6 September 2004

I've heard a couple of questions recently about coming up with a standard story point mechanism for multiple teams using extreme programming's planning approach. The hope is have several teams all using equivalent story points, so that three story points of effort on one team is the same as on another.

I think trying to come up with this at best of limited value, and at worst dangerous.

The estimating system of extreme programming is based on XpVelocity and YesterdaysWeather. Inherent in this is the idea that when you make estimates, the actual units you estimate aren't important - what's important is you estimate by rough comparative value and use YesterdaysWeather for calibration.

In this situation the story points act as an anchor for the feedback loop that Yesterday's Weather provides - nothing more. Baked into them are all sorts of assumptions about the nature of the team's task, the capability of the team, and whether the team are optimistic or pessimistic estimators. Once you try to come up with a standard across teams you are trying to normalize all of these factors. Trying to do this sounds very hard to me, and I'm not aware of anyone who has done this effectively. This doesn't mean its impossible, it just means it's hard.

The dangerous aspect comes from once you have a standard unit for measurement across teams, someone is inevitably going to use it to compare the performance of teams. Even if everyone swears till they are blue in the face that they won't use it for cross team measurement, there will always be the suspicion that this will happen eventually. This will cause teams to distort their measurements so that it seems that they get more story points done. My fear is that this will break the feedback loop of yesterday's weather and knock the planning process off kilter. I'm always suspicious about these things because while it would be incredibly valuable to have a way to measure productivity I think the nature of software is such that we CannotMeasureProductivity.

So to be worth trying, this has to yield some valuable benefits - but I don't see any. One reason that I've heard is to help people move onto teams and estimate more quickly. But you can't estimate on a new team until you get reasonably familiar with the problem and the current code base. As you do that you'll also get a feel for the relative sizes of story points on that team. We move people around between projects at Thoughtworks and I've never heard anyone complain about difficulty of estimating when coming onto a new team due to differences in story points.

reposted on 10 May 2012