Bucketing stories for quick estimation

So, you’ve been running a few sprints, you have a velocity and a backlog. The trouble is your team tends to estimate your stories in your planning meetings and it really drags the meeting on for a long time. Never fear, I learned a technique for taking a wily backlog full of unestimated stories and getting team estimates on them quickly called bucketing. Kane Mar and Chris Sterling both have good posts on this topic as it was discussed in the Scrum Trainers meeting (called affinity estimating). I hope I am not wearing the topic thread bare by repeating it here. I hope to say, it works! And that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.


While planning poker is a good technique (I own a set of Mike Cohn’s planning cards myself) and may be used to get more accurate estimates, I’ve found bucketing to be more efficient. Plus, accuracy is not really what we’re after in this excercise, just a reasonable approximation of relative size. Here’s a technique I’ve used before to estimate a set of 80 stories in under 2 hours, called bucketing.

What you need to prepare:

  • A backlog for the current release. These don’t need to be prioritized, but it will help if you are going straight into sprint or release planning.
  • A printed version of your stories, either hand or printer printed. I printed my stories out onto Avery 3×5 cards and put 3M restick-able glue on the back of the cards to make them into post-its. You can just as easily do this with yellow 3M post-it’s or their genero-brand Staples cousins . (I like the super sticky variety, for longevity of stickyness, especially if you’ll be saving them for later use or sticking to a cork board).
  • A bell or timer that one of your team mates can use to speed things up, if necessary.


  • Developers
  • Scrum Master
  • Product Owner


  1. Write these numbers and symbols on a whiteboard horizontally. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40,60, 100, ?.
  2. Arrange your stories nearby the whiteboard. I like to stick them on Sticky Easel Pad paper. (No, I don’t work for 3M).
  3. Pick up the first unestimated story. Read the title of the story and any other information on the story card. You may have one of your team perform the role of reading off the card.
  4. Allow people to ask clarifying questions of the product owner.
  5. Have someone propose a bucket, or points to put the story into
  6. Ask if there are any strong objections to this. If not, put it into the bucket. Tell the team you can change this later (anytime during the event and at sprint planning) to reduce the fear of “getting it right”.
  7. Move the next story and repeat the process above.

If your team members get stuck on a story for a long time, feel free to put it into the question mark bucket. Or you may have a team member ask “Can I timebox this?” and set a sand timer down for 2 minutes. When the 2 minutes are up, ring a bell. Then ask if the team needs more time. (timeboxes that are hard stops are just more stressful and annoying than ones that have optional extension)

You may find you have to split, or group similar stories into one. That’s fine, and even helps get the backlog ship shape.

The point of this excercise isn’t to get the estimates perfect. You won’t be able to do that, even if you had all the time in the world. The point is to get them between 50% and 70% accuracy. The benefit of this is that now the product owner will have much better information about the relative costs of the stories she is proposing. And having gone through all of the stories for a release, you will have a much better understanding of the product.

Bucketing stories for quick estimation


  • Use T-Shirt Sizes (S, M, L, XL) for stories if “size doesn’t matter”.
  • Have folks silently group stories into buckets. This is called affinity estimating and as Kane describes here, is an even faster way to get quick estimates on the backlog.

This will prepare you much better for the next essay in this series, which will be release planning.

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Agile Open Northwest

I attended Agile Open Northwest. It used a cool concept called open space. No set speakers, no powerpoints, no agenda. In the beginning, 120 people meet and some of them propose topics and then post the topic up on a wall with a room and a time. I proposed and hosted two topics:

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Look who’s got a Lookahead Plan?

After seeing Mike Cohn’s presentation on Agile Estimation and Planning, I got very excited about a technique he described as lookahead planning. A lookahead plan is simply a quick look at the next couple sprints to determine what stories are coming up, typically done at the end of a sprint planning meeting.

All you do is after the team is committed to the sprint, just take 15-20 minutes with the team to move stories from the backlog into two quadrants (butcher paper or whiteboard squares) labelled sprint n+1, sprint n+2. Indicate the velocity your team has committed to (I will used the velocity we committed on as a team in the last sprint) in each quadrant. Then, just have your product owner and team move them into the sprint until the points from the story fill up your sprint velocity buckets. Bang, you’re done.

We just tried this after our normal sprint planning, and it worked pretty well. We noticed immediately that there were a few stories that were irrelevant, and a couple missing stories that we needed to get estimates on, one story that needed more acceptance tests filled out for it and one that needed a followup on a third party vendor. This kind of work we used to wait until a few days before the sprint to do, and made our sprint planning meetings take much longer than necessary. I suspect that doing it 30 minutes at the end of a sprint planning meeting will more than pay for itself by having a more tightly run sprint planning meeting next sprint, with all the lookahead work we’ve done. I’ll keep you posted.

