Monday, May 14, 2018

Story Points for the Misinformed

It is all about planning poker.
Last week, I wrote a harsh critique of how project estimation is done at many organizations.  I do not like using the words farce and tragedy lightly, but in my experience, many projects devolve into these realms.  This week, I want to talk about story points and how they solve some of the problems I discussed how estimation is broken.

I have written two essential blog posts on story points.  The first was my reappraisal of story points as measurements of difficulty and ambiguity.  The other blog post illustrated how story points could be used to meet deadlines.  Reviewing those blogs, I think they are a clear explanation of the advanced uses of story points.  For those new, to story points, this blog is for you.

Last week I said traditional forms of project management rest on the mistaken notion that time and money equal the same thing.  It means when a project manager or developer gives an estimate and executive treats it like a quotation of work.  The experience is similar to going to an automotive mechanic receiving an estimate for $300 of work and getting a bill for $3,000.  As a consumer, you were expecting and budgeting for a $300 bill.  When confronted with an invoice ten times larger than expected, a person usually falls into a spiral of rage.

Story points defeat this situation.  First, the team members are playing planning poker and are collectively deciding how many points it takes to complete a unit of work.  It is not the opinion of one person be a consensus of numerous technical professionals.  Next, story points are the sum of ambiguity and difficulty of a unit of work.  There is no meaningful way to convert a story point into money or measure of time.  The only things that are certain is a team can complete a specific number of story points in a sprint time box.  The average number of story points completed over at least three sprints is called velocity.  I illustrated in an earlier blog velocity allows executives, scrum masters, and developers a means to forecast deadlines.  Finally, story points allow for severe discussions about scope, resources, and time without having to discuss dollars and cents.

My colleague, Steve Sether, points out story points are not a silver bullet for poorly managed projects.  Story points can be inflated to create the illusion of increasing velocity. Accountants attempt to put a dollar figure to story points and executives often ignore them to make promises without consulting the development teams.

For me, telling an executive, we have 213 story points in a software backlog is much more informative than claiming we can hit an arbitrary deadline.  We can take some action and make more informed decisions rather than rely on gut instincts.  Project estimation should not be farce or tragedy; with story points, a development team and a scrum master have a better way of estimating work and delivering to the business.

Until next time.