3 Things #Agile Teams Can Do Today To Improve #Estimates and #Estimating

Over and over again I find teams and organisations that have a chronic problem with ‘estimation’. It is one of the biggest causes of disharmony and mistrust in organisations I have worked with. Many tout ‘agile estimation’ as a process to help address this  and in some aspects it is helpful, yet many teams still struggle.

But it doesn’t have to be so, here are 3 handy tips that can help you. But before you read any further, I’m going to need you to do something – you and all the people seeking estimates and the people doing the estimating.

You have to get together and agree : For what reason(s) are you estimating?

If it is simply to have a number to go into a spreadsheet that you can then use in the defense or prosecution case then stop and go here, you will get far more satisfaction.

If it is to identify risks and inform a collaboration into whether what you are trying to build is worth taking those risks for then read on.

1.  Start Estimating Early

Figure what the minimum you need to start the conversation and then start it. I have found overwhelmingly in over 100 teams I have coached, teams asking to be involved much earlier on and many times the conversation starts with a one-liner and a sense of value. Then teams and the business can explore the risks together and collaborate on ways to minimise them.

The trouble I see most often is that information is not brought to the people who can best use it until the item becomes very important and increasingly urgent. This is the zone no one wants to be in. It adds pressure to the system that hinders collaboration and strains relationships.

2.  Elaborate and Estimate Often

Big bang estimation sessions are motivation killers and reach a point of diminishing value around the 90 minute mark – much sooner if there isn’t the information available for a meaningful conversation. Meaningful information is the key.

If we have nothing new to talk about then let’s not waste everyone’s time talking about it.

The focus is on relentlessly identifying what we do not know about risks that we can reasonably discover without actually building the thing. Then we go find more information about those risks – and in turn discover more about what we should be building, even how we should be building it.

Then we get back together and based on this new information we either know enough to quantify the risks and a sense of time or we have more stuff to go find out.

Most teams that I know getting great results from regular estimation – although they call it elaboration or grooming – are doing it 2-3 times week for no more than 1 hour. For some, they do it right after their daily stand up for 15- 30 minutes.

3.  Estimate Quickly

Time and again I find groups sitting mindlessly together, everyone individually frustrated at being in an estimation ‘meeting’ that is wasting everyone’s time. This is often a signal to me that the conversation has gone on far longer than it was useful. Of course some things need long engaging conversations, intertwined with times of contemplation where people can think about what has been said – but if you’ve been in those conversations you realise that everyone knows it is valuable. I’m not talking about those.

The trick – if I can call it that – is to be quick. For each item you are estimating, start by asking “what don’t we know about this that we need to know”. There are 3 possible responses to this:

We know all we need to know

Then go ahead and estimate using whatever technique you choose to derive your number (planning poker, affinity grouping, bucketing etc). Once estimated, move on.

We don’t know what we don’t know

Consider building a prototype to kickstart the questions or visit a customer or do a gemba walk. Do something to get to the first or last response. If you’ve tried everything and you cannot proceed, don’t build whatever you were asked to estimate. If you cannot find the answers to reasonable questions now, how might you fare when you have unreasonable questions and the meter is running? Decide what kickstart activity you will do to answer the question “What don’t we know that we didn’t know”, plan how to start (remember you have nothing else to talk about!) and then move on.

We need to know…

Write down as many things as people say, then quickly frame them as questions – using ‘What/How/Can’ – then prioritise them in some logical order.Then take between 3-5 from the top, figure out who will go hunt for the answers and then move on.

Whatever the case try not to spend more than 10 minutes per item. If you find yourselves approaching this limit, stop and ask yourselves is there any more value in carrying on.

I believe all estimation is waste – some might even be necessary, by preventing even greater future waste.

Did you find these tips useful? I know estimates and estimating are a controversial and potentially scary subject – how do you estimate, what are your stories. I’d love to learn and share.

Want 30 days of free #agile #coaching for your team? Help me on my project and it's yours. Pls Share.

A little about me?

I’m Mike Sutton – a deeply experienced agile coach with a background in development. I have built products, led teams and small companies, consulted with some of the biggest enterprises and helped  dozens of  teams and hundreds of  people to work more effectively. I tend to focus more on people and outcomes than on process and output and seek to leave places more joyful than I found them. Check me out on LinkedIn to find out who I’ve worked with or book a conversation with me  and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have.

I need your help

After over seven years of coaching enterprises of all sizes – usually on site for periods ranging from a few weeks to many months – I have become convinced that this is not the most effective model to help people genuinely learn and make sustainable positive changes to how they work and think about work.

Whether you are a big 20,000+ employee organisation or a small ten person team – I don’t believe this model of concentrated transformation or ‘shock’ coaching actually helps deliver sustained positive outcomes.

