Why story point estimation?
There’s many good reasons why so many scrum and agile teams are adopting story points.
1. Fast estimation
User story points allow you to quickly estimate the work involved in each item on your backlog, and how much work you can get done in a sprint or release.
2. Build consensus and collaboration
If one team member estimates 5 story points, but another estimates 12, it's an opportunity for the team to discuss what work is involved.
One person may have a more efficient way of doing things, or the other person may have a better understanding of the steps involved in doing the work. This discussion will help them share ideas, create common understanding, build consensus, and create a more accurate estimation.
Compare this to estimating time. If you asked each team member to estimate the amount of time involved in a task, you’ll get 5+ different answers. Timing depends on experience and understanding. But most team members will agree on the effort required to complete a story, which means you can reach consensus and move on with your story mapping or sprint planning much more quickly.
3. No artificial deadlines
Estimating time instead of story points forces you to come up with an artificial deadline, which can create unnecessary pressure (and probably won't be all that accurate).
Story points more accurately and practically reflect reality. In most cases, there is no set deadline - only ensuring tasks are done efficiently and in the right order of prioritization.
4. Better planning and forecasting
Story points can help you plan better in advance. For example, if you know that Johnny is going on holidays for a week, you can adjust your sprint so that your team doesn't over-commit. Or you can find another way to increase your capacity, like bringing on another team member or reducing scope.
5. Zoom in on the details
Story points force your team to think through the work involved in an upcoming sprint, and consider what's realistic. It's a time for your details oriented team members to shine - and time for your big picture thinkers to understand what needs to happen to bring their plans to life.
6. Get commitment
When your team knows they can achieve what's planned and they’re confident in their velocity, it's easier to get them to commit to the work and follow through confidently.
7. Be more adaptable
If the team size changes (maybe you add a new member or someone moves to another role), you have a built-in system to update your velocity (i.e. how many stories you can complete in a sprint) and adapt your workload accordingly.
8. Be just accurate enough
Story points help you estimate what your team can get done in a given amount of time. This kind of accuracy means smoother releases that go to plan - and is especially valuable when you have multiple teams with multiple dependencies.
But at the same time, story pointing makes it clear that your work is only an estimation, and you're not committing to get X done in Y amount of hours. You won't know how long something will take until you do it - there are nearly always unexpected things that pop up.
Other methods might give you more precise timing, but it’s not practical to spend 30-minutes discussing the work that goes into every single story on your backlog. It’s much more practical to assign an “accurate enough” number, plan your sprint, and get to work.
9. Better capacity planning
You might not be able to fit all your top priorities into a release, especially if they’re complex, risky, or time-consuming. But story points can help you easily identify one or two smaller stories to fill your capacity every sprint or release.
Using story points also encourages you to find ways to increase your team’s capacity (rather than working longer hours). If you can mitigate risk, find ways to reduce effort, and bring the right people in the room to make complex tasks more simple… you’ll be able to get through more stories, more quickly.
10. Measure and improve performance
Story points can help you measure and improve performance by asking your team questions like:
- Did you complete all the work assigned during the sprint?
- Is your velocity going up or down over time, as you get better at agile?
- Was your story points estimate accurate?
- If not, how could you optimize your team's performance and ensure you work or plan better together?
Does everything in your backlog need user story points?
Some teams don't assign story points to every item in their backlog. They might just assign them to the user stories. They might avoid assigning user story points to bugs that come up during the sprint, particularly if they're not related to any of the stories originally mapped to the sprint. This makes sense since it's often tricky to estimate a bug - some take very little effort to resolve, while others are quite complex.
Your backlog might also include smaller jobs or technical tasks that would take anywhere from a few minutes or a few hours to complete. These tasks may not have story points assigned if they require very little effort.
But it’s important to note that these tasks still matter. They still deliver value back to the user. And they're essential as part of your goal: to deliver working software. But you can't always plan for them or estimate them ahead of time.
So, how do you incorporate them into your workflow?
You might need to discuss some different ideas and strategies with your team.
For example, you could set aside a buffer in your capacity to allow for an average amount bugs and other jobs that don’t get story pointed. That way, you can stay on track with the stories you have assigned to the sprint, while getting other items ticked off the list.
Either way, if your team is working on tasks that don’t have story points, you have to consider the impact on capacity. You will need to adapt, assess whether the sprint goal is still do-able, and adjust your plans accordingly.
What happens if you get the estimate wrong?
While you should aim to make your user story point estimates as accurate as possible, you might have under- or over- estimated the amount of risk, effort, and complexity involved in bringing a story to life.
This might mean you don't get all the work planned for your sprint done. Maybe you need to move some of it over to the next sprint, which will mean reprioritizing and adjusting your user story map.
Fortunately, this process is pretty straightforward if you use digital user story mapping software like Easy Agile TeamRhythm.
Retrospectives or sprint reviews are a good time to discuss any issues with your team where estimates were off. Take some time to go through what happened, understand why more or less effort was required, and discuss how you might do more accurate estimates in future.
Assign story points inside Easy Agile TeamRhythm
With Easy Agile User Story Maps for Jira, you can add and edit story point estimates directly on your story map. Simply select the story or issue and edit the story point field.
It will automatically update your sprint/version statistics with new totals, so you can see your capacity, arrange stories into sprint/version swimlanes, ensure you’re making the most of your velocity, and avoid over-committing.
Plus, your whole team has access to the user story board and estimates - perfect for in-house or remote user story mapping, online collaboration, and updating estimates at any point in the process.
Curious about Easy Agile User Story Maps? Features include so much more than story points, like:
- Drag and drop prioritization
- Visualized customer journeys inside Jira
- Sprint/version swimlanes for organizing stories
- Easily add or edit stories inside your story map
- See sprint/version statistics at a glance
- Easy collaboration with team members