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Agile Estimating & Planning

Instructor: Bob Bruner

Bob is a software professional with 24 years in the industry. He has a bachelor's degree in Geology, and also has extensive experience in the Oil and Gas industry.

Estimating and planning activities in Agile project management are handled using an incremental process, rather than occurring at the very start of a project. In this lesson, we explore how this actually occurs over time.

Estimating and Planning in Agile

If you have ever undertaken a planning exercise for a reasonably large or complex project, you will realize how daunting the task quickly becomes. Simply listing every work product or feature that is required, along with all the associated dependencies, is a difficult task in itself. Trying to then define the tasks required for each of those items and estimate the time when those tasks can be completed based on long-range assumptions about resource availability soon becomes a planning and estimating nightmare. Agile methodologies take a different approach to both the estimating and planning processes.

Agile Estimation Activities

A key component used in Agile estimation is the story size. This size is a unitless value which attempts to account for all the various components of the story in one broad measurement. If all stories are sized using this same measurement technique, then the Agile team has a common way to compare any one story relative to all the other stories in the product backlog. The size of the story is given a single value in story points.

The estimation of any story is done together by the team, usually at the iteration planning meetings. Each team member votes on story points based on their understanding of the story as described by the product owner and discussed in some detail by the entire team. In addition to the amount of work they believe is involved in the delivery, team members are encouraged to factor into their estimation the complexity or uncertainty they believe the story has hidden within its details.

The voting process is usually done by everyone simply holding up a card with their estimate. The use of cards has led to this exercise being referred to as planning poker. Quite often, particularly on teams that have worked together for a long period of time, these estimates will not be wildly different, since each member of the team has a shared history of sizing and delivery to refer to. As part of the exercise, the team will pay particular attention to any outliers in the voting, and those team members can discuss what factors led them to their estimation.

Having undertaken this discussion, the team will coalesce on a single story point value, which is recorded for ongoing reference. Another common practice is to use story points that fall only on the numbers from a Fibonacci sequence (1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34…), although any agreed to number scheme will actually suffice as long as it is used for all estimation work.

Agile Planning Activities

A key component of planning in Agile will be the number of story points that a team can be expected to deliver in a single iteration. This is not just an estimate but is an empirical value derived from the team's historical record of work. At the end of every iteration, each team will keep a record of the number of story points that were completely delivered by that team. Over time, the average of the completed story points will be used to set the team's velocity.

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