Agile Technique Brief: Estimating


Quick Summary
Screenshot This agile approach to generating task estimates -- or "story points" -- makes a challenging task more fun and more accurate, by focusing more on relative feature sizes and actual production during a project iteration.


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What this is

This technique brief discusses an agile approach to estimating the size of features for a software development project. The approach, called Planning Poker, provides a mechanism that allows the team to collaborate on an estimate that reflects their combined knowledge and experience.


Why it's useful

The approach to estimating described in this technique brief allows teams to produce useful estimates without spending a great deal of time focusing on unattainable accuracy. The approach uses relative size measurement instead of absolute duration estimates to avoid the variation introduced by different skill levels of team members developing features. The use of velocity to capture the team’s ability to develop features helps to reduce uncertainty.


How to use it

Teams can use the following steps to determine an initial estimate of duration for a project and then monitor progress toward that estimate as the project proceeds.

  • Establish a feature list for the project.
  • Gather the team together; the development members to estimate cost, the business members to estimate benefit.
  • Use Planning Poker to converge on an estimate for each feature. (Detailed instructions are provided in the guideline.)
  • Determine the desired length of the project’s iterations. The ideal length for an iteration is long enough that the team can deliver something of value, but short enough that it is not painful for the business to wait and change something. Typical iterations last between 2 and 4 weeks.
  • Determine an initial velocity. The best way to do this is to determine how many features the team can commit to delivering in the first iteration. Add up the story points associated with those features and use that as the initial velocity.
  • Divide the total story points included in the feature list by the velocity to determine how many iterations will be required, then convert the number of iterations to days or weeks depending on what is preferred by your organization. The result answer is the anticipated duration of the project.
  • After the first iteration, total up the story points from the features that were completed (i.e. accepted by the Product Owner). This is the actual velocity of the first iteration. Recalculate the expected duration based on this new velocity.
  • After the second iteration, recalculate the overall team velocity by averaging the velocity from the first two iterations.
  • Repeat after each iteration, monitoring the corresponding impact on the expected date that the feature list will be completed.
About the Author

Kent J. McDonald, partner and co-founder of Accelinnova, has more than a decade of experience guiding successful projects and designing business solutions in a variety of industries, including financial services, health insurance, performance marketing, human services, non-profit, and automotive. By addressing common questions about project leadership, Kent demonstrates how agile practices can be applied in organizations, focusing on his "Words To Lead By: Collaborate; Iterate; Serve The Team; Consider Context; Practice Excellence; Reflect And Adapt; Deliver Value."

Kent has a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Iowa State University and an MBA from Kent State University. He is co-founder, and Treasurer of the Agile Project Leadership Network, is a founder of the Agile Iowa Group, and is on the planning committee for the Agile 2007 Conference. He welcomes questions about project leadership with a focus on value at kent@kentmcdonald.com.


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