An Introduction to Story Points and How Using Them Can Improve Everything

Mallory Merrill

Agile Methodologies

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What? Using story points can help me improve everything?! It sounds too good to be true, but, yes; this one simple Agile development practice can do a lot for your process.

Get introduced to story points and discover how using this one technique can help you do better across the board. 

Here's a juicy carrot... Properly using story points can improve the flow, productivity, relationships, expectations, and deliverables within your business.

Here’s how you can make story points work for you…

But first, what, exactly, is a story point?

The term “story points” is used a lot in agile estimation, but what is it? What do they mean, and how do story points simplify everything from project estimation to relationships with stakeholders?

I’ll tell you… In a nutshell, a story point is a unit of measurement used to define the scope of a user story. It refers to the effort required to fully develop a user story from concept to completion.

Boom! That’s a story point. But here’s a little more depth…

Effort is most often the term used to describe what story points attempt to capture. However, it’s also helpful to visualize a story point as a tool for sizing. In other words, a story point defines the effort required to achieve completion, but it also helps you proportionately size tasks based on each task’s “bigness.”

Uh… Bigness?

Here’s the most important thing to know about bigness when assigning story points:

the concept of a story’s “bigness” should remain the same despite differences in developers’ working speeds

Because development speed is subjective, story points provide a way to discuss proportional “bigness,” which should mean the same thing to each developer despite the inevitability that one developer’s speed will be different from another’s. This ensures each developer can comprehend the scope of a task, within their own parameters, while still using the same value point.

Aha! So—using story points allows you to:

  • size work proportionally

  • align your team’s understanding of a user story with one common value

and that one common value:

  • defines the “bigness” of a task, and

  • conveys a precise measurement of effort to each unique developer relative to his individual speed

Whoa, right?!

So now that you really want to use story points, here’s how to assign them to your user stories…

The most effective way of assigning story points is through a quick “game” of planning poker using a special card deck designed specifically for estimating story points.

Wait… You mean, I can use a fun game of poker to improve my agile process?

Yes! Yes, you can use fun things to make work work better. Here’s how…

In brief, planning poker asks each involved developer to estimate a user story, and gives each developer a chance to defend his estimation. The game-like aspect of the process puts a fun spin on a stressful element of planning while also being inclusive and, most importantly, terrifically accurate.

With planning poker, the drama of estimation shifts into something less heavy, more enjoyable, AND more effective. How? Because planning poker makes assigning estimates less about guess-work and more about actual experience.

In the short term, planning poker enables you to establish the most accurate estimates now,  and, in the long term, it gives you a means to establish velocity, the most viable metric for future estimation.

So— planning poker is integral to assigning story points to a user story because it ensures the assigned value:

  • has the same meaning for everyone involved

  • can be assigned consistently, and

  • can be used to predict future bigness

Using story points also strengthens your relationship with stakeholders!

Just like story points align your team, the system also improves your ability to communicate with your stakeholders (which is key). Story points provide a baseline for creating stronger estimates, and, in doing, they also help you control the expectations your stakeholders form for any given task.

So— using this agile development process gives you the ability

  • to communicate with your stakeholders more effectively and more transparently

  • to consistently deliver fully developed and tested users stories

  • and to more accurately measure and meet future goals

See! Proof! But, I’ll say it another way.

Here’s how story points really can improve everything…

When using story points, your team has an aligned understanding of scope, they can create accurate and attainable estimations, and they can do so repeatedly forever-and-ever even as their working velocity changes.

This means, that you can offer stakeholders a more satisfying relationship supported by more confident estimations, complete deliverables, and met expectations.

And that means that you are happier and more successful in your work, that the full loop of your team (from C.E.O. to stakeholders) respects you for a job well done, and that all those good vibes follow you home ensuring your personal life reflects the blissful and enriching environment you’ve created at work.

Which can only mean… that EVERYTHING is better when you use story points.

They’ll probably even help you get a new car.

In my estimation, then, (hehe…get it?) story points are not only a worthwhile tool, but they will also help you achieve healthy business growth and healthy relationships between you and your stakeholders, developers, and so many others. That’s invaluable, right?

Tell me what you think in the comments section below…

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