Are Story Estimates Necessary?

Effort pointing and story estimation are cornerstones of agile development, yet many teams push back against the necessity of estimating every single story. Some scrum masters feel estimations are time-consuming or inaccurate, and their developers may become discouraged when faced with large epics.
That said, taking the time to work together and estimate user story effort can pay huge dividends when done properly. After all, agile development requires transparency and collaboration to succeed. “Realtalk” for the win.
Here are just a few ways applying estimates to user stories can improve your team’s performance.
It’s All About Your Baseline
Some agilists and developers criticize the lack of specificity and consistency in effort pointing. One team might complete 12 points in a sprint, while another plows through 36 – even if they’re tackling a similar body of work. You know what? That’s OK. It may require some education for managers and product owners, but estimating stories – no matter which scale you use – helps a team establish its own baseline for execution. As teams work together, these estimates become increasingly more useful and accurate.
Breaking It Down
The ultimate outcome of an effective planning session is to break large epics into smaller pieces. Effort pointing plays a huge role in this endeavor, helping developers dismantle large items into manageable pieces and giving Product Owners vital context for the sprint. Whether teams use hours or relative effort points, estimates help teams find the simplest path to achieving a large body of work.
Of course, it’s important to realize that estimates are not commitments to a specific time. They’re a measure of relative effort, with which to help guide teams to make the best decisions.
Getting Your Team Talking
Simplifying epics into smaller tasks will naturally facilitate discussion around each story in a planning session. Rather than simply talking about acceptance criteria, effort pointing forces a full-team discussion about the scope of a story. Yes, there are other ways for teams to encourage team interaction and consensus, but consistently putting effort points to user stories helps teams monitor their own velocity to make smarter sprint decisions.
Don’t Forget About Value
Effort is only one way teams and POs must prioritize tasks; business value also plays an important role in determining which stories are critical to a sprint. While value can often be easy to estimate, it does not offer relevant guidance unless paired with effort. Accurate effort pointing facilitates easier decision-making by helping teams and POs see the big picture. Low-effort, high-value tasks can be prioritized, while high-effort, low-value tasks can be pushed to the back burner – even if a particular stakeholder really wants it.
Even if your team is firing on all cylinders and working perfectly in sync, accurate estimates are still critical for product owners who must manage stakeholder expectations and prioritize stories. The simple act of estimating helps product owners understand the full scope of a sprint and find the strongest value in large epics.
Planning Poker is proven to be one of the most effective ways for agile teams to find consensus-based estimates. Your team may not be perfect right off the bat, but that’s what agile is all about. Through ongoing feedback and iteration, your sprint planning sessions will become more accurate and effective.
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