The 5 Stages of User Story Sizing

I am often asked about team user story sizing or planning poker and why its use has been advocated in Agile or Scrum circles instead of a using other estimating techniques. While I’m sure there are many opinions out there, capturing story points with group estimating techniques are effective because they weave individual perspectives into group wisdom.

The actual estimate or story point produced does not really matter but the journey of moving the group to a state of shared understanding does. The story point becomes much more than just a number.

To make this possible, there are 5 stages a team should go through during a group story sizing exercise:

Individual Perspective. Because Agile teams are cross-functional and spanning many areas of expertise, there is an opportunity to listen and embrace the unique knowledge contained within each team member as it applies to a user story. Individual perspective is usually shared during the during the first round of planning poker. All voices must be heard. Speaking up is required at this stage.

Individual Understanding. Members on the team receive understanding from each of the individual perspectives and begin to establish their own context for the user story. Each team member begins to frame the problem set by merging their perspective with those from the rest of the team. Listening is required at this stage.

Relativity. With the context for the user story established, the team can now use relativity to determine the complexity encapsulated in the user story. Relativity can be determined through sharing:

  • Group experience – “We’ve done this before and we can do it again.”
  • Similar experience – “We’ve done something like this before and we can use what we learned then.”
  • Unique experience – “We’ve never done this but we have the skills in place to figure it out.”
  • Individual experience – “I’ve done this before and I can show others how.”
  • No experience – “This has never been done before.”

Options begin to emerge about what is possible through the discussion around relativity. Inquisitiveness is required at this stage.

Group Alignment. With relativity established, the team begins to choose a story point along a Fibonacci scale (0, 1/2, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, 100). There should be a natural gravitational pull to a specific story point. The team either unanimously aligns around a number (through many rounds of planning poker if necessary) or drops the story from consideration. The process of alignment will include negotiating around individual understanding and relative complexity. People should not be forced into a number but people should also not be stubborn. Empathy is required at this stage.

Group Wisdom. As the team finishes the planning or sizing session, they leave with a shared understanding of what is expected to complete a user story. The wisdom of the group has been elevated as they begin to build the inventory of group experiences for future story sizing exercises. A consolidated team emerges at this stage.

Eventually, the team will get to a place where more stories start falling in the “We’ve done this before” category. User story sizing becomes easier and is a much more efficient activity as group wisdom and group experience expands.


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8 thoughts on “The 5 Stages of User Story Sizing

  1. Great post and reminders Len. Thanks. Just a comment on the “Similar Experience” point. We have found it very effective to relative compare stories not just with historical experience, but even more importantly with a current baseline story.

    We use the first story sized in the session as the ruler to measure all the other stories to be graded. By asking the team to consider the sizing question “Is Story #2, Bigger, Smaller, or about the same amount of work as Story #1?”, we have become more efficient and accurate with our estimates, relatively :-).

    Full Disclosure: I work at the same company with Len Lagestee.

  2. Great points!!! I think too often people are looking for “the estimate” and a solid planning and forgetting about the experience, team building that will lead to better performance, quality and outcomes.