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Using Estimates: Story Points or Hours?
Using Estimates: Story Points or Hours?
Toshi Dávila avatar
Written by Toshi Dávila
Updated over a week ago

Most project managers can agree that task estimates are important for many reasons. In order to properly organize a backlog, it is critical that project managers have access to an accurate estimation of task workloads in order to assign priorities and responsibility for each task.

So which is it? Story points or hours?

The traditional method of estimating task workload is to do so in terms of how much time the work is expected to require. In contrast, story points rate the work on a relative scale using the numbers 0, 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, and 100. In many ways, this can be more effective and less restrictive than using hours to estimate workloads. For example, by using story points, teams can avoid assigning arbitrary due dates which create added stress when other daily work such as emails and meetings make it difficult to stick to a stated timeline.

One method that teams just starting out with story points uses is called “planning poker”. To use this method, the team discusses each task in the backlog individually. For each task, every member of the team will write down the number of points that they believe the task should be estimated at. The entire team holds their cards up at once and, if every member has made the same estimate, then they’re done! If they didn’t, then another brief, high-level discussion will take place around which estimate would be most appropriate.  

I want to shift to story point estimates. How do I start?

For starters, keep in mind that each task is meant to be a bite-sized piece of a much larger story. So, each task should not represent more than 16 or so hours of work. When using story points, that same logic applies so your team should decide on an upper limit to tasks. For example, maybe your team decided that 20 points is the most that any one task can be worth. 

Additionally, for items farther back in your backlog, there is no reason to spend a significant amount of time setting an estimate because it is likely that the scope of these tasks will change as time passes and they move closer to the top of the backlog. For that reason, it’s recommended that these tasks receive a rough estimate and then be set aside to make more time for more pressing tasks.

Finally, as with any workflow, it is important to look back and determine the efficacy of your estimation methods. Were your estimates accurate enough? Did you waste too much time coming to those accurate estimates? This process can be aided by examining multiple tasks with the same story point value and then discussing whether these tasks all required the same level of effort and resources. If that is not the case, then it is important to ask your team why and then implement these new insights into future estimations.

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