#NoEstimates: The Division of Scrum

#NoEstimates: The Division of Scrum

Swiss mountain

Have you encountered the #noestimates hashtag yet? If so, you likely have strong feelings on the topic, whichever way you lean--it’s just about the most divisive topic you can find in the Scrum world these days.

Devotees on either side will be happy to tell you why they’re right and the other side is wrong: State your mild opinion on the topic in the wrong crowd and you could find yourself feeling like a Democrat at a Republican convention, or vice versa.

At its core, the argument is over the benefit of spending a team’s time on estimating stories. Those who support estimates will tell you it’s a valuable tool that provides businesses with fact-based projections on when a project might be complete. Opponents will say that the benefit of estimating--namely, being able to predict when a project might complete its work--is not worth the time devoted to creating that projection and that a team is better off reclaiming that time to develop software.

It's important to recognize that, when it comes to the issue of estimates, the Scrum framework is Switzerland. It takes no official position on estimating and it’s considered an optional practice, though one widely used by Scrum teams. If you take a Certified Scrum Master course, you are likely to find a module devoted to the topic and time spent practicing Planning Poker. The entire concept of User Stories comes from the XP framework, not Scrum.

If you trace the history of the #noestimates hashtag, you will undoubtedly come across the name of Mr. Woody Zuill. Woody came through my town last year and spoke at our local Scrum Alliance sponsored meetup group to discuss the topic.

Having considered myself to be smack dab in the Mike Cohn camp on estimating at the time, I was skeptical of this whole #noestimates concept. My experience when researching it involved mostly argumentative individuals intent on proving those of us who were still estimating to be relics of a time gone by. My expectation then was that Woody would take a similar stance and spend his time trashing the estimating crowd.

As it turned out, I could not have been more wrong.

Woody Zuill is one of the kindest, most humble and intelligent speakers I’ve ever heard. His demeanor will instantly disarm even the harshest critic; the impression he gives is of someone who has vast experience in software development and has experimented with numerous ways in which to optimize the agile process with his teams. Plus, all his illustrations are drawn by his daughter. How can you not respect that?

After hearing Woody out on the topic, I realized that his stance on the issue was incredibly different that I’d previously assumed. Woody teaches that, to him, #noestimates means using estimates only when there is a clear value to doing so. He suggests that many are spending far too much time estimating because that is what they have always done or have been taught; they haven’t stopped to ask if they are really getting a benefit from the time they spend estimating with their teams.

I found myself in complete agreement with him. In fact, I would go even further and say that any practice we find ourselves repeating with our teams should be examined from time to time to make sure we are getting the intended value out of them. How often do we have teams blindly recite the three questions for the Daily Scrum without making sure they understand why we are asking those questions, and what the point of the Daily Scrum is in the first place?

Since being exposed to #noestimates, I have found that when I am coaching a team I now make a regular practice of stating at the outset of every meeting our reason for attending that meeting and what we hope to get out of it. If my teams can better self-organize at their Daily Scrums by abandoning the standard three questions in favor of some other communication to organize their daily work, more power to them! After all, that is the point.

I would invite you then to attempt to see Scrum’s practices with new eyes. We all know what to do in our ceremonies but do we all know why we do them? Could we accomplish our goals for these meetings more fully by experimenting with alternatives? If our goal is to empower our teams to become the highest performing incarnation of themselves as possible, why wouldn’t we seek out new and unique ways to encourage this?

While I might never call myself a #noestimates supporter, I do wholeheartedly endorse the spirit behind the movement as Woody presented it. Examine why we do what we do and ask yourself if there might be a better way.

What do you think about the #noestimates movement? Do you find value in estimating with your teams? What practices have you taken a fresh look at in an attempt to enhance the benefit to your teams? Let me know in the comments section below.


Brian Milner is the owner of Scrum 360.

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