Here are 5 of the biggest reasons I don’t believe this is a model for sustained change:

  1. Cost: hiring a consultant coach is expensive – sometimes very expensive. It can run into tens of thousands of dollars for just one coach. When you multiply this by a few coaches on a large ‘transformation’, it gets crazy costly.
  2. Negatively disruptive : the cost also drives an unhealthy level of disruption. The unspoken sentiment is ‘Mike is here, the meter is running, drop everything now to get his help’. This has the effect of creating a pressure cooker situation that hardly encourages the learning that we want.
  3. Learning is rushed –  most enterprises I have worked with seem to consider a transformation to be a ‘project’. They’ll hire a coach and once the agreed period has passed, they will be ‘agile’. This is an unreasonable approach. The essential elements of making small changes, reflecting on the results, adjusting the next set of experiments all take time – they cannot be rushed. But because the meter is running and the costs are high, the journey is rushed and often abandoned because the learning has not been given a chance to stick.
  4. It wastes my time and your money: there are times when a coach must do nothing. Times when the organisation must do its own heavy lifting. Most organisations I have coached have expected me to still be on site even when it is counter productive to their learning and erodes their ability to stand on their own.
  5. Poor ongoing support: I see many companies that paid money to have their employees trained and certified. Some might even have hired a coach like me on site to do some work. But once the training is over and the coaches leaves,  their Scrum Masters, Product Owners, developers and even management are left with little or no ongoing support. It soon returns to business as usual because there is no one to help them stay focused or to whom they can turn for help with the next steps – at least not without another large cost. Some might create an internal coach role to keep improvements going – but in my experience the key ingredient of objectivity and honesty often get lost over time because of internal politics and familiarity.

I need your help to make this better.

I’m working on a project to help and support people in maintaining a sustainable pace of continuous improvement and learning. To do this,  first I need to really understand the problems facing people who are trying to apply an agile approach with very little support. I want to understand what the barriers to support are and experiment with ways to remove them.

My offer to you

If any of the following apply to you:

I am in management struggling to understand how agile should be working for me and my organisation, my role in it and what should I be doing next

I am in a team that is seeking ways to improve our outcomes and how we collaborate and learn;

I am a Scrum Master or Product Owner feeling isolated, unsupported and outnumbered;

My organisation claims they are doing Scrum or are agile – but it’s all wrong and very frustrating. We could do with some help.

I am a C-Level executive with people in my organisation that fit the above and I want to help make it better.

Then I would love your help on my project.

I am offering to personally coach five lucky groups remotely  free of charge for 30 days.

Each group will enjoy great benefits including having:

30 days of remote access coaching available to anyone in your organisation. This could be ongoing coaching of Scrum masters as they perform an incredibly difficult role or mentoring Product Owners in keeping a vision shared and relevant and maintaining a healthy backlog. It could be starting from scratch with setting a strategic direction with the inclusion of your entire organisation or helping established teams get even better.

A skilled facilitator  – to help you and your organisation rediscover how to collaborate transparently and effectively so that you can finally start to address all those issues that affect you all.

An untainted observer – to help you with my objective observations untainted by any political influence.

An improvement partner – to help work through those tough problems and help you find your own way through them. From vision to delivery and everything in between.

Access to lots of games, practices and experience –  to help your teams improve their capability to reflect, experiment and collaborate and to deliver product and learning more sustainably.

Help to start and grow your communities of practice  – to help sustain an almost permanent and continuous state of learning.

Support when you need it – it is not in the interest of self-sustainability that a coach is there for everything you do – this is a journey where  you will ultimately outgrow a coach. But at every step where you falter, you will have my experience, expertise and network  to overcome it.

What’s the catch?

I am usually paid thousands of pounds/dollars to offer my expertise and experience to help teams and organisations improve. I’m making this offer absolutely free of charge – gratis!

While I will not charge you for my remote services, this offer is not free – I am offering this in exchange for learning!

I want to learn how the remote coaching experience works for you, specifically:

  1. To what extent does having unrestricted remote access to independent and experienced expert improve the outcomes for agile teams and their management?
  2. How much expert access is “just right” to keep continuous improvement at its highest sustainable pace?
  3. What is the most effective kind of access and for what kind of situations?
  4. Can the business value of remote strategic coaching be measured?
  5. If, given affordable access and no-pressure, will the individuals in an organisation use the help that is offered? What will it take for the organisation to support it?

That’s it. I coach you remotely for free , you and your organisation improve and have a great basis for continued improvement and I get to learn to what extent this can be done remotely. Want free agile coaching for 30 days? Sign up now.

