I opened my second day of Agile Development Practices on a high note with Mike Cohn‘s “Agile estimating and planning” session. Mike is one of the best speakers and trainers in the whole agile movement – he conveys ideas in a very powerful way, yet despite his experience and knowledge he remains friendly, accessible and laid back. I think the biggest value in his sessions is always in his replies to questions from the audience and the chance to talk to him during breaks – or listen in on others doing that.

Even though we have been estimating and planning with the team for quite a time I still found going through it all in an organized fashion very refreshing. It did rejuvenate my idea of moving the team from ideal days to story points in estimating the product backlog. Also quite interesting was Mike’s point that people are better at relative than absolute estimating yet favor precision over accuracy. A few exercises were designed so that participants could see how their minds make implicit assumptions to arrive at a number which is in fact less accurate and more misleading than a range.

One of the examples: how long will it take to drive from Orlando, FL to Seattle, WA? No one could answer it with a number, but most tried to making certain assumptions about speed, conditions etc. An accurate answer would be a range – let’s say 7 days +5/-3 days – but people would strive to give a single number. Precise seemed better than accurate. This is important to remember – as Mike underlined good decision making has to be based on accurate information. If precision is not possible at a given time it is better if the decision maker knows that. Hiding uncertainty behind a seemingly precise number denies decision maker important information hence leading to wrong choices.

It’s another point to what I and others have been saying about fixed bids being wrong. The whole concept of a fixed bid is requiring a precise answer (an amount, a date) at the point in the project where the certainty is lowest and the risk is highest. Is it ok if a client is served an illusion of certainty when there is in fact lots of uncertainty? Wouldn’t it be better if he was honestly informed that it is indeed at that stage a range rather than a precise number?

Afternoon I spent on a session about retrospectives led by Esther Derby and Diana Larson.

I read their book on the plane from Europe but I put it down a bit disappointed. The whole approach seemed a bit artificial. I imagined it would feel awkward and stupid to use the activities and techniques described with my team. I have to say this workshop changed my mind on this – seeing it all in action made the book kind of spring to life. Now it will become a resource to bring some fresh air to our retrospectives. I hope the team will enjoy that.

The day concluded with a reception (I was amazed that some were still able to eat after all the food we are served all the day during breaks) – a chance to chat with the others. Always an interesting experience – and uplifting, since I see that as a team we are much more advanced in using agile than most participants of this conference. I’m looking forward to another day – the format now will be less interactive, I’m afraid, but I’ll go to the open space – maybe I’ll have a chance to share some of my insights about using agile in outsourcing.