The best part of this, is that for the longest time, I could not figure out how to keep my release plan up to date. It would look great after maybe one sprint, but after a few would become staler than tube socks in a high school locker room. With lookahead planning, it just take a few minutes to update the most important sprints (the next two or three) from the product backlog.

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How I do standups

Everyone has their own flavor of standups. Some do it standing up. Some do it sitting down. Some do it in a club with a microphone. I’ve never been that brave.

For me, the scrum standup goes like this. I break it into 3 parts.

  1. Preparation
  2. Meeting
  3. Close


As you can see, the meeting begins before everyone joins. For me, answering the question “What did I do yesterday” can lead to me missing a few things. So I like to bring a list, written on a 3×5 card of what I did yesterday, what I’m planning on today, and what’s blocking. It helps me to remember, especially if it is the Monday after a weekend. Also, if anyone is out, I print out their standup report so I can read it aloud.

The space

I like to have everyone stand around a circular table, where we have our conference phone. The team members should stand be fairly close together, not HR violation close, but close enough to hear the soft spoken introverts without having to repeat anything. We stand in the team open space, by our task board, whiteboard, burndown chart and our blockers board.

I will call into the conference call a minute or two before the standup begins. My product owner typically will join the call, since she is located off site. Note, it’s a good idea to turn off the conference call feature that makes callers wait for a chairperson. Otherwise, you’ll end up missing a standup one day and no one knows how to dial in the product owner.

For my standups, I actually standup and have all the team standup in the meeting. I find you reach decisions more quickly if you do.

Even though I’m the Scrum Master, I’ll typically stand with the team in the circle. I know Mike Cohn doesn’t, for fear that everyone will report to him, rather than eachother. However, I feel I that I’m a part of standup as much as anyone else, that since I’m asking others what they’ve done yesterday and will do today, I should be held to the same standard, even if it is just going to meetings, filing paperwork and sending emails.


We punish latecomers by making them dance or sing a song. I have yet to have someone sing a song, but have seen some very entertaining dancing (our SDET has graced us with the Madagascar dance “I like to Move It Move It!” a few times.) It’s a gentle way to reinforce that we start on time.


During the actual meeting, I’ll ask who would like to start. Rather than start with one person, I find it’s more democratic to let someone who is ready go first.

We’ll go clockwise. Once we tried to go in alternating order, like a pinball machine. It didn’t work. Perhaps if we had a “conch shell” ala Lord of the Flies it would.

What I do during this meeting is very carefully listen to people for any hidden impediments. Things that they are really stuck on, but they just mention it in passing. Jeff Sutherland came to speak to us at a company meeting a while back, and he said, that the most valuable part of standup is the impediments. Even if they are buried in the mass of status, these need to be pulled out and recorded.

Blockers Board

Therefore, I actually have a pile of Post Its, a Sharpie and a block of butcher paper that I use to record impediments during standup. Any impediment that is not resolved by the end of the person’s report (allowing 1 minute to resolve issues max to keep things moving) goes on the “Blockers Board” . This has three columns. Impediment, Who, When. Typically, my impediments just have the name of the impediment (with a note about who reported it on the sticky) and a who (I go through and assign whos after standup). If the impediment will be there for awhile, or it has been there for awhile, I’ll assign a due date to it so there is more impetus to clear it. Occasionally we’ll go a few days with some stale impediments on the board, but the majority usually get cleared by the next standup. This helps individuals, I believe, to feel like there is value to them bringing impediments, because they will be actioned and someone held accountable.

Scrum Master Updating the Blockers Board

Scrum Master Updating the Blockers Board

Offline Topics

We also record offline topics that come up during the standup on the whiteboard, along with who needs to stay to discuss. Folks are pretty good about taking issues that might extend standup past 15 minutes offline by asking “Can we take that offline”?


After the official standup, I’ll excuse the product owner and go through any outstanding impediments on the Blockers Board. Usually, I’ll tear off quite a few, but the ones that stay get a star so we can track how stale they are. Then, we’ll ask those who need to stay for offline topics to stay. If we are good, we’ll have kept the meeting to 15 minutes. If we are bad, we’ll have dragged on a few minutes after, but that is not so bad, as long as it doesn’t happen too often. If it does, people are de-energized by standup and do not leave feeling like they got something out of the meeting.

I’ve toyed around with the idea of ending with a catchy phrase like “let’s go get things done!” or “I love it when a plan comes together”. Maybe I’ll try this tomorrow.

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