When it comes to project management, story points are one of the most important new features that are taking over the space. Story points are a tool used to measure how much effort must be invested in a task or project rather than how long it takes to complete it. They are an important part of user story mapping, which is where the story points are allocated. This may sound confusing if you have no experience with it, so I’ve created a blog post to ensure you understand everything about estimating story points.
In this blog post, I’ll explain what story points are, the benefits of using them, how they’re used in agile project management, and how to carry out story point estimation efficiently. Stay tuned!
A story point is a value allocated to a user story and is a conceptual measure of the effort required to complete a task in your product backlog (which is a list of projects, tasks, and other things to do, part of a larger roadmap). User stories are tasks, and this story point estimation determines how difficult the task is. “Effort” is a huge umbrella term, and many things come under it. The complexity of the task, the risk involved, and the unpredictability of things have an impact on the development of deliverables.
Every associated aspect of the deliverable is considered before you assign story points, from emails to calls discussing the projects, potential focus on other high-priority tasks, and so on. Story point values are also taken into account for the team effort of a task, which therefore interconnects the user stories to understand which comes first and how difficult it is to complete. To assign a story point value to a task, teams must meet and discuss everything that could affect its delivery and find a middle ground.
I’ll get into the details of how this can be carried out below, but first I’ll dive into how story points differ from time-tracking, which is the most common method of understanding how long a task takes to be completed.
The business or product owner may take 2 hours for the same task, depending on their expertise, while junior team members may take 8-9 hours or longer. This also depends on the other tasks each respective member of the team handles. Choosing either 2 or 9 hours as the defined time for the task is inaccurate and does not leave room for other priorities or hindrances that may affect the deliverables.
Story points help team members address their diverse opinions until both experts and learners arrive at a middle ground. This will have a better expectation on the team, and also leave no room for potential unhealthy judgments on a team member that can produce quality work if given reasonable time to deliver the task. This team-based approach is so helpful for the organization and results in not only coordinated and timely quality deliverables at a sustainable pace but also creates a more positive environment for the workforce.
Story points ensure that the development team (any team delivering the project, not just software developers) takes into account the task’s effort in terms of understanding the project, research, communication, unexpected bottlenecks, and more. Story points are relative values, which means they are subject to change, making them more adaptable to real-life situations than a fixed plan, which will only result in a disorganized workflow. Instead, a flexible approach that considers all circumstances makes a huge difference in setting practical goals and achieving them on time too.
Story points also help you understand the velocity of your team. For example, if your team can usually get through 3 story points per day, this might add up to 30 story points across a two-week sprint. This is your team’s velocity and indicates the team completed 30 story points in their sprint of two weeks, making that their default amount of points per sprint.
Now that you have a clearer idea of why story points are a more accurate option to streamline your workflow than time-tracking, we’ll dive a little deeper into exactly what framework story points follow.
The Agile framework, or project management methodology, is a way to break down complex tasks into more manageable, bite-sized tasks. The Scrum workflow, on the other hand, is the most popular agile project management method, following the same principles and values and managing the broken-down tasks with cross-functional teams. Scrum uses “sprints” to plan, deliver, and evaluate their tasks to work more efficiently and reduce waste – in terms of time, resources, and whatnot.
Agile teams focus more on the people involved, like customers and stakeholders than just processes and tools, utilizing efficient software over following textual instructions, collaborating with customers over simply having a business transaction bound by contracts, and allowing change rather than being fixated on a plan.
What does all this information mean for story points? Story points can be and are mostly used as part of the agile and scrum methods, and therefore a complex task, or rather a user story, is broken down into multiple stories. The difficulty of the broken down user stories determines how many story points are allocated to them. Scrum teams host a sprint planning meeting, which is the same as the poker meetings used for story points, where members discuss and understand the relative effort of their bite-sized tasks to produce a quality deliverable. Many agile teams take these factors into account, so introducing story points to them is easier, given how they have a relative estimation of their work and which factors affect it – which is exactly what story points focus on!
Three factors affect story point estimates, and I have explored them below. These are crucial aspects you must consider if you plan to implement story points into your organization’s project management scope.
The higher the workload, the higher the effort, and consequently, the higher the story point estimations. Imagine you need to run a social media campaign, and your first post is an image combining all your infographic-style images, while the second is just one infographic- both created through templates. The former is the obvious challenge, and while it won’t take 100 extra story points, it will be assigned more story points than the latter. No risk or uncertainty affects this task since the first task is simply doing more of the second task and putting it together, yet the story point of the first task will be higher.
Imagine a customer is looking to rebrand their business, yet they don’t know the new name of their brand or the target audience they want to pursue. These vague demands make room for uncertainty and are taken into account for the story point estimate. Or imagine a team member has to develop a piece of software that they have not worked with before, insinuating a potential risk. This risk is also considered when estimating the story points for that task.
Last but not least, just how challenging and intricate is the task? Going back to our first example of social media images, assume the second image is no longer templated-based and requires replicating an intricate vector, has a gradient background with different elements placed in specific areas, and text displayed in a variety of fonts and colors. In comparison, putting together a collage of templated infographics is hardly difficult. This increases the number of story points allocated to the second task.
The most important thing you need to know when you try to understand story points is that everything in story point land is not awfully abstract where you can imagine and assign a number. The numbers need to be compared against a scale that gives each respective value a sense of hierarchy over its predecessor. It is important to note that the value and meaning behind the story differ from organization to organization.
