Agile Estimation Techniques

Estimation is the calculated approximation of a result which is usable even if input data may be incomplete or uncertain. Agile estimation throws this logic away and always re-estimates a project after each iteration.

Some of the most popular Agile Estimation techniques are :

Planning Poker
Team Sort (T-Shirt Sizing)
One Point One Card

Planning Poker:

This is a well established technique popularized by Mike Cohn, and variations on his Planning Poker cards can be found in offices across the world. A typical Planning Poker set has cards with the following numbers: ½ 1 2 3 5 8 13 20 40 100. Here is how its played:

Planning Poker has the advantage of being fairly democratic. Every team member gets a hand of cards and is allowed to play, and has a clear opportunity to explain their reasoning to the others. The disadvantage of Planning Poker is that it can be rather time consuming in comparison with other methods. It can also encourage novice teams to estimate in terms of time, as they are often initially prejudiced to correlate points to hours or days. This prejudice must be challenged and eroded if the relative sizing of estimates is to be achieved.

Team Sort (T-Shirt Sizing):

This is a good way of estimating without planning poker cards. All you need are six scraps of paper and a set of index cards with the requirements (e.g. user stories) written on them. Normally these will be the same index cards that go on the Scrum board.

  • Write one of the following sizes on each of the scraps of paper: Extra Small (XS), Small (S), Medium (M), Large (L), Extra Large (XL), and Extra Extra Large (XXL)
  • Arrange the sizes in a horizontal line on a table, ordered from XS on the left to XXL on the right.
  • Put the pile of index cards on the table in front of the sizing line.
  • The team then collaborate to organise the requirements on the cards under the headings XS to XXL. They can ask the Product Owner to clarify any questions that they may have while doing so.
  • Once the cards have all been sorted, story points can be allocated to each of them by mapping each T-Shirt size to a value. This allows metrics to be gathered about the flow of work, and used to populate a velocity or burndown chart.
T Shirt Size Suggested Story Point Value
XS 1
S 2
M 3
L 5
XL 8
XXL 13

An advantage of the team sort is that it is quick and easy to do. The complete set of requirements is estimated in one sweep. Also, it is a fairly direct way of achieving relative sizing. There is no temptation to correlate points to hours. The disadvantage is that it is potentially undemocratic, in that assertive team members can dominate meeker ones with their opinions.

There is a variant of the team sort which encourages more egalitarian behavior. Each team member takes it in turns to move one card by one position. They also have the option to pass, i.e. to not move a card. Eventually a consensus should be reached and no more cards will be moved. However this is a more time consuming method and deadlocks can occur. These deadlocks can be difficult to spot if multiple card shifts are caught in the cycle.

One Point One Card

This method is a spin on the Lean-Kanban approach of tracking actuals. Instead of estimating the relative effort required for each story card, the team estimates how many stories it is likely to complete in the Sprint being planned. This can be as straightforward as using the yesterday’s weather analogy for velocity estimation. Just as the weather today is most likely to resemble the weather yesterday, the velocity that will be achieved by a team in the upcoming Sprint will most likely match the velocity of its predecessor. So if two dozen cards were completed in the last sprint, approximately two dozen can be expected in the one that follows. The budget can be adjusted to allow for holiday, foreseeable absences, and other such changes that will impact the team’s commitment.

The advantage of this system is its raw simplicity. The estimation overhead is almost negligible. Also, it encourages the authoring of small user stories that will spend little time in progress and that stand little chance of being impeded. The liquidity of the board is therefore increased and further requirements analysis is encouraged. Some variation in size will be inevitable, and there will be statistical outliers, but the effects of these will average out as the flow rate increases. The disadvantage of this technique lies in the separation of fine-grained user stories from business value. There is a significant risk that they will become excessively technically focused and task-like.

Agile estimation