How to estimate a backlog with hundreds of items?

Estimation meetings have always been time-consuming. To avoid useless discussions, Agilists are using Planning Poker game, which reduces technical conversations, and instead increases focus on what estimations are: “wild guesses”.

But using Planning Poker to estimate a backlog, filled with hundreds of items, will still take time. So, how can you estimate faster? Well… By pushing further, and by removing all useless discussions: formally during a Planning Poker game the PO has to present each item one by one, even if all team members will immediately agree on effort. Can we throw that away? Well… Yes, indeed…

A/ What do you need?

You will need three things before starting your estimation meeting:

  • Backlog items to be estimated are printed on cards,
  • An estimation scale (i.e. Fibonacci cards plus a “?”)is placed on a table,
  • Team members that are participating to the estimation session are physically in the room: sadly, this will not work with remote people.
  • Time frame: 90 minutes, not more. If you still don’t have enough time, feel free to organize another session: too long meetings are tedious and the quality of the estimates decreases.
Items cards
Items cards
Fibonacci cards
Fibonacci cards

B/ Meeting animation

The rules are simple:

  • Randomly and evenly distribute cards to each participant.
  • Silently, each team member places his items cards next to Fibonacci numbers, using its personal judgement about relative sizes.
  • If a participant has no clues about a specific item, she can “skip it” by placing the item near the “?” card.
  • At any time, non-estimated items (near “?”) can be taken by a participant who is confident enough to propose an estimate.
  • By the end of the session, non-estimated items will certainly need to be refined before being correctly estimated.
  • When all estimates are done, participants can look at the result. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable with an estimate, a conversation may start. Because we are talking about raw estimates, long conversations about moving an item to the immediate higher or lower value is not necessarily a waste of time, but it is probably not the good time to do it : remember you can also converse during design sessions, backlog grooming sessions and sprint planning sessions…
Lets play!
Lets play!

(Thanks to Patrick Le Go and Axelle Ziegler for their reviews and feedbacks)

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