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Agile estimation techniques that don’t leave remote workers behind

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on May 9, 2019 8:16:00 AM
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Agile practitioners know that estimation is tough – period. It’s tough figuring out how much time your own task will take. It’s tough estimating the team effort involved in a specific story. Heck, estimation is even tough when the stakes are much lower – like winning a guess-how-many-jelly-beans-in-a-jar contest.

But there’s a secret – the power of the team. When estimation becomes truly collaborative, it’s almost always more accurate than when done individually. (That’s true for the jelly beans, too – in one experiment, Jack Treynor had 56 people estimate the number of beans in a jar. The average of all their responses was 871, just 21 over the actual amount. Only one person’s guess came closer.)

Many scrum teams rely on agile estimation techniques that use sticky notes to get a better sense of how much effort each story will take. And that works – until teams get their first remote team member.

Without adapting, it’s too easy to leave a remote team member feeling like a fly on the wall – a meeting observer rather than active participant. And that chips away at the very thing that makes agile story estimation work so well – the involvement of the whole scrum team.

In-room and remote

Keeping remote team members aligned is a challenge that wasn’t contemplated when the agile manifesto was conceived of many years ago.

But just because distributed team members can’t stand in front of a sticky-note wall, that doesn’t mean your time-tested processes should be compromised. Many well-loved agile estimation techniques work just as well for remote team members – with the addition of a few online tools.

Visual collaboration solutions, like Span™ Workspace, can be used like a traditional sticky-note wall, but instead of physical space in a room you get cloud-based digital canvases your team can use anywhere – from meeting room displays and individual devices. And like paper sticky notes, they let everyone add estimates to a shared canvas without being swayed by other opinions.

Here’s how three estimation activities, paired with visual collaboration tools, can keep your remote teams engaged and involved:

1. Planning poker

In planning poker, teams begin with a series of numbers to represent just how much work each story involves. Often the Fibonacci sequence is used as inspiration – the numbers might be 0, 1/2, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40 and 100 (and some teams throw in Infinity at the end).

To get your remote team members fully involved, start the poker game with a digital canvas that includes the description of each story. Make sure everyone can access the canvas from their devices – if you have people in the office, your interactive displays can show it, too. Each person will have a set of sticky notes labeled with different story point possibilities.

Once your team has fully discussed a story and resolved questions, everyone adds estimations to the canvas at once (the equivalent of flipping over cards in traditional planning poker). There may be a lot of variance – which is just fine. Have the people with the outlier estimates explain why they got there.

After a group discussion, everyone has the chance to revise estimates (or not) in a second vote. Eventually the team will agree on a common number, and discussion can move on to the next story.

2. T-shirt sizing

T-shirt sizing with a remote team is like planning poker, but simpler. Instead of having a large range of numbers to choose from, you have T-shirt sizes – XS, S, M, L, XL. If your team is going around in circles trying to quantify precisely what each story point number means, self-imposed limitations can help.

Simplifying the estimation process can be helpful for agile teams who are new to the remote experience. Just make sure that everyone is aligned on what the different sizes mean. Is an XL story one that’s doable but takes concerted effort? Or is it an epic in disguise? It can be helpful to add clarification in the canvas so people know what to look for.

If your team wants to get creative, you don’t need to use T-shirt sizes. What about scaling based on dog sizes (Chihuahua to Great Dane) or water features (streams to oceans)? Try sharing photos instead of notes on the canvas to represent your estimate.

3. Affinity grouping

Affinity grouping taps into the collective wisdom of your team – making it important that remote people get fully involved. It also has the advantage of being both speedy and collaborative.

When doing affinity groupings online, start by drawing a line on a canvas, spanning from little effort to a lot. In another spot, add notes for all the stories that need estimation. Make sure everyone has what they need to know about each story to make a strong estimate.

The next part happens fast. Someone places the first story at a spot on the scale. Then someone grabs the next sticky, thinks about whether it’s bigger or smaller and places it to the left or right of that story. Everyone (including those not in the room) takes turns placing stories until there’s a line of notes going from least to most effort. No comments from anyone until every story is placed.

Once the lineup is ready, the group talks through everything to make sure everyone agrees on the order. Stories move around as team members chime in with their insights.

The exercise ends with taking the lineup and dragging the stories into different groups, based on Fibonacci numbers, T-shirt sizes, hour estimates or any other measure the team prefers.

Flexible tools and techniques

Those are just three ways distributed teams can make sure they’re getting full remote participation in agile estimation. Your team may like planning poker, T-shirt sizing, affinity groups – or dot voting, the bucket system or hour estimations. No matter your favorites, flexible visual collaboration tools will help you go digital without losing what you love about them.

And you don’t need to stop at estimation – digital tools can help for retrospectives, sprint planning and more. The key is to include tools that focus on collaboration and big picture thinking, before delving into the granular solutions that track task details and team member roles.

How do you involve your remote team members in story estimation? Any other techniques you love? Let us know!


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Topics: Agile