Being Agile means balancing flexibility with careful planning. We can’t predict every obstacle in the product development journey, but we can create a solid map and estimate how long our project will take. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at six Scrum estimation techniques Agile teams can use to build a better vision of the path ahead.
Accurate estimation is key to successful Sprint Planning and Agile project management. When Agile teams develop a good estimation process, they become more:
- Practical. Team estimation dispels magical thinking and grounds project management in reality, warding off scope creep and budget shortfalls.
- Resilient. As the team develops estimation expertise, time to delivery becomes more predictable, stabilizing the workflow to better absorb the unexpected.
- Collaborative. Team members address work effort holistically, promoting healthy interdependency and increasing appreciation of individual contributions.
- Invested. When everyone contributes to estimating, team members gain agency and assume shared responsibility for realistic outcomes.
The Whiteboards app integrates deeply with Jira to make collaborative estimation easy for remote teams. Start a video chat on the virtual whiteboard and import Jira issues from your backlog. Estimate work items together with the Planning Poker template or Magic Estimation template.
Update Jira issues on the whiteboard to reflect your estimates. Create new issues as you refine work items into smaller stories. Manage issues in bulk to streamline the process. All updates register in Jira instantly for seamless project management.
Try Whiteboards Pro for free today, and keep reading to learn easy Agile estimation techniques your remote Scrum team can use on a digital whiteboard.
Key principles of Agile estimation
As your Scrum team tackles estimation, keep these considerations in mind to frame your estimating sessions productively:
- An estimate is just an estimate. Estimation provides a crucial structure to the development process, setting reasonable product delivery expectations. But Agile development also stays responsive to changing circumstances. Scrum teams succeed when they take estimates seriously but don’t treat them as mandates.
- Accurate estimations take practice. Agile teams learn estimation by doing it, so resist demanding perfection on the first try. Whatever your initial results, they inform your next estimation session. Save your data and use it to refine your estimating skills.
- Collaboration is key. Agile estimation is a development team activity, not the solo work of the Scrum Master or Product Owner. Estimating together improves accuracy and keeps the whole team invested in setting reasonable development goals.
- Scrum estimation measures complexity. Agile estimation considers the total effort involved in completing a user story. This includes additional research, team learning curves, regulatory back-and-forth, work dependencies, outside stakeholder approval – anything that adds complexity to the work. Holistic estimation avoids conceiving of development narrowly, as simply minutes spent in pure “development work.”
Keep these points front and center, and try out some of the estimation techniques below with your Scrum team.
6 popular Scrum estimation methods
There’s no single best Agile estimation method. The ideal estimating technique for your team depends on team size, project size, estimation experience, and personal preference.
Here are some top Agile estimation techniques used by Scrum teams. Feel free to mix and match these methods. For instance, use the random distribution estimation technique for large-scale project management, then play Planning Poker to map out individual Sprints.
1. Magic estimation with story points
Also referred to as “affinity estimating,” magic estimation is a great tool for high-level project management. Use magic estimation when your team needs to estimate a large project that will stretch over several Sprints. Group work items by relative size, identify dependencies, and plot out a rough product development schedule.
To start your team estimation session, add the Magic Estimation In Story Points template to the virtual whiteboard. Import issues from your Jira backlog to the “To be estimated” field. (Haven’t added this project to your backlog yet? No problem. Create new issues directly on the whiteboard, where they automatically sync in Jira. Or, write user stories on sticky notes and convert them to Jira issues after estimating them.)
Take turns estimating individual items. Have the first team member silently choose one Jira issue and move it to the estimation chart. Continue around the virtual table until all items are estimated. From here, team members can use their turns to move a single item to a different location on the chart.
During this second phase, discuss any estimation disagreements. Once all conflicts are resolved, you’re done. Batch-update each column to add a story point value to those items. Update any dependencies and add notes to issues. All edits appear instantly in Jira.
From here, you’re ready to prioritize these estimated items in the product backlog according to their urgency and dependencies. Plan your next Sprint using the top-priority stories. Use your story point estimations to decide how many of these items will fit into the upcoming Sprint.
Get more details and helpful tips in our Magic Estimation Guide for Jira Users.
2. Random distribution technique to estimate a large Agile project
This Agile estimation technique orders your user stories relatively, from smallest to largest. Random distribution works well as a first estimation round. It sets your team up to refine the results using T-shirt sizes or story points. Like magic estimation, this is a helpful technique when your team has a lot of work items to estimate (say, 20+).
Import relevant Jira stories to the virtual whiteboard. Your team objective is to arrange these items in a straight line from least to most effort required. Place one story in the center and the others in a pile off to the side. The first team member chooses any item from the pile and places it to the left or right of the centered story. Team members take turns adding items, making space in the lineup as needed.
Once all the stories are lined up, team members may use their turn to swap any two stories in the line to reorder them, or pass if they think the estimation is done. Continue until everyone passes. Discuss any points of contention as a team.
From here, the team can easily split up the estimated items into groups by size, and assign points to each group. Establish any dependencies between items, prioritize the backlog, and update Jira issues individually or in bulk.
3. Bucket system estimation for new and veteran Scrum teams
The bucket system is a variation of the random distribution estimation method. This estimation technique is appropriate for both new and experienced teams. Bucket estimation helps new teams start to envision user stories in terms of relative effort. Get your feet wet with this estimation method, then establish a team story point system based on the results.
Draw a tall, narrow rectangle on the whiteboard. Copy-paste to establish a horizontal row of “buckets.” Create an odd number of buckets – five or seven is good. Label them with numbers or sizes (XS, S, M, L, XL). Import Jira issues or add work items directly to sticky notes.
