Pragmatic Agile Estimation: Predicting the Unpredictable

Your estimate is a guess. It expires and it changes. In Predicting the Unpredictable, Johanna Rothman provides practical tips that increase trust, reduces bad management (hopefully), and helps teams transparently deliver valuable software to their customers.

Zoltar - Greg Lilly - Flickr

Zoltar – Greg Lilly – Flickr

I once inherited a failing project that simply could not fail. A mission critical application had to be replaced, otherwise products would not get loaded in to catalogs, point of sale systems, and online stores. Millions of dollars at risk.

This project had a lot of common problems. The planning and estimates were unrealistic. The features being looked at were too big to be understood and team members were working on multiple projects. Every feature was top priority and many of the features didn’t even exits in the current system.

Worst of all, the stakeholders no longer trusted the project team to deliver.

We needed a prioritized backlog of only the features required to replace the legacy system. It took time and coaching, but we were able to get a few sprints worth of prioritized stories back from our stakeholder. For the first time in months the team delivered a completed feature at the end of the first sprint.

Gradually, the stakeholders came back to the table as we continued to deliver and a great relationship formed. We collaboratively worked off of a product backlog and gained a shared understanding of the project. The were still difficult moments, but the trust was back and features made their way to production.

What weren’t we doing? Estimating. Our ability to deliver and build trust with the stakeholders removed the need to provide estimates. They knew roughly how many features we could deliver in a sprint and the cost of the team was a simple run rate calculation.

We focused on working software and got great results.

“There is an alternative to estimating. Make your features small, as in something you can deliver in a day or so. If you finish something each day, people can see your work product. They trust you. They stop asking you for estimates.” — Johanna Rothman, “Predicting the Unpredictable

How can you move to this kind of collaboration? Predicting the Unpredictable: Pragmatic Approaches to Estimating Project Schedule or Cost by Johanna Rothman provides ideas and suggestions to improve your team’s processes and ability to deliver value back to your stakeholders.

Rothman challenges the reader to consider why they estimate. “If you estimate because you always have, think about it.”

Management will continue to ask “How much will this project cost?” and “How long will it take?”. It’s how you answer that can make the difference on your projects.

Do you know the “do’s and don’ts” of providing estimates to your management? If not, Chapter 5: “Think About Estimates” will help you out. Have a fixed date and scope and are unsure what to do? That’s covered in Chapter 6. How do you coach a manager who still needs to know “when and how much”? Chapter 9 has your answers.

These are just some of the topics that Rothman covers for those who must fill the need of providing an estimate. For others, she provides a means to focus on working software and a rationale for doing so.

“When creating software, I want to see working software as we create it, because with working software, we learn.”

This is a practical book about the work of creating software and providing estimates when needed. Her estimation troubleshooting guide highlights many of the hidden issues with estimating such as: multitasking, student syndrome, using the wrong units to estimate, and trying to estimates things that are too big.

Overall, this is an immensely practical book that belongs on the shelf of anyone working on an agile team. The practical suggestions on how to handle providing estimates is worth the prices of the book, making the coverage of advanced topics like #NoEstimates a welcome bonus. Highly recommended!

Click here to purchase “Predicting the Unpredictable: Pragmatic Approaches to Estimating Project Schedule or Cost” on

Ready Aim Fire – A Practical Guide to Setting And Achieving Goals (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014)

Ready Aim Fire is the first in a series of productivity books from Eric Fisher and Jim Woods. In this volume, we learn about priorities and goal setting. At first glance this books like it is for those who are looking to organize their lives. Or even for people looking to put some discipline around their thinking. However, after digging a bit deeper, this book is well suited for scrum teams that need to focus on their products and how to bring them to market.

Fisher and Woods put an emphasis on knowing what you want to do and how you plan on getting there. They use probing questions like: “What is the smallest piece you can finish and feel good about? and “What is the minimum daily requirement needed for your project to move forward?” to help team break down big tasks in to smaller ones.

The attention to prioritization would make most scrum product owners proud:

Often there is a disconnect between what you think your priorities are and what you spend your time doing. You can name God and family as priorities, but if you spend all of your time watching TV, what are your real priorities?

Scrum teams will find a lot to like in this books as it is a step by step guide on aligning goals to priorities. Continually reflecting on your progress is encouraged, as is breaking down your goals in to achievable tasks. A key step in defining your priorities is asking others for their perception of what your priorities are. There’s a lot for agile teams in this book to agree with.

The approach that Fisher and Woods recommend is very similar to a scrum sprint. The scrum team comes together and sets a sprint goal, which is aligned to product goals. From there a product backlog is refined and stories are selected for the sprint. After the sprint ends, the team evaluates the results, reflects on the process, and begins again.

While Fisher and Woods likely set out to create a guide for individuals looking to be more productive, they have also provided an excellent guide for scrum teams to use to better understand how to set goals that align to the priorities of the product they are building.

“Ready Aim Fire – A Practical Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals” is highly recommended.

Click here to purchase “Ready Aim Fire – A Practical Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals” on

Scrum – A Pocket Guide (Zaltbommel: Van Haren Publishing, 2013)

This is the best book to read after you have spent some time with the scrum guide. Gunther Verheyen skillfully navigates the reader through the “why” of agile and the scrum framework in under 100 pages! His clear and insightful thoughts on scrum will give rookies and veterans alike plenty of material to mine and reflect on.

Here’s one of my favorite passages in the book:

Agile makes it explicit that success and progress in software development can only be determined by frequently inspecting working software and the actual value it holds for the people who will have to use it.

Verheyen’s passion for scrum permeates the book and is truly inspirational. He takes the scrum roles, artifacts, and events to a deeper level by providing an explanation of “why” the rules work and “how” the rules bind the roles, artifacts, and events together.

If self-organization and self-management leave you puzzled, you will find great value in this read. Verheyen tackles these topics in detail, and also devotes some pages to seldom discussed topics like the scrum values and the sprint goal.

The focus on “why” and “how” makes this book and excellent study guide for anyone seeking a certification from It has been listed a reference for each track and provides much of the knowledge needed to prepare for the assessments.

Verheyen has penned the defacto companion to the scrum guide. Anyone pursuing a career using agile and scrum should have this guide on their shelf, but always within reach. Highly recommended!

Click here to purchase “Scrum – A Pocket Guide” on

The Power of Scrum

The Power of Scrum (North Charleston: CreateSpace, 2011)

This is one of the more practical scrum books on the market. Jeff Sutherland (co-creator of scrum) has crafted a fable that puts the focus where it needs to be: on the individuals and interactions that make scrum work.

The story picks up right after CTO Mark Resting promises his largest client that after multiple delays in delivering their software product they will be done in just 3 more month. Immediately following the meeting, panic sets in for Mark.

How in the world can I guarantee release in three month? I asked myself. I’d just promised that, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how.

It’s a situation that many of us have been in. Often, these promises lead to failed projects, “death marches”, and many other uncomfortable scenarios. In the case of Mark Resting, a chance meeting with a scrum coach sets him and his team down the path of agility.

Where the book really shines is how Sutherland does not hold back on how hard the game of scrum is to bring in to a company. Fear of change is addressed as is the necessity of changing the culture of a company from the top down to truly have a chance at success with scrum.

This is an excellent book for those thinking about adopting scrum. There’s even some great content for experienced coaches looking to refresh their perspective. Best of all, this is a quick read (128 pages) with a ton of value. Highly recommended!

Click here to purchase “The Power of Scrum” on