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August 22, 2023
7 min read

Dos and Don'ts of Scrum Backlog Estimation

Scrum backlog estimation is a critical component of the Scrum process to ensure high-quality software products. So, how to make backlog estimation be efficient and rewarding? Below are the main dos and don'ts of Scrum backlog estimation.
Anton Versal
Anton Versal
Learn how to do estimations right.

Scrum is a widely used agile framework for project management, especially in the software industry. Considering the growing demand for software products, software firms are required to respond faster to customers' demands. So, Scrum helps such firms opt for iterative-based releases and respond to customers' feedback more actively.

However, it is seen that Scrum teams often face complications implementing Scrum, such as delayed releases, bottlenecks due to unanticipated challenges, difficulty in sprint planning, and similar others. One of the reasons behind all these issues is inaccurate backlog estimates. So, this article intends to discuss the dos and don'ts of Scrum backlog estimation so that teams can do accurate estimates.

Why Scrum Backlog Estimation is Important

Before we begin the discussion on the dos and don'ts of backlog estimation, it is necessary to first highlight the importance of Scrum backlog estimation.

We know that product backlog is a prioritized list of features, but teams cannot just pick the top items from the backlog and head for the sprint. So, below are five reasons that highlight the importance of backlog estimation:

  • Dependencies: Sometimes a few high-priority items in the backlog are dependent on other low-priority items, so they cannot be completed unless their dependencies are addressed. Estimation helps pinpoint those dependencies so that the development goes efficiently.
  • Address Uncertainties: Some backlog items might have hidden challenges or complications that could delay their completion time. Estimation helps team members to highlight those uncertainties and set the plan accordingly.
  • Know the Efforts: Backlog estimation helps reflect the amount of effort required to complete backlog items. Each backlog item is discussed and estimated, giving a clear sense of the effort it demands.
  • Well-prepared Team: Backlog estimation makes the Scrum team well-prepared on what they are going to work on next. It is because the whole development team participates in the estimation process, and the effort of every backlog item is estimated, giving a clear glimpse of what are the end goals.
  • Re-prioritize Backlog: Although the product backlog is a prioritized list, it is prepared by the Product Owner. So, there are chances of errors, which the development team can highlight better. So, when the team estimates the backlog thoroughly, they can re-prioritize it and make sprint planning much easier and more efficient.

In short, backlog estimation is very valuable for Scrum teams, as it not just refines the backlog but also prepares the team for what they will do next and the level of effort expected from them to achieve the end goals.

Dos and Don'ts of Scrum Backlog Estimation

Now that we know why Scrum backlog estimation is important, let's discuss the main dos and don'ts of backlog estimation.

Dos of Scrum Backlog Estimation

1. Do Use Relative Estimation

Relative estimation techniques, such as Planning Poker, Async Poker, T-Shirt Sizing, and similar others, are widely-acknowledged estimation techniques in Scrum. Relative estimation allows the team to quickly and collaboratively estimate the effort involved in completing tasks or user stories relative to other items in the backlog without getting bogged down in debates over specific units of time. It encourages the team to think in terms of relative complexity and risk rather than absolute measures of time, which can help improve accuracy and consistency in estimating. Therefore, conducting Scrum backlog estimates through relative estimation is highly recommended.

2. Do Involve the Whole Scrum Team

Scrum backlog estimation is a collaborative activity, and its accuracy demands the involvement of the whole Scrum team. The main participants of the backlog estimation should be the Product Owner (who presents the backlog and user stories), Scrum Master (who serves as a facilitator), and the development team (who provides technical input and estimates backlog). In addition, some key stakeholders can also be invited. So, when the whole Scrum team puts joint effort into estimation, it brings a unique perspective and expertise that results in accurate estimates.

3. Do Value Everyone's Opinion

Even if the whole team participates in the estimation session, some remain hesitant to provide their opinions. Therefore, it is important to set an environment comfortable for everyone so that newcomers and hesitant members can freely present their opinions. One of the best ways to value everyone's opinion is to use the estimation technique, like Planning Poker or Async Poker, as such techniques make individual estimates mandatory before reaching a final team consensus.

4. Do Re-estimate of New Backlog Items

Often the product backlog gets updated with new items, such as adding new features, fixing bugs, improving existing features, etc. So, whenever some new items are added to the backlog, they should be estimated before considering them in the next sprints. It is important because some items might be less important for now, so they could be delayed for a while. In addition, some items might be dependent on others, so they might need more attention. All these aspects are very well addressed if the new backlog items are estimated timely.

5. Do Consider Previous Estimates Data

Relative estimation is not just about estimating the efforts relative to other user stories, it also emphasizes considering previous estimates data. If the team has estimated similar user stories in the past, then the team should use them as the reference this time and take a look at how those estimates went. Based on that observation, the team can do more accurate estimates this time.

6. Do Break Down Large Backlog Items into Manageable Tasks

Some backlog items are large and complex, so estimating them is challenging. The discussion can become lengthy, and some members might not even grab the main targets of the item. Therefore, breaking down large backlog items into manageable tasks is recommended to make estimates a lot easier. In addition, small tasks also make it easy to identify delays and track progress.

Don'ts of Scrum Backlog Estimation

1. Don't Use Absolute Estimation

Absolute estimation, whether in terms of hours or days, is not recommended in Scrum. It is seen that absolute estimation often leads to inaccurate or misleading estimates because they fail to provide room for uncertainties or complexities associated with the development phase. This also leads to more stress and unhappy stakeholders. That's why relative estimation is preferred in Scrum, as it provides efforts-based estimation relative to other stories and provides room to address uncertainties.

2. Don't Conduct Lengthy Estimation Meetings

Backlog estimation requires the dedication and focus of the Scrum team to complete the estimates of all the backlog items. However, it is human nature that the mind can remain focused for a specific time only. So, if the estimation meetings become lengthy, chances are that the members won't be able to focus rightly and provide quality estimates. Therefore, the first thing to do is keep the duration of the estimation meeting short (commonly 2-4 hours max). Secondly, if the members are unable to attend estimation meetings, use remote estimation techniques, such as Async Poker, to make members provide estimates at their own pace before the deadline.

3. Don't Promote Senior Members' Biases

Senior members often unintentionally bias the whole estimation process. For example, they might share a specific viewpoint about a backlog item, which junior members follow without thinking about whether the viewpoint is correct or wrong. So, senior members should avoid providing such statements that might trigger an environment of biases.

4. Don't Lock the Estimates

It is not necessary that the estimates will be accurate on the first attempt. Once the team has estimated all the backlog items, they should make themselves open to revising estimates if they receive new information or detect complexities. This way, if estimates have some room for revision, they can turn out to be more realistic and accurate.

5. Don't Make the Size of the Backlog Massive

The size of the backlog is another key to accurate estimates. When the backlog size is massive, it is likely that it includes many unnecessary items or all the recommendations and suggestions are added to the backlog without refining. So, a lengthy backlog results in lengthy estimation meetings and also makes it challenging to do accurate estimates. Therefore, keep the size of the backlog within a manageable range, which could be completed in a couple of sprints.

Wrapping Up

Scrum backlog estimation is an important stage in the Scrum process and helps teams have a clear picture of what targets to achieve and how to achieve them. By following the above dos and don'ts of product backlog estimation, Scrum teams can have more accurate estimates, efficient sprint planning, and more satisfied stakeholders. To sum up, make Scrum backlog estimation a rewarding activity so that the upcoming sprints become more fruitful, eventually leading to successful product releases.

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