Monday, September 29, 2014

Estimates or #NoEstimates? that is the question

To estimate or not to estimate, to join the #NoEstimates bang-wagon or not, that is the question.

Maybe it is a navel gazing exercise for agile-folk but it does seem to be the reoccurring theme. And I can’t get over this feeling that some of my peers think I’m a bit stupid for continuing to support estimates.

Complicating matters I’m finding my own work and research is starting to be cited in support of #NoEstimate - Dear Customer (PDF version), my publicity for Vierdort’s Law, Notes on Estimation and More notes on estimation. Add my own #NoProjects / #BeyondProjects logic isn’t far removed from the whole estimates discussion.

At Lean Agile Scotland a few weeks ago Seb Rose and I were discussing the subject, in the end Seb said something to the effect:

“How can you continue to believe in estimation when your own arguments show it is pointless?” (I’m sure Seb will correct me if my memory is fault.)

My reply to Seb was something along the lines:

I continue to believe that estimation can be both useful and accurate, however I increasingly believe the conditions under which this holds are beyond most organizations.

To which Seb challenged me to list those conditions. Well here is that list.

I’ve blogged about this before (well, I’ve mentioned it in lots of blogs, see this one Conclusions and Hypothesis about estimates) and I’ve devoted a large section of the Xanpan book to talking about I see estimates working but I think its worth revisiting the subject.

Before continuing I should say: I’m talking about Effort Estimates specifically. There is another discussion which needs to be had around business value/benefit estimation.

Here is, a probably incomplete, list of conditions I think are required in order for effort estimates to be accurate:

  1. The people and teams who will undertake the work need to do the estimates
  2. Estimates go off if not used: estimates only remain valid for a short period of time (days), the longer the elapsed time between making the estimate and doing the work the less accurate they will prove
  3. Estimates will only be accurate if the teams are stable
  4. Estimates much be calibrated against past performance, i.e. data is needed
  5. Together #3 and #4 imply that only teams which have been working in this fashion for a while can produce accurate estimates
  6. Teams must have a record of delivering and must be largely able to undertake the work needed, i.e. there are few dependencies on other teams and few “call outs” to elsewhere in the organization
  7. Estimates must be used as is, they cannot be adjusted
  8. Estimates cannot be used as targets (Goodharts Law will cut if they are)
  9. Estimates made in units of time (hours, days, etc.) are not reliable
  10. The tracking and measurement process must measure all work done, not just “project” work
  11. Financial bonus should not be tied to estimates or work
  12. People outside the team should not coerce the team in any way

There are probably some other conditions which need to be on this list but I haven’t realised. I’m happy to have additional suggestions.

Perhaps this list is already so long enough as to be unachievable for most teams. Perhaps meeting this conditions are unachievable for many, even most, organizations. In which case the #NoEstimate’ers are right.

So… I believe estimation can be useful, I also believe it can be accurate but I believe there are a lot of factors that can cause effort estimates to go wrong. In fact, I know one team, possibly two, who claim their estimates and planning processes is very accurate. Perhaps I cling to my belief in estimates because I know these teams.

When estimates do work I don’t believe they can work far into the future. They are primarily a tool for teams to decide how much work to take on for the next couple of weeks. I don’t expect estimates further out will prove reliable. Estimates for 2 to 12 weeks have some value but beyond the 3 month mark I don’t believe they will prove accurate. So my advice: don’t estimate anything that isn’t likely to happen in the next 3 months, and don’t plan any work based on estimates which extend more than 3 months into the future.

Which means: that even if you accept my argument that estimates work they may not tell you what you want to know, they may not have much value to you under these conditions.

And to further complicate matters I suspect that for mature teams estimation becomes pointless too.

As implied by the list above I would not expect a team new to this (agile) way of working to produce reliable estimates. With experience, and the conditions above, I think they can. One of the ways I think it works is by helping teams break down work into small pieces which flow. As a team get better I would expect the effort estimation to exhibit a very tight distribution. When this happens then simply counting the number of card (tasks, stories, whatever the thing you are estimating is) will have about the same information value for a fraction of the cost.

(For example, suppose a team normally do 45 points of work per iteration, if the teams average size estimate is 5 with a standard deviation of 0.5 then they would be expected to accept 9 pieces of work per iteration. If these statistics are stable then estimation works. But at this point simply taking in 9 pieces of work would also prove a reliable guide.)


