Sprints are the backbone of any agile development process. If you want to complete a project on time and on budget, you must start with accurate sprint estimates.
But nailing your sprint estimates is easier said than done, especially when you work with a team and manage projects with many moving parts.
Let’s crack this tough nut: here’s how you can make better estimations as a team and avoid common pitfalls.
First Thing First… Why Do You Need Accurate Sprint Estimates?
A sprint estimation shows how much effort a series of tasks require. It’s based on assumptions, requirements, and dependencies of a project.
Accurate sprint estimates help agile teams understand how many tasks to include in a sprint, distribute the workload evenly among team members, and better coordinate workflow based on effort and dependencies.
The estimation process allows the team to gain a bird’s eye view of the project, consider every aspect of the requirements, and identify risks early on to avoid unpleasant surprises. You can get a realistic understanding of the backlog items, team capacity, and individual workload so you don’t bite off more than you can chew.
By associating story points with the time required for each work item (more on that later), you can establish an accurate timeline for a project to inform business decisions, such as a product launch plan and marketing calendar.
Sprint estimations are the building blocks of successful agile project planning. The process also helps the team get on the same page and prepare for the tasks ahead.
How To Create Accurate Sprint Estimates
How do you know how much your team can get done in a sprint?
You must know how long each task will take, which is also one of the trickiest parts of sprint planning. Here’s how to coordinate your team and make accurate sprint estimations:
Create Estimates As a Team
In agile planning, the team members who will be doing the work collectively come up with the estimates. Everyone involved participates in the process so you can account for various perspectives and tap into diverse experiences.
Pick the Right Tools
Whiteboards and sticky notes are no longer enough to support distributed teams and ensure that everyone participates equally. Collaboration software can help you coordinate the estimation process and gain insights into every aspect of the project.
Establish User Stories
The foundation of most sprint estimation techniques is user stories, which describe the features from the users’ perspective. There are many user story estimation techniques, and it’s important to choose one that works well for your team and the nature of the project.
Prioritize User Stories
Consider the value, cost, and risks associated with each feature. Under most circumstances, you’d try to maximize the value you gain with the lowest cost. But you may also want to tackle riskier tasks early on in the project to eliminate uncertainties or front-load features that will allow the team to gain knowledge to inform subsequent sprints.
Select an Iteration Length
A sprint typically spans 2 to 4 weeks, depending on project duration, the level of uncertainty, fluctuation in requirements, and the review process. For example, if there are a lot of unknowns, plan for shorter sprints so you can get feedback more frequently.
Convert Story Points Into Hours
You can use story points to determine how long it’d take to complete a task, but you must first define the time it takes for your team to complete one story point worth of work. Start by calculating your team’s pace, which uses historical data to correlate story points to time spent on a work item.
Break Down Big Tasks
If a task takes more than 8 hours, break it down into smaller pieces to help increase the accuracy of your estimation. You may have to move some parts to the backlog and tackle them in another sprint.
Address Backlog Items
Review your product backlog to align priorities, maximize the value you get out of the sprint, and ensure that you have the right resources to get the work done. Estimating new backlog items can also help team members develop a shared understanding of the requirements.
Revisit and Update Release Plan
Update your release plan after each sprint to incorporate learnings from the previous iterations, reassess priorities, address new risks, and adjust any change in pace to inform subsequent sprint estimates.
Overcoming Agile Estimation Pitfalls and Challenges
Juggling the many moving parts to nail your sprint estimates isn’t a walk in the park. Avoid these common pitfalls to make your life easier:
Applying the same pace to a different team: Different teams take different amounts of time to complete one story point—as such, they have different paces. Making a blanket assumption on how long one story point takes will likely land you in trouble.
Failure to account for all the activities: Meetings, messages, phone calls, review turnaround time, etc. are an essential part of team collaboration. Your sprint estimates must account for these activities to establish realistic timelines.
Planning fallacy: Many people tend to have an optimistic bias when predicting how much effort is needed to complete a work item and underestimate the time required. Breaking up a task into smaller chunks can help you reach more accurate estimations.
Confusing estimation with commitment: You may add buffers when committing to a timeline. While this is valid under specific circumstances, doing so is counterproductive when making a sprint estimate.
Overlooking technical debt: If you have accumulated technical debts in previous iterations, developers may need to spend time fixing those issues before building the features planned for a current sprint.
The complexity of an application: When an application grows in complexity, you may need additional effort to resolve unforeseeable conflicts and issues related to the user flow or how the different features interact.
Lack of evidence: Many teams make their estimations based on gut feelings. They also fail to collect data on how an estimate compares with the actual time spent on a task to inform future sprint estimates.
You can mitigate many of these challenges by using reliable and granular data from previous sprints to understand how the team performs and inform your estimation.
Time Tracking: The Foundation of Accurate Sprint Estimates
A robust time tracking software can help your team record the time they spend on different tasks and activities. You can leverage historic data to see how much time similar work items require to inform project planning and decision-making.
7pace allows developers to track time where they work (e.g., on Azure DevOps or GitHub) to collect accurate and granular data. You can associate the recorded time with specific work items or user stories to calculate the team’s pace. The insights will allow you to accurately correlate effort with the time required.
Try 7pace to see how you can take a data-driven approach to analyze your team’s performance and create realistic sprint estimates.