the few things in it were clearly long-shot deals, at least in the timeframe we needed. It seemed almost impossible to avoid deep layoffs. Our love for each other seemed almost irrelevant to the crisis, despite the depth of our feeling.  The consultation was difficult and filled with despair.

My memory for exact words is poor. I remember concepts, relationships and feelings. During that weekend consultation, one thing really stood out: we started to talk about commitment. We talked about what it would mean to be committed to each other and to the business vision of transforming people, process and culture. Most powerfully, we talked about the commitment of our newest employee, Nima, who seemed determined to go to the ends of the earth, to the very last moment to help us all succeed. As we talked about commitment, we came to our most powerful decision: sink or swim, we are all in this together to the end.

After that critical point in our discussion, we set some goals, determined some important activities, and decided to go literally day-to-day in deciding if it was time to wrap up the business. And, strangely enough (I say ironically), we decided we needed to shorten our planning cycle from a month to two weeks, increase the discipline of our team’s interactions to bi-daily check-ins, create a detailed set of dynamic plans for the two weeks, and have a review meeting at the end of the two weeks. Sounds a bit like an Agile team, doesn’t it?

What happened? Well, we’re still around. We’ve closed enough business that our projections are now showing us staying in a steady state financially for the next three months. That’s a dramatic turnaround from just two weeks prior. We aren’t going to run out of credit. In fact, we now have enough prospects that we expect to be extremely busy in just a couple more weeks. Our end-of-cycle review, which happened on Friday, was still difficult. There is still great uncertainty about many things. But the one thing that is crystal clear, strong as steel, and deep as the deepest ocean is our commitment to each other to succeed together. We are a true team.

– – – – – – – –

If you have similar stories to tell, I would love to hear them!

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