  1. Effort estimation doesn’t work for immature teams because they don’t exhibit the conditions above
  2. Effort estimation does work for mature teams but
  3. Effort estimation is pointless for very mature teams

Even given all this I think estimation is a worthwhile activity for teams of type 1 and 2 because it has other benefits.

One benefit is that is promotes discussion - or at least it should. Another is that it forms part of a design activity that helps teams make pieces of work smaller.

But there is another reason I want teams to do it: Credibility.

Estimation is so enshrined in the way many businesses work that teams and those trying to introduce change/agile risk undermining their own credibility if they remove estimation early. And I don’t just mean credibility with “the business” I think many developers also expect estimation and if asked to adopt a process without it will be skeptical.

So its just possible that estimation as we knowing - planning poker, velocity and such - is a placebo. It doesn’t actually help many teams but it helps people feel they are doing something right. In time they may find the placebo actually works or they may find they don’t need it.

Another reason why I like developers to think about “how long will the take” is that I believe it helps them set their own deadline. It helps them focus their own work.

Thus I keep advocating estimates because I think they are useful to the team, the fact that you might be able to tell when something might be “done” is a side effect. Since I find long range estimates questionable I advocate a cheap approach which might be usefulness or might just be a placebo.

However, I do believe, that given the right conditions teams can estimate accurately, and can deliver to those estimates. Increasing I believe very few organizations can provide those conditions to their teams.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

#AOSW - Agile Outside of Software - starts here

We had the Agile on the Beach conference a couple of weeks. In a word: Brilliant - just look at the photos and see how people enjoyed themselves.

OK, I’m biased, I’m one of the organisers, but many people told me it was brilliant or they just didn’t want to hurt my feelings.

There is much I could write about Agile on the Beach but I don’t have enough time. Plus right now I want to focus on just one thing that came out of the conference:

Agile Outside of Software - #AOSW

Just before the conference I published a blog version of my talk to the conference (Agile Outside of Software the blog) and now the slides are online (Agile Outside of Software the SlideShare). Well between the post and the presentation, Agile Outside of Software turned out to be a hot topic.

And it wasn’t just me:

  • Belinda Weldlock talked about using Agile outside of software to help various Cornish companies: toy companies, florists and others. Her talk is available on YouTube.
  • Belinda also had a video made by Oxford Innovation about Agile in Cornwall: this started with the Cornish Software Mines Agile Programme that I was involved with four years ago. Oxford Innovation have built on that legacy.
  • Sabina Renshof from The Netherlands also spoke to me about how she had used Agile with various non-software teams
  • Rachel Picken gave a presentation on her use of Agile in a Public Relations company.

One of the points I made was: There is good evidence to think Agile does work outside of software but we lack case studies. I have a few:

  • I my own case study from GSMA (writing a specification document with a dispersed team)
  • The use of Agile at my client Sullivan Cuff software for everything! Software development, sales, support and well, everything!
  • I highlighted case studies from previous Agile on the Beach conferences (Kate Sullivan at Lonely Planet and Martin Rowe at Petroc college.)
  • And I discussed the 2007 case study of Shamrock Foods from MIT Sloan Management Review.

(After the conference I discovered this small book which I’ve only just started reading: “Scrum Marketing: Applying Agile Methodologies to Marketing”.)

But we need more.

So Sabina came up with the great idea that we start a collection. And I think we should.

It starts here, right now with the Twitter hashtag #AOSW - well actually, this hashtag was coined at the conference, I’m just a little late announcing it on my blog.

Right now we’ve not worked out how we are going to do this - my guess is a wiki or a LeanPub collection - but right now, if you know of a case study - documented or not - please share:

  • leave a comment on this blog
  • Tweet with the #AOSW hashtag
  • E-mail myself or Sabina

Lets get collecting.

Right now, if you want to know more I’m repeating my Agile Outside of Software talk on 3rd November I’m giving the talk again BCS Bristol “Beyond Software”.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nightmare on Agile Street 2: Managed Agile

Blow me down, its happening again…

I’m awake. I’m wet, its a cold sweat. Its the small hours of the morning and the dream is horrid....

I’ve been sent to Coventry.

I’m in a clients office waiting for a meeting to start. The development manager is telling me she has selected me to help them become Agile, she checked me out online and recognises that I am pragmatic. Thats why they chose a new tool called Kjsb, its pragmatic too.


