Estimating In Hours Anchors Your Agile Team To The Past

Rethinking Estimates in Agile Development

As organizations adopt agile practices, they often struggle to break free from detailed upfront planning and estimates in hours. Legacy approaches anchor teams to outdated assumptions and plans, reducing the adaptability essential for agility.

This article examines the pitfalls of estimating in hours for agile development and offers techniques to plan dynamically while still enabling predictability. By focusing more on relative size, planning at the epic level, tracking velocity, and embracing uncertainty, teams can deliver value reliably without false precision.

The Problem with Hour Estimates

Estimating user stories and backlog items in hours reflect traditional project management thinking. While understandable in shifting to agile, such hour-based estimating comes with inherent drawbacks.

Anchors Teams to Outdated Plans

When teams estimate in hours, those estimates embed assumptions about scope, priorities, and release plans. If the realities of development invalidate those assumptions, teams feel anchored to the original estimates and plans.

By defining work quantitatively upfront, it locks in place details subject to future change. The inevitable changes in competitive conditions, technology, and learning then conflict with the plan.

Limits Adaptability to Change

Software development unfolds through complexity and uncertainty. The competitive landscape, user needs, technical options, and project dynamics inevitably shift over time in unexpected ways.

Hour-based plans struggle to keep pace with change. The original estimates form a baseline growing increasingly outdated. Team feels reluctant to re-estimate and re-plan, limiting adaptability.

Encourages Padding Estimates

Since hour estimates serve as commitments, teams hedge against uncertainty by padding them. Extra hours pad estimates for probable changes and risks, ensuring the plan absorbs emerging needs.

Such padding misrepresents true time expectations. It builds in waste and reduces accountability to scope. The excess time allows releases to absorb more arbitrary features reflecting internal interests vs. customer value.

Focusing on Relative Size

To connect estimates directly to value delivery, agile teams opt to estimate in more relative units of size. Story points provide flexibility to prioritize and adjust work without re-estimating constantly.

Using Story Points Instead of Hours

Story points assign an abstract scale representing the amount of effort to complete a work item relative to others. By rating product backlog items on a common point scale, the team gets a sense of size and complexity.

Typical scales range from 1 to 100 points. Larger, more complex items receive more points compared to smaller ones towards the lower end. The absolute numbers carry no specific hour meaning.

Abstract Scale Based on Effort Not Time

Story points convey size measured through the estimated development effort in a relative sense. The point values depend on item-by-item comparisons against the calibrated scale.

The actual hours involved hold little relevance. What matters is how the sized items fall in sequence. Their relative ordering sets priorities, not pre-defined delivery dates.

Enables Re-prioritization

By sizing items based on relative effort instead of fixed hours, the backlog becomes fluid. The product owner can re-sequence priorities to maximize business value without re-estimating hours.

Development capacity adjusts to the emerging items based on their relative ranking. Agile Kings the ability to incorporate new insights continuously.

Planning at the Epic Level

Estimating large product initiatives maintains a focus on business outcomes without enumerating details prematurely. Group related stories into epics to frame value delivery in testable chunks.

Estimate Initiatives Not Stories

Early product discovery rarely clarifies granular specifications upfront. Attempts to define stories fully waste effort on ephemeral details. Estimating epics guides investment priorities without false precision.

Focus estimation conversations on strategic initiatives to evaluate potential ROI. Define enough scope to establish expected epic size at a high level only.

Map Themes to Sprints

Once initiatives receive estimates in relative size, map themes spanning several sprints. Translating epics into stories occurs iteratively inside those sprints through continuous grooming.

Epic-level estimates maintain flexibility in scope and schedule details. The only commitments fall at the sprint level based on team capacity, not speculative long-range plans.

Adjust Scope to Fit Timeline

External deadlines often impose fixed calendar constraints despite uncertainty. By planning in prioritized epochs, scope becomes the flexible factor to meet strategic timelines.

Rather than padding estimates, trim scope across epics and accept some will spill over. Reduce ideas to those delivering the most value by the forced timeline.

Tracking Progress with Velocity

Over a series of sprints, agile teams establish a reliable velocity in delivering story points. This measured pace allows forecasting future capacity in flexible ways.

Measure Team Speed Over Time

Velocity represents the amount of story points a team completes per sprint on average. The consistent metric quantifies work capacity through a consistent point scale.

As sprints progress, velocity stabilizes absent major changes. The reliable speed enables tracking incremental progress towards long-range objectives.

Establish Reliable Delivery Pace

A steady velocity pace emerges across sprints once a team gels. It accounts for all real-world factors impeding idealized productivity and capacity assumptions.

By empirically measuring average speed, velocity grounds projections. Past consistency signals probable future throughput within reasonable ranges.

Guide Capacity Planning Decisions

Since velocity allows forecasting, product owners use it to allocate stories matching team bandwidth. Adding team members impacts velocity to expand work capacity over time.

Velocity informs release planning and staffing adjustments. Its measured pace guides capacity vs. timeline tradeoffs in scoping project work.

Estimating for Discovery

Fixating on estimates shows lack of comfort with uncertainty. Estimation paralysis distracts from learning needed to understand solutions. Timebox discovery work instead.

Embrace Uncertainty as Learning

Estimation pressures teams to specify details not yet knowable. Iterative discovery must unfold uncertainties instead of predicting them away.

Scope vague ideas into experiments to frame unknowns as testable hypotheses. Embrace uncertainties as opportunities for engagement and learning.

Timebox Exploration Work

Rather than demand detailed estimates for vague ideas, simply timebox exploration instead. Invest fixed calendar periods to envision possibilities.

Establish a safe space for creativity without expectations on estimating ephemeral concepts still unfolding. Reduce time pressures to enable learning.

Use Spikes to Reduce Unknowns

Unfamiliar solutions warrant research spikes before estimating stories. Investigate technical options and user needs in ad hoc spikes first.

Let the spikes expose uncertainties to shape capabilities worth building. Then estimate relative effort on stories against known solution patterns.

The Path Forward

Accurately estimating agile delivery proves counterproductive given its transformational nature. But organizations still need indicators of progress and priorities.

Let Go of False Precision

Presuming hour estimates provide certainty anchores teams to the illusion of precision. Agile requires responding to ambiguity, not predicting it.

Scope issues arise no matter the upfront estimates. The path ahead will not match early assumptions. Embrace continuous adjustments.

Plan Dynamically

Rather than specify work upfront, discover scope collaboratively inside sprint cycles. Planning happens continually, not just at project start.

Shift from predefined specifications to flexible backlogs. Embrace change through progressive elaboration of priorities focused on the next level of detail.

Deliver Value Reliably

Even without hour estimates, velocity forecasting enables reliable value delivery. The consistent story point pace allows general roadmapping.

Velocity capacity guides executable plans. Predictability springs from measuring throughput empirically, not hypothetical effort calculations.

Key Takeaways

Estimating agile delivery in hours reflects outdated thinking that undermines adaptability needed to harness ambiguity. But organizations still require some forecasting indicators without enforcing false precision.

The Problems with Hour Estimates

Predefined hour estimates anchor agile teams to assumptions growing outdated. They encourage padding timelines rather than adapting to change and learning. Such false precision erodes agility.

Techniques to Estimate Relatively

Story points and measured velocity allow estimates and forecasts without hour commitments. Relative size techniques plan dynamically across epics while still tracking probable throughput.

Epic-Level Planning and Delivery Cadences

Group related initiatives into testable epics as the framework for agile delivery. Their succession across a release roadmap establishes cadences for incremental capability injection.

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