There are many levels of estimation including budgeting, high-level estimation and task planning (detailed estimation). We can link a more classic view of estimation to the Agile planning onion popularized by Mike Cohn. In the Agile planning onion, strategic planning is on the outside of the onion and the planning that occurs in the daily sprint meetings at the core of the onion. Each layer closer to the core relates more to the day-to-day activity of a team. The #NoEstimates movement eschew developing story- or task-level estimates and sometimes at higher levels of estimation. As you get closer to the core of the planning onion the case for the #NoEstimates becomes more compelling.
Budgeting is a strategic form of estimation that most corporate and governmental entities perform. Budgeting relates to the strategy and portfolio layers of the planning onion. #NoEstimates techniques doesn’t answer the central questions most organizations need to answer at this level which include:
1. How much money should I allocate for software development, enhancements and maintenance?
2. Which projects or products should we fund?
3. Which projects will return the greatest amount of value?
Budgets are often educated guesses that provide some approximation of the size and cost of the work on the overall backlog. Budgeting provides the basis to allocate resources in environments where demand outstrips capacity. Other than in the most extreme form of #NoEstimate, which eschews all estimates, budgeting is almost always performed.
High-level estimation, performed in the product and release layers of the planning onion, is generally used to forecast when functionality will be available. Release plans and product road maps are types of forecasts that are used to convey when products and functions will be available. These types of estimates can easily be built if teams have a track record of delivering value on a regular basis. #NoEstimates can be applied at this level of planning and estimation by substituting the predictable completion of work items for developing effort estimates. #NoEstimates at this level of planning can be used only IF conditions that facilitate predictable delivery flow are met. Conditions include:
- Stable teams
- Adoption of an Agile mindset (at both the team and organizational levels)
- A backlog of well-groomed stories
Organizations that meet these criteria can answer the classic project/release questions of when, what and how much based on the predictable delivery rates of #NoEstimate teams (assuming some level of maturity – newly formed teams are never predictable). High level estimate is closer to the day-to-day operations of the team and connect budgeting to the lowest level of planning in the planning onion.
In the standard corporate environment, task-level estimation (typically performed at the iteration and daily planning layers of the onion) is an artifact of project management controls or partial adoptions of Agile concepts. Estimating tasks is often mandated in organizations that allocate individual teams to multiple projects at the same time. The effort estimates are used to enable the organization to allocate slices of time to projects. Stable Agile teams that are allowed to focus one project at a time and use #NoEstimate techniques have no reason to estimate effort at a task level due to their ability to consistently say what they will do and then deliver on their commitments. Ceasing task-level estimation and planning is the core change all proponents of #NoEstimates are suggesting.
A special estimation case that needs to be considered is that of commercial or contractual work. These arrangements are often represent lower trust relationships or projects that are perceived to be high risk. The legal contracts agreed upon by both parties often stipulate the answers to the what, when and how much question before the project starts. Due to the risk the contract creates both parties must do their best to predict/estimate the future before signing the agreement. Raja Bavani, Senior Director at Cognizant Technology Solutions suggested in a recent conversation, that he thought that, “#NoEstimates was a non-starter in a contractual environment due the financial risk both parties accept when signing a contract.”
Estimation is a form of planning, and planning is a considered an important competency in most business environments. Planning activities abound whether planning the corporate picnic to planning the acquisition and implementation of a new customer relationship management system. Most planning activities center on answering a few very basic questions. When with will “it” be done? How much will “it” cost? What is “it” that I will actually get? As an organization or team progresses through the planning onion, the need for effort and cost estimation lessens in most cases. #NoEstimation does not remove the need for all types of estimates. Most organizations will always need to estimate in order to budget. Organizations that have stable teams, adopted the Agile mindset and have a well-groomed backlog will be able to use predictable flow to forecast rather than effort and cost estimation. At a sprint or day-to-day level Agile teams that predictably deliver value can embrace the idea of #NoEstimate while answering the basic questions based what, when and how much based on performance.