Different estimating tools suit different purposes – and most estimates should not be taken at face value from stakeholders, or anyone outside the team.

T-shirt sizes can be good for a general idea of whether a task is small, medium, or large. They’re a good starting point, and make it quick to identify things that need to be broken down. However, they can be a bit of a blunt tool as most stories end up under Medium or Large, which doesn’t tell you all that much.

Story points can help with sprint planning, as you can add up the points across multiple stories to see how much you want to aim for in each sprint. They are also a good way to use relative sizing for your backlog: seeing which items are bigger or smaller than others.

Dates make teams nervous. Everyone wants to know when everything will be done by. But even when told “we won’t hold you to that, it’s just a guide”, teams know there will be questions if too many tasks overrun.

Tips to help

Here are a few tips to help with all this.

  1. New teams take time to get up to speed. They need to learn the product and codebase, and they also need to learn your company and processes. A good team may be able to complete stories early on, but predicting when they will be ready is likely to be erratic. Focus on giving the team all the info they need, and give them the space to learn how best to estimate and complete their tasks.
  2. Some estimates are best to keep within the team, and not share outside the team. In practice this is difficult, as things such as story points will be stored in your issue tracker, so anyone with access can read and interpret them. Whether it’s story points or t-shirt sizes, the team should be able to use estimates not to say when a ticket will be completed, but instead to identify the big/risky/complex tasks. Those tasks can then be picked up first to de-risk and unblock future work.
  3. Allow new and junior members to use small tasks for learning, and don’t expect them to do them as quickly as a more experienced team member might.
  4. Dates are still important, as they reduce the open-ended feeling of feeding task after task to a team with no goal in sight. But don’t send over a “grab bag” of tasks, or push for a delivery date for every single ticket. Instead, consider using a fixed-length sprint with a clear goal, and focus the team around that.
  5. Don’t compare estimates between teams. Every team is different. As soon as you start saying “Team A did 50 story points this week but Team B only did 40 points”, you’ve missed the point (sorry).
  6. You don’t need to complete 100% of stories every sprint – and you rarely will. It’s better to aim for 70-80% completion and treat anything else as a bonus.
  7. And on that note, make sure to build slack into your plan (not Slack, the tool). Filling up to maximum capacity means you lose any wiggle room if things take longer than expected. Expect the unexpected – and build uncertainty into your plans.

Photo by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash