Using Points vs Hours for Estimates

One of the key innovations of Agile is that estimates should NOT be in hours, but in points. But it doesn't just intuitively make sense. As a result, many teams resist using points. This is one of the reasons why for teams new to Agile, I always recommend that you try doing vanilla-by-the-book Agile first, before you change anything. I think that if you do, the value of points will be obvious.

If you're on a team that has always done Agile, but with hours, do you find yourselves chronically under-estimating stories and not completing them? If so, maybe I can convince you to give points a shot.

Points are Relative, Hours are Absolute

One of the primary insights of Agile is that humans suck at estimating in absolute terms, but are much better estimating in relative terms.

Unfortunately, reams of research shows that humans are inherently horrible at estimating in time. It turns out when we estimate jobs by how long they will take us to complete we have an error rate of 400%. Scrum, Inc

Instead of trying to estimate how long a task with take, simply try to estimate whether it is larger or smaller than another story. Don't think, "I should be able to do that in three hours". Compare the story to something you have already completed. Is it bigger than that 3 point story you did last sprint? Almost twice as big? Would you say it's another 3, or is it more like 5 or 8?

Fundamentally, we are not estimating how long a task will take, but how large it is relative to another task. In terms of an analogy, we want to know how long the trail is, not how long it would take you to run it.

Points Enable Collaborative Estimates

An absolute estimate is how long it would take a particular engineer to complete the task. If the task needs to be re-assigned to another engineer, it would need to be re-estimated. Maybe this task involves regular expressions, or JavaScript or schema design. The skill set between your team members is not uniform; they will all have strengths and weaknesses.

Points are not pegged to an individual's implementation speed. Maybe we can all agree that a story is three points, even though it would take the most senior member on the team an hour, and other people would need five hours. That's fine! At least we can all collaborate on a common estimate for the story. This is likely to make the estimates more accurate; the wisdom of the group may well identify both short-cuts and gotchas in the details.

One particular related trap is having one person, usually the team lead, estimate all the stories. Are you sure you are estimating how long it will take the team to complete the story, and not how long it would take YOU? Big difference. Besides, the team will be much more committed to estimates that they came up with themselves.

Points Communicate Uncertainty

In particular, Agile recommends that you stick to the Fibonacci numbers for point estimates. Why? Because it accurately communicates the inherent uncertainty of estimates. Estimates are wrong; everyone on the team should internalize that. Given that they are going to be mostly wrong, we cannot also make them very exact. Deliberating on whether a story will take 3 or 4 hours is pointless, you are well inside the error bars. Deciding whether it's a one point or a two point story forces you to accept an inherent margin of error.

Points may also allow for more nuance in the estimates. If forced to pick a number of hours, there will be a tendency to be optimistic. But points should reflect not only how large a task is, but also how much risk or uncertainty there is. It's common to say that a story should only be 3 points of work, but we're calling it an 8 because we're not sure about some of the details.

Points Make the Team Accountable for Stories, not Estimates

A point is NOT equal to any number of hours - it's an average. Eventually, you will get a sense that a point may take you anywhere from say 1 to 4 hours of work. Note: that's just an example, points are always team specific; it's a mistake to try to compare the velocity of one team to another using points. But importantly, you do not expect those hours spent to converge; you will always have a broad range of hours that a single point story took to complete.

This makes it clear to the team that they are not being held accountable for 100% or less overruns or under runs in their individual stories. If you use hours, there is a great tendency to say "you said this would take one hour, but it really took three". That doesn't matter! You should not even measure it. What matters is, did you complete all of the stories in the sprint?

I'm currently working at NerdWallet, a startup in San Francisco trying to bring clarity to all of life's financial decisions. We're hiring like crazy. Hit me up on Twitter, I would love to talk.

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