Below, I’ve mentioned the four most common methods of assigning values, with the Fibonacci Sequence being the most popular method of agile estimation.
This is a series of numbers where each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. For agile estimating, teams usually change the Fibonacci sequence to 0, 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, and 100 for ease of use. A task with one story point takes more effort than the two tasks prior but takes less effort than tasks with higher story points. Tasks that go up to 100 should typically be broken down into further bite-sized tasks, going through the sequence again.
As the name suggests, this sequence breaks down tasks into more manageable sizing based on t-shirt sizes: XS, S, M, L, XL, and XXL.
The classic 1,2,3,4,5, etc.
Doubling each digit in succession yields: 1,2,4,8,16
Here are 6 steps on how to use story points to improve your project management and the overall quality of your organization’s workflow.
A strong understanding of story points is crucial to success. To ease your team into the process, walk them through the basics and benefits of story points. In particular, make sure they understand that the story point numbers need to scale relative to each other.
Tip: Remember, ratios matter with story points, not the actual numbers. In other words, a task assigned a story point of two should take twice as much effort as a task assigned a story point of one. A task assigned a story point of three should take one and a half the amount of effort as a task assigned a story point of two. You see where we’re going with this.
Next, determine your story point sequence. This will become the scoring method your team will use to assign story points in your estimation meeting (more on that later). Sequences are helpful because they force your team to focus on the relative size of the numbers, which makes estimating complex tasks easier.
So, what story point sequence should you use? You can choose from the four options mentioned above, or you can choose any different method, whether it includes a numerical value, alphabetical letters, or other denoting techniques, whatever works for your organization.
A story point matrix is an elaborated model of your story point sequence. It serves as a baseline for your estimation meeting and gives your team a clearer idea of how to score each task. If story points are new to you, using your prior experience and understanding of workloads, common risks and unexpected concerns that arise, and the complexity of tasks are things you must take into consideration for your sequence. The longer you run “sprints” as we mentioned above, the better you will learn to estimate sprint velocity. Consequently, your story point matrix will change, and you will be able to establish a sequence for maximum efficiency, generating superior results.
Once you have chosen your story point sequence and established your story point matrix, it’s time to get to focus on the star of the show: estimating your story points with planning poker meetings. The goal of planning poker is to give user stories their respective story points, ensure your team is on the same wavelength, and understand how many tasks your team can tick off for the sprint in line. Everybody on the team gets a say on this in a planning poker meeting, so everyone has an overview of how the tasks will play out and which tasks are easier, or harder, etc. With the whole team involved in estimating the story points, your team will be void of unnecessary biases while taking into account diverse opinions.
With time the sprint velocity (how many story points you can complete per sprint) of the team for these tasks will be lower than the first sprint, and the amount of wastage will reduce, delivery speed will increase and the team will have a more efficient and satisfying experience. The best time to hold a poker meeting is once the team has prioritized the backlog but before the sprint starts.
If it’s your first time using story points, you won’t know the sprint velocity until the first sprint is over. There is nothing wrong with that. In your sprint planning meeting, you have to use your best estimation of how many story points to include in your sprint based on how complex the tasks are and the values of the story points. The first sprint might have many story points with low numbers, very few with high numbers, or a combination of both. Over time, after multiple sprints and team feedback, you will be able to understand which method of allocating story points works best for your team.
After you have successfully run your first sprint using story points, it’s time to focus on the primary concept of the Agile methodology, which is continuous improvement. To do this, you must take into account your team’s feedback on the agile projects and evaluate which aspects require improvement. You can discuss this in your sprint retrospective, the phase after the sprint is completed, or conduct a separate discussion meeting for this.
The meeting must address concerns like whether the story points were assigned correctly to their corresponding tasks, what uncertainties and bottlenecks the team faced, and which goals were difficult to achieve. These responses can be taken into consideration for the next sprint, and major changes can be reflected in the story point sequence or matrix too.
There are many project management tools on the market, and tools that support story points are a notch higher in my eyes. I’m discussing Nifty, the project management tool I currently use at my marketing agency. You can check out my detailed review of Nifty in the article here.
The story point section on Nifty is evident in the task section and is compiled by project milestones to have a complete overview of the sprint progress. The number of story points can be set and allocated by the product owners or admins in Nifty based on the settings. The story points and their values do not have to be standard and can differ according to the team, so one story point could be a day’s worth of effort for one team while being 3 days for another.
Nifty allows you to have a bird’s eye view of your story points and sprint status in both the workloads and milestones sections, combining all the related tasks and their progress levels. Many other project management tools use story points, especially popular platforms such as Trello and Monday.com.
Story points are abstract measures of how much effort a task requires and are used to create a sustainable workflow for an organization. It harps on the agile-scrum framework, breaking down tasks into manageable smaller tasks and ensuring that each stage is reviewed to make the process smoother for the next time. It is not a hard concept but may take some time to settle in, but after the first session kicks in, you will slowly get a hold of how to implement story points efficiently.
So what are you waiting for? Start using story points to deliver quality results with reasonable deadlines and smarter planning!
Story points are a great way to measure how much effort your tasks require, but they also help create sustainable workflows for organizations. Story Pointing requires breaking down all the smaller pieces into manageable stages until it becomes easy enough so that you can review each step in order to make sure everything goes smoothly next time around!