To begin estimation, place a mid-sized work item in the middle bucket. The team then estimates the other items, one by one, as a group. Discuss if the item to be estimated is smaller or larger than the first item, and place it accordingly. Continue until all items are in buckets.
Assess the distribution of work items to see if it makes sense. Are too many items piled to the right of the middle bucket? If so, maybe your “mid-sized” item was really a small one. Or perhaps your largest items are too large and need to be broken down into smaller items.
Discuss in detail, then redistribute and subdivide items as needed. Once the distribution makes sense, assign story points or estimate time frames. Convert sticky notes to Jira issues and update them with your estimates.
4. Planning Poker estimation with two sizing methods
Planning Poker is among the most popular Agile estimation techniques. It’s well suited to precisely estimating small groups of items, as during Sprint Planning.
Colocated teams often estimate using physical Planning Poker cards around a table. For a remote or hybrid team, add the Planning Poker template to your team whiteboard. Import Jira items to the “To be estimated” field. Select items from the Jira backlog on the right side of the board, or create an import zone to pull in your whole project.
Have the team hide their teammates’ cursors to keep their initial decisions anonymous. Move the first work item to the “Estimating” column. Choose your estimation method:
|Relative estimates with T-shirt sizes||Story points with the Fibonacci sequence|
|To group work items relative to each other, use T-shirt sizes: S, M, L, and XL. (Add an XS if you feel you need it!) T-shirt sizing is a good way to use Planning Poker for rougher estimations, or if your team doesn’t use story points. If T-shirts feel boring, edit the poker cards with images. For instance, some teams like to rank items by dog size, such as Chihuahua to Great Dane.||For refined estimation, assign story points using the Fibonacci card deck. Fibonacci numbers improve estimation by representing complexity better than a linear sequence. Working linearly, teams might wonder: how much more complex is a 6-point vs. a 5-point story? A choice between 5, 8, or 13 points emphasizes proportionality, giving proper weight to large, complex stories.|
Delete all cards from the template except the deck you’re using. Place one Jira item in the “Estimating” column. Set a timer for 15–30 seconds. Each team member copies and pastes one card from the deck to represent their estimate.
When the timer goes off, each participant places their estimate inside the “Estimating” frame. If results vary, discuss and reach a consensus. If differing opinions persist, set the item aside and revisit it after the rest of the estimation is complete.
Use estimation disagreements as a basis for constructive communication. What does one team member see that makes them feel a user story will take more or less effort to complete? What concerns do team members have about finishing certain items in the estimated time?
For more details, read our Guide to Collaborative Estimates with Jira Planning Poker.
5. Estimating stories with dot voting
Like Planning Poker, dot voting is best for estimating a small number of work items. Use the Dot Voting template and assign each team member a color.
Lay out work items in horizontal rows on the whiteboard. To place their votes, team members add dots underneath each of these items. This can work one of two ways:
- Story points: Each dot represents one story point. Use limited or unlimited dots per person.
- Relative sizing: Each team member distributes a set number of dots among all the items to estimate relative work effort.
Add up the total dots per item and divide by the number of voters. Each work item is now estimated according to total story points or relative size.
6. The three-point method: another way to estimate through averaging
When it comes to estimation challenges in Agile project management, optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin. Cautious team members may opt to pad development time too much, trying to account for unforeseen twists. Overconfident teams may estimate that they can work faster than project resources actually allow.
The three-point method has the team face the worst and best-case development scenarios head-on, then split the difference. This Agile estimation technique works well for experienced teams with an established common understanding of their story point system. Use it for fast and easy Sprint Planning.
Team members estimate each user story three ways, giving their “most likely” estimate, optimistic estimate, and pessimistic estimate. If it helps, split the team into three smaller teams, each in charge of delivering one of the three viewpoints.
The final estimate is the average of the three estimates. For example:
- Pessimistic estimate: 12 story points
- Most likely estimate: 8 story points
- Optimistic estimate: 7 story points
(12 + 8 + 7) / 3 = a final estimate of 9 story points. Move onto the next work item and do the same. Remember to save your three-point estimates to analyze at your next Sprint Review.
Estimating Jira issues is a breeze with Whiteboards
Whether your team plays Planning Poker or just needs a virtual canvas to bucket work items, the Whiteboards app is the perfect collaborative estimation tool. In particular, native two-way Jira integration greatly benefits any estimation session. Perform any of these actions quickly and easily during your team meetings:
- Create Jira issues. Add work items to virtual sticky notes. Organize and estimate these items, with or without a template. If the team decides any stories are too large, break them down further. Once all stories are a workable size, convert sticky notes to Jira issues, individually or in bulk.
- Import Jira issues. View your Jira backlog in Whiteboards and grab items from it one by one. Or, create an import zone and pull in multiple issues using JQL or other grouping criteria. Estimate these existing issues, and create or delete issues as you work through your estimations.
- Update Jira issues. Edit items individually, just as you would in Jira. Or, bulk update issues using Whiteboards’ handy update zones. Manage issues as your estimation exercise proceeds, and you won’t have to worry about updating Jira after the meeting.
Long story short, your team can manage all Jira issues on the virtual whiteboard throughout the estimation process. Changes sync instantly in Jira for seamless Sprint Planning and project management. Meanwhile, changes made in Jira update instantly on the virtual whiteboard.
Bidirectional Jira integration streamlines Agile estimation, and most other whiteboard activities as well. Choose from 100+ templates for Sprint Planning, Backlog Refinement, Product Roadmapping, and much more. Whatever the task at hand, simply import or create Jira issues and update them as you work.
Try Whiteboards for free today and see what Jira integration and other expert estimation tools can do for your Agile team.