God does she know how much I hate that word? Pragmatic to me? I recognise that Agile and Waterfall are points on a spectrum and that most organizations, for better or worse fall somewhere in-between. I recognise that every organisation exists within a context and you need to consider that. And even change the context.

But pragmatic? Pragmatic is the Satan’s way of saying “Heaven doesn’t work in the Real World(TM)”.

The CTO enters and is putting down redlines. He knows all Agile, but his people… its his people you see … you can’t trust them, they are like children, you can’t let them have too much say. They need a strong man to lead them.

They had a developer here once who practiced Agile. He did that test driven stuff. He didn’t give out dates. He gave Agile a bad name in the company. The PMO will never accept that.

Fortunately they have just bought Kjsb. This wonderful tool will fix everything. Kjsb has a feature that translates burn-downs into Gantt charts at the click-of-a-mouse. And back again.

The problem is: teams still aren’t shipping on schedule. They need predictability. Predictability is what the one thing really need.

And flexibility. Flexibility is important. Flexibility and predictability, the two things they really need.

And now variation in features. They can’t trade features for time. Fixed scope, Flexibility and Predictability are the three things they need.

But… they have unforeseen technical problems - not bugs you understand, but unforeseen technical problems. They really need to be able to deal with those things. Technical fixes, fixed scope, Flexibility and Predictability are the four things they need.

Nobody expects…

I want to explain queuing theory... a grasp of basic queuing theory is the one thing they need - stick their feet on the ground and cement them to it.

One of the teams runs Agile. It is run by the CTO himself and its good. The other teams... well they don’t really have that much experience. Though the managers are going to get their Scrum certificates real soon now.

How, he asks, can we get everyone else to buy in?

How can we get the PMO to buy?

How can they make the Product Owners buy in?

Mention of the PMO stirs the old guy in the corner, the one who’s hiding behind his laptop, the widescreen laptop with the numeric keypad. And mention of the Product Owners causes the Analyst in the other corner - the one hiding behind the ultra thin laptop - to raise an eyebrow.

Now I see they all have laptops out in front of them... and some of them phones too. In between moving their mouths each of them is staring at their screens.

I’d better say something. “Well,” I start...., “how about we get people from the team who are doing this well to talk about their experience?” Blank looks all round, are they listening

Or doing e-mailing

“Could you them your own case study?”

No - that won’t work because that teams are so very different from everyone else in the company nobody will believe it. They are all individuals.

Besides, the developers won’t be at the buy-in meeting. Its for managers to buy in. Once the managers buy in the developers will be told what to do.


I try a different approach: “Instead of talking to the PMO one day, and the Product Managers the next day, and the Development Managers the day after... why don’t we go vertical and take each development team in turn, with the appropriate project, product and development managers?”

No. Managers manage, they are the only ones who need to know. And they are the ones who will be allocating the work with Kjsb.

“Need to know” - “Allocating work” Did I really just hear those words?

Whose version of Agile have they been reading?

O my god, these guys are going on a Scrum Master course next week, there is going to be a bun fight, I don’t know who I worry about most these guys or the poor sod who is teaching the class….

Can I just check,” I ask, “each team has a project manager assigned, a product manager, a team lead, they will soon have a Scrum Master too?” Heads nod, “and… there are several development managers spanning several teams each?”


“So if I’m counting right…. each team contains about 4 developers and 1 tester? (Plus UAT cycle lagging several weeks later)”


“O see…” Am I keeping a straight face? Does my face hide my horror? 3+ managers for every 5 workers? - either this business prints cash or they will soon be bust.


“Really,” says the development manager, “we are talking about change, I have 12 years change management experience from call centres to financial services, the CTO hand picked me to lead this change, software development is just the same as any other change”

When did Fred Brooks come into the room, in fact what is he doing in Coventry, he lives in Carolina, why is he wearing a dog collar? And why is it 1974? He’s now standing at the lectern reading from a tatted copy of Mythical Man Month

“In many ways” says Brooks, “managing a large computer programming project is like managing any other large undertaking - in more ways than most programmers believe. But in many other ways it is different - in more ways than most professional managers expect.”

