Story points – handling unknowns

I’m a big fan of usingstorypoints to estimate effort on software development projects. It is a good way of keeping things simple and it ensures that teams can be efficient and quick about their estimation tasks.

One question that often comes up is how a team ought to handle stories (or epics) that they just don’t know enough about at a given moment. My answer depended on the kind of scale the team was using – if they were using T-Shirt sizing, then the scale ought to have an Unknown Size (translating to a scale of say – XS, S, M, L, and UNKNOWN).

If they’re using a numbered scale, then I suggest a twist on the UNKNOWN level. I’ve recently switched to using a geometric scale (as opposed to a Fibonacci scale) – and to that I’ve added an UNKNOWN level of 1,000,000 points. So now, my scale is – 10, 20, 40, 80, 1000000.

What this does is it radiates a little bit more information about the total estimate for the project. Lets say you have 200 stories, of which 10 are unknown. Lets also say that the rest 190 stories add up to 8450 points. Now, the total (because of the new level for the unknown items) becomes 10,008,450 points. It is still clear that we have about 8450 points of estimated work, but it also makes clear that we have 10 items that are unknowns.

If the unknown level was only twice or thrice or even ten times the size of a Large story, then the total for the project obfuscates how many items are unknown – and gives an impression that is not quite accurate. This large one-million-point level for unknown stories fixes that. And it also effectively broadcasts the idea that a subset of stories just don’t have the same level of detail and clarity as the rest.

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