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June 23, 2023
8 min read

[2023] How to Estimate Product Backlog Items in Scrum

There are multiple ways to estimate product backlog items in Scrum. This article will discuss both on-premises and remote estimation methods to help Scrum teams pick the method that best suits their business model.
Anton Versal
Anton Versal
Lets look how to Estimate Product Backlog Items in Scrum

As Scrum has become a popular and preferred agile framework for many organizations, the ability to accurately estimate product backlog items has become a vital skill for Scrum teams. Accurate backlog estimates not just help to know the efforts required to accomplish the backlog items but also make sprint planning effective and optimize the workload. However, product backlog estimation can turn into a challenging task, especially in complex projects. So, this article intends to explain in detail how to estimate product backlog items in Scrum through the two best methods in 2023.

Why is Product Backlog Estimation Important in Scrum?

There is an ongoing debate about why Scrum teams should spend hours estimating backlog items when they can directly head for sprint planning and estimate high-priority backlog items there. So, before we discuss how to estimate product backlog items, it is important to clarify the importance of backlog estimation in Scrum.

When a team estimates its product backlog, it brings in many fruitful outcomes, as follows:

  • It helps the team know the efforts required to complete backlog items.
  • It facilitates collaboration between team members.
  • It streamlines sprint planning.
  • It helps identify potential risks or bottlenecks hidden in backlog items.
  • It helps identify dependencies between backlog items.
  • It increases the productivity of team members.

In short, product backlog estimation helps Scrum teams get a clear picture of what they will do next, how much effort they have to input, what are the challenges, and what are the end results. This way, when a well-prepared team heads for development, it results in timelier and quality products.

Estimating Product Backlog Items in 2023

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace structures have undergone a significant transformation. Many organizations have adopted a hybrid work environment, in which some employees work on-premises while others work remotely. This trend has persisted into 2023 and is expected to remain a prevalent feature of the modern workplace for the foreseeable future.

When it comes to product backlog estimation, Scrum teams should now master two types of methods, i.e., on-premises estimation and remote estimation. So, below we will discuss how to estimate product backlog items in Scrum in both on-premises and remote workspaces.

On-Premises Product Backlog Estimation with Planning Poker

For on-premises backlog estimation, there are many estimation techniques that Scrum teams can use. However, Planning Poker is the most popular estimation technique most Scrum teams use because it provides the most accurate estimates of backlog items. So, let's now discuss how you can use Planning Poker to estimate product backlog items.

Planning Poker is a relative, consensus-based estimation technique in which each member individually estimates the user story (backlog item described from an end-user perspective). Then the team finalizes the team's estimate by reaching a consensus. It uses poker-styled numbered cards to assign story points in which the numbering is mostly based on the modified Fibonacci sequence, i.e., 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, and 100.

A Planning Poker estimation session involves the Scrum Master, Product Owner, development team, and a few key stakeholders. However, the development team does estimates, while the rest of the participants serve as the facilitators. Below are the steps involved in a typical Planning Poker estimation session:

  1. All the participants join an on-premises meeting room. Once everyone has joined the session, the development team members get the poker cards to do estimates.
  2. The Product Owner picks the first user story and reads it to the participants.
  3. The participants, mostly the development team members, start discussing the user story and also clarify their doubts with the Product Owner. The discussion mostly focuses on how to complete the user story, whether there are any bottlenecks, whether the team has done a similar task in the past, etc.
  4. After wrapping up the discussion, every development team member picks the poker card that suits the effort required to accomplish the target of the user story. Once all members have picked the card, they all show their cards at once.
  5. Members who have provided the highest and lowest story points now justify why they picked those cards. Afterward, the rest of the members clarify the doubts (if any), and then the team re-estimates the user story.
  6. If everyone has picked the same poker card (story point), then it is declared the team's estimate. However, if there is still deviation, the team discusses it again and re-estimates it to reach a consensus.
  7. The above six steps continue until all user stories are estimated.

That's it! This is how Scrum teams can estimate product backlog items on-premises with the Planning Poker estimation technique.

