More Than Size Matters

There is no truth. There is only perception.” In the mid-1800’s when French novelist Gustave Flaubert coined this phrase, there was no digital social media. Radio, television and the telephone hadn’t been invented yet. People around the world relied on word-of-mouth and print media reports for the state of current events. Any reports would’ve been seasoned with unconscious bias at best and vindictive gossip at worst. And with the limited modes of transportation at the time, there would’ve been little to no opportunity to gemba and go see for oneself. Little wonder Flaubert’s adage would’ve been perceived to ring true at the time.

Fast forward to today with its plethora of social media influencers, multi-channel communications and digital disinformation / revisionism, that adage continues to hold true.

Nowhere has this been more evident than the war in Ukraine. I watched the news in shock and disbelief the other night. One report showed the indiscriminate bombing of innocent Ukrainian women and children. Death and destruction everywhere. Another report juxtaposed right after it showed Putin being cheered and celebrated at a stadium filled with smiling war supporters proudly and energetically waving the Russian flag.

WTF! Who and what are we to believe?

Makes me wonder what “truths” are being spun and shared with those smiling faces. Are they even aware of the atrocities happening in the Ukraine?

From the world stage to the world of work, the effects of perception, bias and wishful thinking can have a damaging effect. Especially when we look at things in isolation.

In absolute terms.

Without corroboration and little to no regard for relationships.

One of the most difficult concepts for agile teams to understand and use is the practice of relative estimating. The majority of traditional estimating approaches encourage and rely on coming up with absolute, definitive and accurate estimates for each work item in isolation. The term “accurate estimates” is especially perplexing. As a colleague of mine used to say,

If estimates were accurate, they’d be called ‘accuracies’!“.

Relative estimating encourages the use of comparative estimates for a work item in relation to other work items.

That’s why we use different sized farm animals, transportation vehicles or shapes to teach the concept of relative estimating. How would you compare the size of a motorcycle with a car? With a jumbo jet? Things that are familiar and relatable to people based on their experience with such things.

The advantages of relative estimates over absolute estimates include:

  • Independent of who is going to do the work item. The effort estimate to complete a “Small” work item will be less than the effort estimate to complete a “Medium” or “Large” work item regardless of who’s doing the work. Absolute estimates will vary with bias towards who’s doing the work.
  • Don’t change over time. The effort estimate relationships between “Small”, “Medium” and “Large” work items stay the same over time. The relative size of each work item themselves may evolve over time. As an example, from “Large” to “Small” due to continuous improvement but the relationships between relative sizing units remain the same.
  • Faster to estimate. One way to illustrate this is to use an example. If I were to ask you to estimate whether a mouse was bigger or smaller than an elephant, chances are you’d answer almost immediately. Now, if I were to ask you how much the mouse or elephant weighed in kilograms, chances are it would take you substantially longer to estimate. Time saved on estimating the work is better spent on doing the work.

Beyond these common advantages of relative estimates over absolute estimates, there are benefits that go beyond sizing the work to be done. Deeper benefits and opportunities to enhance agile ways of working.

  1. Forecasting. Want to help your PMO? Use relative estimates to answer their number one question, “When will you be done?”. By using relative estimates to estimate your product backlog items (PBIs) and knowing your team’s historical velocity, you can easily provide a data-driven completion forecast to your project manager and anyone else.
  2. Systems thinking perspective. Want to nurture an appreciation of the “big picture” within your team? Relative estimating depends on and encourages a systems thinking perspective of your work and your team. Every work item estimated is part of a whole. Everything is connected. Everyone is connected.
  3. Teamwork. The way teams write their PBIs is a pretty good indicator of how they work as a team. Running a relative estimating workshop with the team on those same PBIs can further reveal many opportunities to the team for improving their level of teamwork. At one relative estimating workshop, the team realized all the PBIs they were estimating were split by functional group. They were Independent PBIs. Architecture PBIs, Business Analysis PBIs, Solution Design PBIs, Development PBIs, Quality Assurance PBIs. This would indicate the majority of work is done independently within each functional group before handing off to the next functional group in waterfall sequence. The relative estimating we did quickly confirmed that. We were estimating as functional groups, not as a team. The Business Analyst ordered all their PBIs relative to each other. As did the Developers with their PBIs. If there was any teamwork to complete a PBI, it only happened within that functional group. Nevertheless, they learned how to do relative estimation. It was also a great teaching moment to help them understand why and how to evolve from Independent PBIs to Cooperative PBIs where a subset of the functional groups that make up the team work together on completing a PBI. Architects working with Designers, Developers working with Quality Assurance. At the same time, on the same PBIs. And from there to Collaborative PBIs, where all functional groups within the team work together on completing each PBI in single piece flow fashion from Architecture through Quality Assurance and into production. Teams that work collaboratively together can then learn from each other and relative estimate their PBIs together rather than apart for better informed estimates.

Many hands make light work

John Heywood

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