Project Management

Your cloudy crystal ball

The brilliance of agile is that it honors that you don’t know what you don’t know about the future, but that you can reasonably accurately estimate the next sprint if you try.

By Jim Grey (about)

Your crystal ball is cloudy, but you can sort of predict the future. As long as the future isn’t too far away.

In other words, if you take it in small chunks you usually know enough about the work before you to guess reasonably accurately how long it is going to take.

Mr. Blue Sky

Back in the old waterfall days, we’d plan months and months of work at a time. The printed project schedules could be 100 feet long. The trouble was, work more than a small number of days away often depended on work that had not yet happened. We needed to know how that work turned out before we could be sure of the work that would follow, and have a good idea how long it would take.

From a straight-up project-management perspective, this is why agile is brilliant. It lets us break big projects down into small chunks of usually two weeks in duration, where ideally we have to give our best estimates only for this short period. This respects that we don’t know what we don’t know about the work that follows.

You might still need to estimate how long an entire feature will take to build. Some companies need some idea when the feature will deliver. But it has to be a projection, not a promise, because your crystal ball is too cloudy.

The current sprint’s estimate matters most. When you plan a sprint, fill it with just the work you are confident you can finish. You want to deliver all of the work in the sprint, barring unforeseen technical complexities, critical customer-reported bugs, team-member illness, or late reviews.

Then check your gut: do you think your team can really deliver all of those stories? If not, please say so, and discuss why. When you leave sprint planning, everyone on the team needs to agree, based on what you know then, that this body of work seems doable in two weeks.

By Jim Grey

Writer. Photographer. Leader of geeks.

3 replies on “Your cloudy crystal ball”

Great description of the agile process, Jim — the best I’ve read yet, in fact. I was resistant to it when my employer first introduced it because of the silly-sounding names (“scrum master”). But you’re right that it’s brilliant in breaking projects down into bite-size chunks. It’s way less overwhelming to aim for an immediate or short-term goal than to have the “must complete entire thing” deadline looming off in the distance.


Exactly! It’s just a fad at many companies, something to adopt because they think it makes them sound “hip.” But if applied correctly, it can make big projects feel a lot less overwhelming. I’m still not a fan of the silly terminology, though.

Liked by 1 person

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