Benefits of Using the Planning Poker Estimation Technique

The reason why Planning Poker is the most popular estimation technique is due to the wide range of benefits that teams experience with this estimation approach. Some of the key benefits are as follows:

  • Creates a Shared Understanding: Planning Poker helps to create a shared understanding of the backlog items and the effort required to complete them. This results in reduced confusion, misunderstandings, and conflicts.
  • Accurate Estimates: Planning Poker involves the whole development team and lets everyone individually estimate user stories before finalizing the team's estimate. This results in more accurate estimates.
  • Facilitates Discussion: Planning Poker lets members discuss the user story from different angles. This helps in better understanding and accurate estimates.
  • Identifies Bottlenecks and Dependencies: Since every member contributes to the Planning Poker estimation session, it helps identify bottlenecks, dependencies, or other potential risks associated with backlog items.
  • Increases Transparency: Planning Poker makes the estimation process visible to the whole development team and key stakeholders. This increases transparency and encourages a more trustworthy environment.
  • Reduces Individual Bias: Planning Poker gives every member an equal say in the estimation, thereby reducing individual bias.

Overall, Planning Poker is one comprehensive estimation technique that not just helps Scrum teams estimate product backlog items but also helps in collaboratively doing accurate estimates.

Remote Product Backlog Estimation with Async Poker

Since remote working is becoming a new norm, some Scrum teams are now unable to estimate backlog items on-premises. Such teams often involve a remote workforce in which a few members are even located in different time zones. Similarly, remote estimation is also handy when members are busy and cannot attend the on-premises meeting.

Unlike on-premises estimation, there are not many estimation techniques that support remote estimation. However, Async Poker is one ideal estimation technique that can facilitate remote estimation with a bit of a touch of Planning Poker.

Async Poker, or Asynchronous Planning Poker, is also a consensus-based estimation technique that best suits remote, distributed, or busy Scrum teams. In this technique, Scrum teams don't have to sit and estimate backlog items. Instead, the backlog items are sent to them for estimates with the deadline. So, what they have to do is read and estimate backlog items on their own and send them to the moderator. The moderator then gathers all estimates and finalizes the team's estimates. Below are the steps involved in the Async Poker estimation technique:

  1. The moderator shortlists the Scrum team members that will participate in the estimation process. Afterward, the moderator sends the user stories to all the participants via email or other channels. Moreover, the participants are also informed about the deadline for submitting the estimates.
  2. Every member read, understand, and estimate user stories at their own pace and submit them to the moderator before the deadline.
  3. The moderator collects all the estimates and sees if the estimates of all members match. If there are some major deviations in estimates for some user stories, then the moderator can arrange a quick online meeting for the participants to discuss, re-estimate, and reach a consensus. The meeting duration is short because everyone already understands the user stories and just has to address misconceptions.

This way, Scrum teams can easily estimate product backlog items remotely with the Async Poker estimation technique.

Benefits of Using the Async Poker Estimation Technique

Although Async Poker seems the best alternative to Planning Poker for remote-based teams, it also provides many other benefits, as follows:

  • Fast Estimates: Async Poker reduces the time spent in the estimation process significantly. There is no physical meeting, and every member can understand and estimate user stories at their own pace.
  • Everyone Contributes: Async Poker makes every participant contribute to the estimation by providing individual estimates. This encourages active participation and a more trustworthy environment.
  • Reduce Bias: Async Poker requires individual estimates before the team's final estimates. This reduces bias and improves the accuracy of estimates.
  • No Waiting for Others: Unlike in Planning Poker where the session begins when all members are present in the meeting room, Async Poker eradicates this and lets teams estimate without waiting for anyone.
  • Flexibility: Async Poker makes product backlog estimation a flexible activity where members can estimate backlog items whenever and wherever they want.

In short, Async Poker is an improved version of Planning Poker that addresses the shortcomings of Planning Poker and also helps teams to do accurate estimates remotely with equal participation from all members.

Wrapping Up

Although product backlog estimation brings in many fruitful outcomes for Scrum teams, it can also cause trouble for teams if not done rightly. Therefore, teams must pick the right estimation approach depending on their work environment. Above, we have discussed how to estimate product backlog items in Scrum for both on-premises and remote workspaces. So, pick the estimation approach that best fits your business model and start doing accurate estimates of your backlog items.

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