Snap Precision

Why Agile Estimation Is Such a Polarizing Topic

By Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, contributing editor

“This is an agile project; we can't give you any dates.”

“We'll let you know the size of the scope after we play planning poker.”

If you've worked on agile projects, you've likely heard an agile champion make bizarre statements like these about estimating a budget and schedule. When you press further for estimates, you might get an even more heated, “You just don't get it” or, “You're just a micromanager.”

Conflict about estimation on agile projects can get intense. The more I work with agile teams, the more I see the topic of estimation as ground zero in the debate between old and new ways of managing projects. Here are some root causes of the tension and how to navigate them.


The agile principle of empowered self-organizing teams was crafted in response to overly optimistic or aggressive estimations. When you consider that estimation is among the first tasks a project team performs, it makes sense that would be the place where a newly empowered team will demand changes to the status quo.


Before you dive into an estimation meeting with an agile team, state your commitment to honor its assessments. Setting the tone will help team members feel more understood and less undermined.


Because of agile's empirical emphasis, some agilists argue that estimation itself is a wasteful distraction from the project's real objective: the product and the business value it generates.

But that's a false choice. If you have a working prototype yielding only a moderate response, the sponsor will make more confident choices if he or she also knows the team has completed 25 percent of the overall scope, using half of the project's US$5 million budget.

When working with agile teams, emphasize how decision makers benefit from the most holistic evidence possible.


Finally, remember that agile approaches encourage collaboration as the best way to develop and leverage expertise. If your estimates have been way off in the past, you might have contributed to the conflict by failing to collaborate with the right experts. Maybe you only asked the most senior resource, or you gathered a handful of opinions from only one department.

Rushing through an estimation process will cause the agile team to fear the resulting plan will be biased and unreasonable. Instead, announce your intent to gather a cross-functional, team-based assessment of the work. You'll be much less likely to meet estimation resistance. PM

img Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, has served on the core team of the Agile Practice Guide and the Steering Committee for the PMI-ACP® certification. He can be reached at [email protected].



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