Well this is a dream, what do I expect? Its 2014 again…

“The key is to set the framework,” she continues, “establish boundaries so people know what their responsibilities are then we can empower them”

Fred has gone, standing at the lectern in dog collar is Henry Mintzberg - my management hero - he is reading from another tattered book entitled Managing:

“the later term empowerment did not change [manager control], because the term itself indicated that the power remained with the manager. Truly empowered workers, such as doctors in a hospital, even bees in the hive, do not await gifts from their managerial gods; they know what they are there to do and just do it.”

Empowerment is dis-empowered: using the words say one thing but the message given by using those words is the opposite.

“What we want is consistency across teams” says the CTO who now resembles Basil Fawlty

(What happened to “all my teams are different”?)

“And a stage gate process” says the PMO man, or is it Terry Jones?

“And clear roles and responsibilities” says the Cardinal Fang

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” says Michael Palin - where did he come from?


“It seems to me” starts the Product Owner “that we are making a lot more paperwork for ourselves here”

O the voice of sanity!

“Yes” I begin…. “if you attempt to run both an Agile and a Waterfall process that is what you will have!”

Silence. I continue, “Over time, as you see Agile work, as people understand it, I would expect you will move to a more Agile approach in general and be able to reduce the documentation.”

“No.” The PMO seems quite certain of this, “I don’t think that will happen here, we need the control and certainty that the waterfall and our stage gates provide. We won’t be doing that.”

Poor Product Owner, if he is lucky he’ll be shown the door, if he’s unlucky he’ll be retained.


“If you want people to buy in” I suggest, “we must let people have their say.”

The PMO is ready for this: “Yes, we know that, we’ve already arranged for a survey” and she reads the questions:

Q1: “Do you agree our development process needs to change?” Yes or No

Q2: “Our organization wishes to remain in control but we want the benefits of Agile, do you think we should:

a) Embrace Marxism in its entirety,

b) Mandate Waterfall throughout the organization or

c) Create a Managed Agile process?”

Q3: “Have you seen the features provided by Kjsb?” Yes or No.

O my god, its a North Korean election.

I suggest the questions are a little bit leading. “Well we don’t want people being awkward” chips in the CTO.

We get up to leave.

“You know,” I say, “when you’ve had a chance to run this process for a while you will want to inspect it and modify it” - but while I’m saying that I’m think “No plan survives contact with the enemy, start small, see what happens.”

“O we’ve already done that. This process is the result of doing that. We won’t be changing it.”

Back in my kitchen, a warm milk in my hand. A bad dream.

It was a bad dream. That stuff never happened. How could it? The contradictions are so obvious even a small child could see them. Couldn’t they?

As I climb the stairs back to bed a terrible thought: what if it wasn’t a nightmare? what if it was real? and what if they call me back for help?

Could anyone help such people?

Thursday, September 04, 2014

September Xanpan sale

I set up LeanPub discount coupons for people who attend my conference talks. I’m at Agile on the Beach this week, Lean Agile Scotland next week and BCS Leeds in between so I’ve decided to just discount Xanpan for the whole month.

The full price is usually $19 (sorry UK folks, LeanPub do things in dollars), the minimum price is usually $15, but for September I’ve reduced it to $9.50.

Please feel free to just pay $9.50, its a sale - Xanpan: Team Centric Agile Software Development.

I’ve also reduced the price of the printed version of Xanpan on Lulu to £11.70 (for me Lulu is in pounds but for people elsewhere… its complicated.) The printed version contains a coupon for a free version of the LeanPub eBook.

I’ll put the prices back up at the end of September so get it now!

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Agile outside of software

Later this week I’m doing a presentation at Agile On The Beach entitled: “Agile outside of software development”. (I resisted the temptation to call it “Agile Beyond Software”). The presentation will attempt to answer a question which is often asked at, and around, Agile On The Beach: “Is Agile only for Software Development?”

In truth it is not just at Agile On The Beach (AOTB) that this question is asked, I hear it more and more often elsewhere but the origins of AOTB, and target audience for AOTB, mean that the question is very much on topic.

I’ll post the presentation online after I have delivered it - until then I’ll be tweaking it - but right now I’d like to (kind of by way of rehearsal) run down my main argument, so here goes….

Before the term Agile Software Development was coined there was “Agile Manufacturing”. This was this term that inspired the software folks so perhaps the first answer is: “Yes! Of course Agile works outside of software because that is where it came from.”

But, Agile Software Development has far and away surpassed Agile Manufacturing in writing and mindshare. So much so that others in the wider business community have looked at Agile Software Development as a model for other types of working. In a way, “Agile” has come full circle.

