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Scrum Estimation – Best Practices

20 Aug 2019

Estimation is an often-overlooked aspect of the Scrum framework. 

This is somewhat surprising considering that the Scrum Guide mentions the term “estimate” nine times. It’s a prescribed attribute for items that constitute Scrum Product Backlog, just like description, value, and order. 

The problem probably lies in the fact that the Guide doesn’t offer any explanation on how Scrum estimations should work. In fact, Scrum forefathers refrained from dictating any item estimation requirements whatsoever.

It seems we’re left a lot of freedom of choice when going about Sprint and Product Backlog estimation. We’re constrained only by a set of governing rules and demands of our business case. 

This guide should help you navigate the labyrinth of decisions and put Scrum estimation to good use. 

A Business Case for Estimation

Despite formally vague status, the practice of Scrum estimation is integral to successful project deployment and development. 

Whether we realize it or not, we constantly run estimates in our head. Some of them have marginal effects on business performance, while others can be game-changing. They are all essential components of decision making.  

Few people would dispute that it’s much better to have a systematic approach than to rely on best guesses and ballpark figures. Merely trying to “do everything on time” isn’t any good either unless you are working on a very tiny team with very little pressure from the business side. 

Estimation based on practical inspection is the way to go. It enables us to gain a clear idea of what can be realistically achieved and when. In other words, you evaluate how much work you can fit into Sprints and where that leaves you. 

This major best practice supports everything Scrum sets out to do. This Agile methodology is all about tackling the complexity of project and business environments. It encourages us to face adaptive problems through predictability and risk management

In order to do that, we need to ensure transparency and inspection. Estimation promotes both of these fundamental qualities, strengthening the very core of Scrum. 

Getting the Priorities in Order 

What is more, estimation lets us make sense of a bunch of items we need to tackle during the day. It informs our tasks prioritization and brings order and transparency to the Product Backlog. 

You can, for instance, identify the highest-value items and allocate your resources there. Moreover, you are able to minimize wasted time and effort. 

It’s up to the Product Owner to lead the priority aligning process, which converges with Backlog refinement. Specific tasks revolve around understanding and gauging trade-offs.

At the same time, the Product Owner has to recognize that the team possesses the most direct insights. Its members are closest to the work and they should offer valuable feedback.

Typically, members come together during Daily Scrums and discuss everything related to progress. They can use tools such as burn-down charts to review work and dependencies. 

Furthermore, Scrum states estimates are important in the context of Sprint Planning. Namely, work varies in volume and effort it takes. Team has to develop a functioning system for translating this variance into shippable product Increments.

Not only that but goals have to be met without compromising quality and user value. This is no small feat, which is hard to imagine without effective inspection and estimation. 

There are some other use cases that call for estimation. 

Take the example of coordinating dependencies and situations when team composition change. This can happen, for instance, upon a key expert is away from the office. 

Estimation practice comes into play to restore consistency and predictability. It empowers the collective to eliminate any impediments and bottlenecks. There is much more clarity regarding the current state of the project and the future trajectory it will take. 

Cross-functional teams know what skills, tools, and competencies they have. They also become aware of where they’re lacking. It’s a win-win. 

Holding the Reigns 

Of course, estimates aren’t silver bullets for solving all Agile problems.

To yield results, they have to be rooted in facts and figures— empirical evidence from previous Sprints. This pool of knowledge enables you to properly set expectations and revamp plans on the go. 

Ultimately, the process leads to information and knowledge sharing. It involves all teams, roles, customers, and stakeholders involved in meeting shifting objectives and requirements.

What estimation certainly shouldn’t do is add more time-consuming tasks to an already overwhelming mix. Quite the contrary— it’s supposed to facilitate better time management.

Another thing to notice is the more complex work it is the harder it becomes to properly evaluate it. The same law of direct proportion applies to large teams and projects. 

Sometimes, it’s simply not possible to narrow things down to exact figures. Trying to do so may only create a false sense of security. Besides, you might be able to carry out Sprint Planning without doing any estimates. 

There are practices such as continuous integration/delivery/deployment and timeboxes that fill a similar role.  

So, always take a deep breath before actually making a big commitment. Optimizing predictably is more important than sticking to projections, even more so if they fall off the mark. 

With all this in mind, you should be able to unlock the value of estimation and use it as a blueprint for your projects.

Just make sure to show consistency and hunger for knowledge. Detect patterns and trends in activities that affect value and complexity.  Be highly responsive to changes in the environment and tame the emergent nature of the development process. 

This is a way to boost profitability, productivity, and customer satisfaction in one stroke. 

Estimation as Sense of Direction 

Iterative development is a tough endeavor.

There are numerous components that have to fall together. You are under pressure to juggle and balance a bunch of different priorities. 

Your best shot is to make accurate forecast and gather feedback early and often. Estimation equips you with tools for doing just that, as long as you tailor it to your needs and goals. 

So, develop a shared understanding of what needs to be done. Ensure maximum transparency and commit to continuous inspection and adaptation. Initiate consistent cycles and stay agile and flexible.  Remember estimation is as a team effort and exercise. 

It’s time to move forward with a strong sense of propose and nail your objectives!