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An In-Depth Guide To Backlog Grooming: How You Can Get To Inbox Zero

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An In-Depth Guide To Backlog Grooming: How You Can Get To Inbox Zero
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Backlog Grooming is one of the most essential features of Agile development. Done poorly, it can be time-consuming and tedious for developers, testers, DBAs or any other IT professionals involved in software development projects. Done well, it’s a critical part of sustainable software engineering practices that vastly improves your team’s ability to estimate work accurately.

Estimating an application is hard. While there are some pretty good statistics out there on the average internal project cost overruns (anywhere from 25-50% for software), these estimates tend to not separate fixed costs from variable costs. That leaves me with the impression that they’re not terribly helpful in terms of guiding managers who are responsible for providing their teams with accurate budgets both on time and within budget.

The “estimating is hard” angle isn’t much of a problem. Estimating is almost always going to be harder than it looks no matter what the task at hand happens to be, and software estimation is especially hard for many reasons.

However, today I’m more interested in how estimates help us not just with budgeting, but also absolutely critical up-front planning activities like release planning and sprint zero . The agile doctrine that “estimates are just plans”, which for some reason often comes as an insult to managers who still think you should plan your project before committing to doing anything , can be mercilessly turned on its head: “plans are just estimates”. And while we might not want to put too fine a point on it by making such a statement in front of managers, in truth that’s pretty much all that plans are.

But this raises a question: if our estimates in kanban and agile are just plans, how do we turn them into good plans? What makes for real difference between an “ok” plan and a great one?

Estimates are different from project schedules

What really makes the difference between good and bad planning is clearly not the time dimension. The only difference between an estimate for when something will be delivered (which can range from zero to infinity) and the schedule of when the project will be finished (ditto), is one order of magnitude less than infinity minus zero. This means that most things planners try to do with timing information is mostly pointless at best, unless they are used at the tactical level, like deciding on which features to launch first.

The same thing is true for other project parameters like effort or cost; they can be estimated in advance at some point, but much more useful is their evolution over the course of the project. And that’s where measuring comes in . Estimating and measuring aren’t synonymous (and neither are scheduling and estimating) but they go almost hand-in-hand (and one accompanies the other).

Estimates are what goes into a plan

The main goal of an estimate is to produce something that goes into a plan so it makes sense to talk about estimates as if they were interchangeable with plans. But there’s both confusion around estimates and poor understanding of how they work.

Estimating gets off on the wrong foot because we tend to think of it as a process that starts and ends with the experts. So we ask them: “how long will this take you?” The experts pull out their crystal ball, make some calculations and give us an answer. No challenge there; after all, they’re experts in the area. But to project managers who aren’t experts (and who should be asking such questions?), estimates sound like promises: if these people say it’ll take three days then, by God, it’ll take three days . This is where trouble starts.

The implicit assumption behind estimates is that we can predict time – or rather we can estimate times for certain tasks (or collections of tasks) and add them up, and we’ll end up with a total that’s close to the actual time it will take. We can then tell management: “it’ll take about five weeks,” and they’d better not ask for more (and certainly not for less). This is where trouble starts.

It’s worth noting at this point that many project managers don’t think of their estimates as promises – quite the opposite in fact: if I say something will take three days, you should expect it to take five or six because things always take longer than you think! But few non-project managers share such insights; instead, they just treat an estimate as a promise . And we all know what happens when we break promises,? The PM moves closer to becoming a former PM.

This is where the softer aspects of project management come in – communication, understanding risks, diplomacy… But it’s not enough. There are key milestones that must be hit to keep the clients at bay. Things like requirements freeze , design freeze , beta delivery etc., or else promises get broken and promises get reneged on. The client expects you to run over time and over budget but they don’t expect you to skip milestones .

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Williard John is the Editorial Director at The Daily Strength Inc. Prior to joining The Daily Strength, Williard had a hand in a number of online and print publications, including InternetNews.com as chief copy editor and Government Technology Magazine as managing editor. He also did a stint in Sydney as group editor of RBI Australia's manufacturing group, which is when he also developed an affinity (a love, really) for cricket

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