How it works

  1. If I haven’t worked with your group for 6 months or more, we are best to start with 2 days on site where I meet your group –  the teams and individuals – and we work together on what we want out of this. We’ll come up with goals and a near term starting plan to reach them. We’ll setup a review cadence and start working on the items on the plan.
    This on-site time will be expenses only – so you cover the flight, accommodation and meals. I won’t charge you for my time.
  2. After the 2 days on-site, I leave and we continue the work on the plan remotely  – adjusting it as we learn more. We will collaborate using every remote channel available to us – video, screen-sharing, email and phone calls – perhaps even an interactive whiteboard!
  3. After 30 days, we end the partnership happy, we would both have learnt a lot and have actionable data to fuel improvement.

Does this sound doable for your organisation? Let’s try it together..

My ideal group

  • Are based within 7 hours of GMT+1  –  so  Europe, east coast USA, middle East and Africa are all in!
  • Are not larger than 400 employees. For huge companies, this refers only to the size of the group that will be using my offer.
  • Are building any product – software or otherwise.
  • Are in whatever stage of adopting an agile approach.
  • Are committed to improvement and are open-minded enough to try this.

Does this sound like you? I need just 5 – be one of them, sign up now.

What you need to do now

Places are limited. Once I find 5 groups willing to help with this, the offer will close and you will have missed the opportunity. 

If you feel this opportunity would suit you and your organisation and you are willing to help me learn – get in touch now – there is not a minute to lose.

Finally , as a personal favour to me and your contacts – please share this.

Just so you know – #agile training is *not* coaching.

I’m noticing a rather bizarre thing happening in the agile services space. Trainers – certified or otherwise – are increasingly adopting the ‘Agile Trainer/Coach’ title.
In my experience, trainers are not naturally coaches. I understand one reason why – it makes them more marketable, especially in a market that is full of ‘professionals’ seeking quick fixes and silver bullets to deeply flawed organizational problems.

Now, I’m not saying a person cannot be both – I just question the effectiveness of either – particularly the coaching – if said person has been peddling the same content repeatedly over a few months/years. Where is the learning for them, where is the problem solving that leads to knowledge that leads to something they can use to help others through a muddle?

I’ve coached over 100 teams over the last 7 years and the more coaching I do, the more I appreciate what a coach does. It is to bring a different perspective to the problem. A perspective informed not simply by the dogma of one framework or methodology – which trainers are great at -but the collective screw ups and successes of the their past experiences made sense by deep and constant reflection. Advice, support and counsel is imparted with honesty and deep empathy. A coach is in your problem with you, but not off your problem. Think about that!

I write this because I value coaching above training and I do not want to see the practice fall into the abyss of uselessness and corrupted definition.

Coaches are there to walk your journey with you – not every step but certainly every step where you falter. Coaches are there to help you become stronger in your practice. They are there long after the nonsensical idealism of training has worn off.

What has your experience of training been?
Have you experienced having a good coach work to help you and your team/organisation deliberately improve? What challenges did you observe, how did you address them?

I’d love to hear your experiences – good/bad/indifferent.

What happens on #Twitter when someone like #Mandela dies

I was going to title this post – ‘What billions of silent voices screaming at the same time look like’ – but it seemed too dramatic.

As I was about to release the pre-beta of my new app Hashies, the news came on the wire that Nelson Mandela had died. I wasn’t particularly shocked – more relieved actually. I do feel like I have lost a beloved grandfather – I think most of the world feels the same. But in the last few months, the situation around him and the media frenzy was grotesque to say the least. I wished nothing more than a peaceful passing on for Mr Mandela and when it came I felt only relief and gratitude for a beautiful brave life.

Hashies tracks what people are saying on a hashtag in near real time. Given the news, ‘#Mandela’ seemed the way to go. Before I heard the news – it was going to be ‘#JustinBeiber’ – glad it wasn’t!

Enough said, here is what it looked like.

And just to be sure – there is no one quite like Mr Mandela. And there is unlikely to ever be. RIP Madiba.

Why I am Cancelling My 10+ year Skype Account


This is a notice to my Skype contacts: 
Skype (and others) have been spying on their users on behalf of the United States security apparatus for a long time. I do not want to be spied on any longer, so I’m closing my account, it will remain dormant and unused from today (15/July/2013) and cancelled on 01/August/2013.

I am currently researching alternatives, however you may contact me on Twitter or by email in the meantime and we can arrange a voice call (all of which are also compromised, I’m sure!).

My privacy is mine

The longer version

Coming soon…


Moore's Law Requires Species Maturity.


No, You’re not imagining things. That is a 64gb micro sd card. It’s smaller than the smallest coin in British currency (5 pence coin).

Technology holds the key to our collective future, perhaps even our survival as a species.  But only if we are mature enough to use it.

I still don’t have enough stuff to put on the card.