Perhaps it is worth pausing for a moment and asking: “What do we mean by Agile?” or “What do we want from an Agile company?”

This could be a big big debate, ultimately it is for each company, each team, to decide what Agile means to them. Rather than have that discussion let me quote MIT Professor Michael A Cusumano:

“I can’t think of anything more important than building an agile company, because the world changes so quickly and unpredictably…

[Agility] comes in different forms, but basically it’s the ability to quickly adapt to or even anticipate and lead change. Agility in the broadest form affects strategic thinking, operations, technology innovation and the ability to innovate in products, processes and business models.” (MIT Sloan Management Review Summer 2011 interview with Hopkins)

Lets add to that a little bit by defining Agility from three views:

  • Agile Strategy: Adaptability, listen to customer, leading the market, use change competitively
  • Agile Tactically: Experimenting, “Expeditionary Marketing”, live in the now while preparing for the future
  • Agile Operations: Deliver fast, deliver quality, deliver value

We could go on but thats enough for now. Now we have an approximate understanding of what we want we can go back to the original question: “Is Agile only for Software Development?”

There are three parts to this answer: Practices, Roots and Case Studies.


Lots of the practices associated with Agile actually come from elsewhere. Examples of stand-up meeting proliferate - bars, healthcare, the military, Japanese local Government and so on. Many companies operate regular status or planning meetings, Agile just elevates this practice. WIP limits are well established in manufacturing.

Agile picks up some practices directly - visual boards (“information radiators”) are nothing new.

Some practices it picks up and changes - Retrospectives have long existed as “Lessons Learned” or “After Action Reviews.”

Some practices Agile (might have) invented - Planning poker but this is itself version of wide band delphi.

And some Agile plays back to the business - TDD and BDD are writ large in Lean Startup (which is itself an extreme version of Expeditionary Marketing from 1991, Hamel & Prahalad).


As already mentioned: Agile Software Development was inspired by Agile Manufacturing.

I’ve described my Agile Pyramid model before (Agile and Lean - the same but different, How do you make Lean Practical?) and my argument that “Agile is Lean thinking applied to software development” and I wrote whole book saying the software development, and Agile software development specifically, is an example of Organizational Learning.

Well, Agile Software Development is not the only application built on these foundations. Obviously the Toyota Production System is. And so too is its close cousin the Ford Production System. Look further afield and you will find Last Planner in construction. I could continue but I think my point is proved.

While not every Agile practice can be taken out of software development and used someplace else the roots of Agile mean that the principles, values and ideas which Agile is built on can be. In your domain Agile as now known might work quite well, but in someone else’s domain there may be more need to think deeper.

One caveat: I believe the more deeply you look at Agile and more Agile is applied outside of the software development the more it looks like Lean. Ultimately the distinction between Lean and Agile breaks down in my book.

Case Studies

Good news: There are case studies of teams using Agile outside of software - and if you know of any more please tell me! Add them in the comments on this blog post.

Bad news: There are not that many case studies. Unless you are a software team you probably can’t find one.

For the Agile on the Beach conference I have deliberately sought out Agile outside of software development in the last few years. This has resulted in two good examples.

Two years ago Kate Sullivan described how the Lonely Planet legal department adopted Agile working. In fact Kate said all of Lonely Planet adopted Agile.

Last year Martin Rowe talked about how he used Scrum to manage the Foundation Computer Science course at Plymouth University.

Elsewhere, six years ago the MIT Sloan Management Review carried a piece by Keith R. McFarland entitled “Should you build strategy like you build software?” in which he described how Shamrock Foods of Arizona used Agile to plan and execute their business strategy.

Myself, I have seen the marketing team at Sullivan Cuff Software Ltd use an Agile like approach.

And last year I helped the GSMA (the people responsible for SIM cards) use Agile on a project writing a document for cellphone manufacturers, mobile network operators and umpteen suppliers and partners to allow mobile phones to be used for loyalty coupons.

So, back to the original question: “Is Agile only for Software Development?”

Answer: No

Question: Will Agile work outside software development?

Answer: Yes

But, the detail may vary.

Finally, and please excuse the pull. As a result of this discussion my company has adapted its successful Foundations of Agile Software Development 2-day course for companies outside software. Please take a look at Agile Kick-Off (for non-software teams) and let me know what you think.