The Agile Paradox: Estimation, Commitment, and Sustainable Pace

Calm rolling hills with windmills illustrating sustainable pace for a Scrum and agile team.
<p>Rolling hills with windmills illustrating sustainable pace for a Scrum and agile team.</p>
Mitch Lacey | Feb 20, 2024

Agile and Scrum have transformed project management in the tech industry and beyond. With their emphasis on collaboration, iterative development, and adaptability, these approaches have revolutionized how teams work together to deliver high-quality products.

For agile practitioners, from Scrum team members to senior leadership, understanding the difference between estimating and committing is pivotal.

Let’s explore not just the conceptual differences of the two, but how forecasting work versus committing to work blindly can influence the dynamics of a Scrum and agile team.

The Difference Between Estimating and Committing

Imagine you are planning a road trip. Estimation would be like using past trips and current road conditions to predict how long the journey might take. Commitment, on the other hand, is like promising to arrive at a specific time without accounting for potential delays or unforeseen circumstances. In Scrum and agile teams, this distinction is crucial.

In simple terms, estimation is making an educated guess based on past performance and current constraints, while commitment is the act of promising to deliver a specific amount of work by the end of a Sprint. Estimation involves collaboration and use of data, whereas commitment is more about accountability.

Estimation: An Educated Guess The Importance of Accurate Estimation

Estimation in agile is about making informed guesses based on past performance, current team velocity, and known constraints. Good estimates are critical for Scrum and agile teams to plan their workload effectively. They provide a range or probability rather than a fixed deadline, take into account uncertainties, and are based on empirical data. It’s a collaborative process involving the whole team, leveraging their collective experience and knowledge to forecast the amount of work that can be accomplished in a Sprint.

Good estimates:

  • Provide a range or a probability.
  • Are based on empirical data (e.g., historical team velocity).
  • Account for uncertainties and discuss them openly.

Commitment: A Promise to Deliver

Commitment is the act of promising to deliver a set amount of work by the end of a Sprint. It’s a statement of intention and accountability. While commitment is crucial to agile success, it must be approached with caution, as you don’t want to be blind in your commitment.

Blind commitment occurs when teams promise to deliver work without taking realistic estimates into consideration. This can lead to a cycle of over-commitment and under-delivery, which ultimately affects team morale and productivity.

A blind commitment, without regard to realistic estimation, can lead to:

  • Overwork or burnout.
  • Compromised quality.
  • Missed deadlines.

The Agile Paradox

The paradox arises when teams feel pressured to commit to work based on aggressive estimates or external expectations rather than empirical evidence and reasonable forecasts. This situation can lead to a cycle of over-commitment and under-delivery, which is detrimental to morale and productivity.

Achieving Sustainable Pace Through Accurate Forecasting

To avoid these pitfalls, Scrum and Scrum and agile teams must focus on forecasting work accurately. As mentioned earlier in this article, we must consider both the team’s velocity (how much work they can complete in a Sprint) and the type of work the product backlog items represent. A friend of mine, Mike Cohn, once said to me how he compares estimation to gambling while committing is like placing a bet.

Example from a Past Project

Back in 2005, I was coaching a team at Microsoft. This team had all the typical Scrum team issues: missing their Sprint objectives and slipping work, working overtime and getting burned out, and just being overly frustrated. My colleague Dave Paisley and I analyzed their estimation practices and introduced some changes, driving them to adopt a more sustainable pace by:

  • Revisiting Estimation Practices: They began using poker planning to ensure that all team members’ perspectives on the effort required were considered.
  • Setting Realistic Commitments: Instead of aiming to please stakeholders with ambitious commitments, they focused on what was realistically achievable within a Sprint, considering past velocity and current capacity.
  • Emphasizing Sustainable Pace: The team recognized the importance of maintaining a sustainable work pace over increasing Sprint velocity at the cost of quality and team well-being.

This shift not only improved their Sprint completion rate but also the team’s overall morale and the quality of work produced.

Striking a Balance

So how can teams find the right balance between estimation and commitment? Here are a few strategies to consider:

  • Use Data From Past Sprints: Use your team’s velocity and past Sprint data to make informed estimates.
  • Embrace Flexibility: Understand that both estimates and commitments may need adjustments as work progresses, but use estimates as a way to learn and improve in the future.
  • Focus on Communication: Clearly communicate all expectations and ensure they understood by all stakeholders.

By implementing these strategies and understanding the nuances of estimation and commitment, Scrum and Scrum and agile teams can maintain a sustainable pace while still delivering high-quality work. In the end, it’s not just about meeting deadlines; it’s about fostering an environment where quality, collaboration, and well-being are top priorities.


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