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Scrum and Story Points

Why it's useful to assign points to scrum stories

By Bia Dimovski, Senior Agile Coach

As BreakFree’s Senior Agile Coach, I coach our Agile teams, often working as the Scrum Master. One important aspect of that role is assigning points to Scrum stories. Let’s talk about how to get the most out of this method!

Why Point Stories in the Backlog

Story pointing can prove to be a daunting task for teams — until they take the time to understand not just how to assign points to stories but why it is important. One reason to point stories in the backlog is so the team can have a visual reference of the projected effort required for completing a story.

This helps the team understand and define its own velocity over time by providing data to consider when planning how much work they can actually finish in a Sprint. Additionally, pointing stories creates an opportunity to check the team's level of clarity about each story in the backlog.

What Are Points Anyway?

Story points in Scrum are meant to estimate the amount of effort needed for a story to be done. It’s based on the work’s volume, complexity and level of uncertainty. Why base points on effort and not hours of work? Let's look at this example:

What happens when a junior team member points a story at five to equal five hours of work and a seasoned team member points the same story at one to equal one hour of work? Is that story a five, or a one? Relax. You are not grading anything or anyone here!

To simplify, think of pointing as comparing rather than estimating. When you are pointing stories, you are not sizing them for accuracy; You are simply bookmarking a story with a value as compared to the value of another story in the backlog. That's it.

Just remember, when you equate story points to hours, you are pointing stories relative to skillsets, but skillsets change as teams grow and mature or as members join or leave the team. So, when you point stories based on hours you are comparing apples to pears. When you point stories based on effort you are pointing stories relative to other stories in the backlog. Now you are comparing apples to apples.

Why Think of Effort, Not Hours

Thinking in terms of effort allows the team to focus on the work that needs to be done, not the number of hours the team is committed to work on a story. Pointing stories based on hours insinuates a concept usually associated with setting deadlines. This forces the team to constantly try to predict the future and treat pointing as a way to provide accurate estimate (which is actually an oxymoron, when you think about it) for leadership, and then feel the pressure of being under a watch to meet an arbitrary deadline. Please don't do this to your team. You will be robbing them of one of the most underestimated yet most crucial element of high performing teams: Team morale!

Determining How Many Points Represent How Much Effort

Start with a story in the backlog that the team considers small in effort and build on that. That is your baseline. There are two things to keep in mind here:

  1. Story points (relative to how much effort they represent) are not absolute values — they are values that the team decides on. A story point of 1 on your team may mean a completely different thing than a story point of 1 on my team, and that is okay.

  2. Once you assign a value to a story point you must keep a ratio that is consistent for each Sprint and from one story to another.

Figuring Fibonacci

There are many tools out there you can use for pointing stories and there are as many theories as to which one is the right one. The best advice I can give you is: Pick one, then stick with it. Every team is different so when it comes to pointing stories; go with what feels most natural and makes most sense to the team. I'm mostly asked about the Fibonacci sequence (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21,34, 55).

Here’s how it works. Each number is driven by adding the previous two numbers. Therefore, the higher in the sequence of numbers, the greater the difference between numbers. The difference in effort between 1, 2, and 3 may not be significant, but the difference between a story of 5 and a story of 8 points, or even 8 to 13 is quite noticeable.

You could say this resembles a backlog refining process as stories that are closer to the top of the backlog are much smaller and much more granularly refined than stories lower and closer to the bottom of the backlog. The more complex the story, the greater the uncertainty around the many factors affecting the work associated with the story. Therefore, the greater the Fibonacci number used to point the story, and the lower the placement of the story in the backlog.

Whatever system you use, scrum Story points are a Scrum Master's best friend. They help you compare stories in the backlog so that they can be prioritized according to effort rather than time commitment. This allows for focus on work, not deadlines, and it promotes morale among teams who may feel pressured by constantly trying to predict what might happen in the future.

Remember, the key is finding one system that works and sticking with it!

If you're an IT team looking for help getting started with Scrum, feel free to reach out to us. Our experts are more than happy to answer any questions and help get you on the right track!

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