Whose line is it anyway?

Posted on Categories Agile Process
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For fear of revealing my age I genuinely hope, dear reader, that you understood the slightly out-dated pop culture reference in the title. I’d bet very few people realize that a comedy show disguised as a game show regularly revealed a very deep understanding of the Scrum method; famously uttered by US host, Drew Carey, with glee as he handed out faux recognition: “the points don’t matter!”

Scrum has become decidedly mainstream yet the whole story points thing tends to sow dissent within the ranks, and the odds are fairly high you will encounter this in the field like I have. On one end of the scale you have the well-meaning scrum master, freshly certified, sporting a green skin complexion from all the kool-aid consumed, who holds the view that Fibonacci was a super being and you should be smited if you dare cross his number series with your estimates. Depending on how polite you choose to be, you can label these types of scrum masters “novices” or “evangelists”; neither label is something to aspire to as a professional consultant.

On the opposite side of the scale you will encounter stakeholders that know full well what your velocity is (that it is based on story points) and proceed to draw wild conclusions from all this data. Your biggest value-add may one day be to tactfully explain to either of these extremes that the points don’t matter.

There is not a single Scrum guide out there that claims story points is the only way to do estimation. The principle is what’s important, not the scale. It is simple recognition of the fact that estimating software is just as scientific as predicting the weather, so let’s stop creating false expectations and use a bucketing system. You’re unlikely to know precisely how big a piece of work is, but you may know if it is bigger or smaller than another piece of work. This practical approach of relative estimation is all Scrum teaches; if you cannot explain things in hours or days, use something else entirely and bucket things of similar size.

You can use animals for all it matters, one piece of work has a mouse sized effort, another would be a proverbial mammoth task; it just so happens that the Fibonacci sequence is a convenient bucketing system and it has integers in it, which fit easier into spread sheet formulas than say a cat. The reason for the popularity of story points is therefor also its downfall; numbers drive projections and conclusions.

Your first step towards mastery of Scrum and agile principles is surprisingly easy; just remember in any given situation that the points don’t matter!

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