Skip to main content

Estimates and Priorities: Which Comes First

When developing a release plan, product owners often want to factor cost (or estimates) into where items go into the backlog. For example, you might hear "Do that soon, unless it's really hard." If this happens once in a while it's a useful way to have a conversation about a feature. If this approach is the norm and nothing gets prioritized until the team estimates it. I'd argue that the default order of operations is that features should get prioritized before anyone spends any effort on estimation. My reasons for this are both philosophical and practical.

The philosophical reason is that the Product Owner should be the one to prioritize work. By asking for the estimate first, the product owner is deferring their authority to the engineering team. This creates a risk that the team may not end up working effectively.

The practical reasons for prioritizing before estimating are:
  • Estimation takes time, and if you don't start with a prioritized list to estimate with, you spend a lot of time estimating items that may never be worked on. (And yes, you may need to re-estimate items when  they hit the top of the list, as estimates may change based on experience, staffing and architecture.)
  • If you estimate as work appears, you lose some of the benefits of fixed, time-boxed sprints, and you increase the overhead cost of planning. 
  • By allowing the team to estimate first, and pushing an item off the list because it is too expensive, you are missing an opportunity for a conversation about how best to meet the business need.
Often the first version of a story may seem large because it includes more functionality than needed. If the the team knows that there is a critical feature to implement in a sprint, but that there isn't time to complete it, there may be a simpler, less costly, version of the feature that meets most of the business needs. If the product owner simply let's a large estimate defer the item, then the conversation will never happen and the business needs may not be met, which would be bad for everyone. Likewise if the expensive feature is lower on the list, then you need not have the conversation until later.

This balancing act between estimates and priorities underscores a key principle of agile planning: User Stories are an invitation to a conversation.  By prioritizing first, you can understand where to focus energy on analysis and design. You also keep the agile team focused on delivering business value by placing priority first, and having the engineering team and the product owners communicating actively.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Continuous Integration of Python Code with Unit Tests and Maven

My main development language is Java, but I also some work in Python for deployment and related tools. Being a big fan of unit testing I write unit tests in Python using PyUnit. Being a big fan of Maven and Continuous Integration, I really want the  Python unit tests to run as part of the build. I wanted to have a solution that met the following criteria:
Used commonly available pluginsKeep the maven structure of test and src files in the appropriate directories.Have the tests run in the test phase and fail the build when the tests fail.
The simplest approach I came up with to do this was to use the Exec Maven Plugin by adding the following configuration to your (python) project's POM.

<plugin> <groupId>org.codehaus.mojo</groupId> <artifactId>exec-maven-plugin</artifactId> <executions> <execution> <configuration> <executable>python</executable> <workingDirectory>src/test/python</workingDirect…

Displaying Build Numbers in Grails Apps

Being a fan of Continuous Delivery, identifiable builds, and Continuous Integration: I like to deploy web apps with a visible build number, or some other way of identifying the version. For example, having the build number on the login screen for example. In the Maven/Java world, this is straightforward. Or at least I know the idioms. I struggled with this a bit while working on a Grails app,  and wanted to share my solution. There may be other, better, solutions, but the ones I found approaches that didn't quite work they way that I'd hoped.

My requirements were:
To display a build number from my CI tool, where the number was passed in on the command line. In Bamboo, for example you might configure a grails build as
-Dbuild.number=${bamboo.buildNumber} warTo only change build artifacts and not any source files.To not misuse the app version, or change the names of any artifacts.To be simple and idiomatic.I realized that that Grails itself changes the application metadata (appl…

Motivation Visibility, and Unit Testing

I've always been interested in organizational patterns (such as those in Organizational Patterns of Agile Software Development). I've recently found myself thinking a lot about motivation. I'm now reading Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and just finished Rob Austin's book on performance measurement. Being the parent of a three year old, I'm finding more and more that "because I said so, and I'm right" isn't too effective at home. My interests in motivation are closely related to my interest in writing software effectively. Writing software is partially a technical problem about frameworks, coding, and the like, but the harder (and perhaps more interesting) problem is how to get a group of people working together towards a common goal. Agile practices, both technical and organizational, build a framework which makes having the right amount of collaboration and feedback possible. But there's a bootstrapping process: How do yo…