The Guessing Game - Alternatives to Agile Estimation

Agile promotes empiricism and change, yet many practitioners continue to scope out and estimate delivery times and costs for software products and projects.

Defenders of the art of estimation claim that we need to estimate software projects in order to answer common business and customer questions such as:

  • Should we go ahead with this project? (go/no-go)
  • How much will it cost? (bottom line)
  • When will it be done? (predictability)
  • Should we do project B instead of A? (prioritisation)

This session challenges participants to flip these questions on their heads and seek alternatives to estimation rituals. It covers the many risks inherent with an estimation culture and demonstrates real, practical alternatives, both at the portfolio and the sprint level.

 
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Outline/structure of the Session

30 minute lecture followed by 10 minutes of questions.

Learning Outcome

  • How to reduce the uncertainty and risk inherent with popular estimation models and rituals
  • How to determine the price for your customer without estimation 
    rituals
  • How to determine delivery dates and roadmaps without estimation rituals
  • How to determine which projects to pursue without estimation 
    rituals
  • How to do Scrum or XP without estimation rituals
  • When, if ever, is it appropriate to estimate software projects?

Target Audience

Project Managers, Scrum Masters, Iteration Managers, Development Managers

schedule Submitted 3 years ago

Comments Subscribe to Comments

comment Comment on this Proposal
  • Ajey Gore
    By Ajey Gore  ~  3 years ago
    reply Reply

    Hey Neil,

    Sounds very interesting and really liked this, although one question, how can you relate this to real world example? wouldn't walking through a complete delivery cycle be more beneficial?

    Ajey

    • Neil Killick
      By Neil Killick  ~  3 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Ajey,

      My talk will certainly include real world examples.

      I have toyed before with talking through a complete delivery cycle,but given the magnitude of different types of projects and circumstances that affect the ability to work without estimates at the portfolio level, it always comes out as something too large to attack in such a forum.

      Will happily answer questions though, and I hope the conversation continues long after the presentation :)

  • Pramod Sadalage
    By Pramod Sadalage  ~  3 years ago
    reply Reply

    Neil,

    Can this talk also benefit Business Sponsors, Product Owners?

    • Neil Killick
      By Neil Killick  ~  3 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Pramod.

      Absolutely. Deciding how much money to spend on an initiative without estimating will be very interesting for business sponsors, while Product Owners will learn about scheduling and prioritising upcoming work without having to ask the team for estimates.

  • Jerry Rajamoney
    By Jerry Rajamoney  ~  3 years ago
    reply Reply

    Hi Neil,
    Very interesting topic. After looking at the presentation I have the following query. I completely agree with what you have mentioned in the presentation. But when a client asks, when this can be done? the expectation from the management is to support your points with "data" which is usually some dates / person months. So, are you planning to add some concrete examples / case studies where you have used this points and convinced management?

    Because those examples will add a lot of value for the audiance.


    Thanks,
    Jerry

  • Ebin John
    By Ebin John  ~  3 years ago
    reply Reply

    Hi Neil,

    Interesting proposal. I am wondering whether it is more suitable for the theme "Agile Lifecycle". Can you please elaborate the rational behind choosing the theme Beyond Agile?

    Are you planning to talk about story sizing as well or just estimation?

    -Ebin

    • Neil Killick
      By Neil Killick  ~  3 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Ebin,

      I chose Beyond Agile because the topic seems to be taking experienced Agile practitioners to beyond the limits of their thinking. Estimation still seems to be immutable and embedded as a necessity in software projects, and this immutability does not align with Agile thinking. We ought to always be questioning our approaches and seeking something better.

      That said, the talk could sit equally as comfortably in the Agile Lifecycle stream because it's very much about reaffirming Agile principles, the way we initiate projects and the way we deliver within the lifecycle.

      To your second question, I very much see "story sizing" as a type of estimation and will absolutely be talking about it because approaches like story points and T-Shirt sizing are so popular with Agile teams.

  • Tathagat Varma
    By Tathagat Varma  ~  3 years ago
    reply Reply

    Hi Neil - do you plan to include a real-life case study to back up your perspective?

    -TV

    • Neil Killick
      By Neil Killick  ~  3 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Tathagat,

      Yes, I will ve giving examples from real projects I've done in the past, both about the dysfunctional decision making caused by a project/estimate driven approach and about ways that I or my team has used empirical data and iterative decision making to control risk and deliver valuable outcomes without deterministically estimating.

  • Prasad
    By Prasad  ~  3 years ago
    reply Reply

    Hi Niel

    Your deck is impressive. But if I were a CFO of a medium to large company, still I wont give you a single penny.. end of the day ' honey its money'. What helps me to justify a buisness case..

    • Neil Killick
      By Neil Killick  ~  3 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Prasad. This presentation focuses primarily on the team/project level, where the business case has already been approved (i.e. we have a budget to work with).

      I will however talk briefly about portfolio decision making. There are issues with the way estimates are typically done to get business cases approved, such as The Goldilocks Effect (budget must not be too small or too large, it must be "just right"), months or even years between the business case and a team being put together, etc.

      I will propose more of a "drip funding" approach to controlling cost and discovering value rather than trying to estimate cost and value over a long time period. This incorporates Lean Startup thinking (small experiments, MVP, customer validation etc.), Agile principles (empiricism over predicting) and Real Options (items on a backlog are all options which expire, have value, etc.)


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    Annual software release cycles cramping the agility of the team? Too many hot fixes reducing the efficiency of your organization? Customers waiting impatientlyfor  the next cool features hot off the press? These are some of the painful and common problems faced by development teams worldwide. In today's world, most things get outdated or out-of-fashion very fast - and software is no different. Users cannot afford to wait for the next cool set of features for a year. They want a steady stream of cool new features that they can adopt and use immediately.

    My team follows a development model that we like to call Open Commercial Development - where we're always connected to our stakeholders, our plans are out in the open, and we're always gathering feedback and reprioritizing. We used to have yearly releases of our product - a sort of big bang release with a host of new featres. Based on our stakeholder interactions, however, we figured that our software delivery wasn't agile enough for our customers. Users wanted new features incrementally throughout the year. They especially didn't want to wait a year for a feature that they'd requested that was critical for their business.

    So began our journey to Continuous Delivery - an interesting one for sure. It's not easy to deliver new features, manage technical debt, collaborate with users and incorporate their feedback into the new features - once every quarter. To do it consistently, with quality and on time, you need to have a framework in place - a combination of planning, process, automation and team organization - that lets teams focus on the right things to get to DONE DONE for their new features, and at the same time manage their quality and tecnical debt. Over the past year, we like to think that we've put that framework in place, and that is what I'd like to talk about in this session.