Justin Francis Self-Portrait

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Velocity: It's not a race

I use an agile estimation process at work. During any given two week iteration, we estimate all tasks that need to be done and then we measure how much we did at the end of the iteration. These numbers will then be used to predict how much we can do for the next two week period. This sounds simple enough, but there is a common misconception that does not escape even the most experienced agile teams. I often hear comments like "is there a estimate for that?" when expanding the scope of a ticket, or "does that fall into this ticket"?

I guess we just cannot seem to help feeling we need to maximize how much estimated work we do during an iteration. To feel this way is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of estimating and measuring.

The key is that we are measuring how much estimated work is being done; not how much actual work is being done. So built into each estimate is a specific amount of uncertainty about what needs to be done to complete the ticket. Generally, tickets describe end-user functionality, and so the ticket includes whatever work is needed to get the feature done, including unknowns.

But there are other reasons besides unknowns for why the actual work differs from the estimated work. Perhaps one is not doing lots of estimated work. We only estimate features and bug fixes. There is a whole slew of other work that needs to be done on a dev team: project management, live system maintenance, refactoring, etc.

The bottom line is that as long as you are consistent about how you estimate, it does not quantitatively matter how many units of estimated effort you complete. In fact, you could double all estimates starting in the new year. All that matters is that you then measure how much you get done in an iteration. Nobody should be concerned about their velocity except insofar as it allows for the accurate prediction of how much they can tell stakeholders they can accomplish for the next iteration.

To change an estimate during an iteration because of actual work is to change your estimating strategy, which in the end will leave your estimates less consistent, and your planning less reliable.

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