Why normalize your estimating?

“Oh its going to be 30 degrees ? No need to bring jackets then.”

It used to be fashionable to allow teams to independently ground themselves in whatever estimating frame of reference felt appropriate to them. But there are reasons to consider adding more guidance when teams are bootstrapped.

Briefly – before I address the question of why – let me explain what I mean by ‘normalizing your estimating’. For a long time it was fashionable in some circles to allow teams to adopt their own frame of reference for estimates. When a team agreed that 5 story points would be the appropriate size for a story it did not necessarily correlate to any prior system of measurement. Teams would calibrate their estimating to whatever made sense for them. They would have a language of their own if you will. A good analogy would be the Kelvin, Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature scales. Or yet another – imperial vs metric systems in which a gallon is not the same.

To varying degrees, ugly things start to happen when you have this type of inconsistency. The common theme is that you will erode the transparency you are able to bring and you will lose the trust of senior management. They can’t/won’t trust what can’t be clearly and simply articulated. “Well it depends on the team context” won’t get you very far in large enterprises.

So when we say “normalizing estimating” its really a plea to get teams speaking the same language. And since this sometimes comes up – it is not a thinly disguised ploy to start measuring and comparing between teams. I can’t promise that no manager will ever try to make such comparisons  – but a good coach will explain why it is a bad practice.


So why then? What is the rationale for normalizing estimating? There are two primary reasons to consider it.

  1. When individuals span teams. As much as I like the idea of a dedicated team (and yes lets shoot for co-located also) –  the harsher reality which most of us have to contend with is that we have people who span teams. Scrum Masters, Product Owners, Architects would be prime examples of people who are sometimes asked to be present on more than one team. I’m not arguing that it is optimal – it isn’t. But this is what reality looks like in the large enterprises I work with. So if that is the case – how is it a good idea that a person working with two teams at once must keep shifting between different scales depending on the team they are working with? To impose on them a need to keep shifting between frames of reference is yet more work for an already overloaded person.
  2. Bill of rights for senior leaders. In SAFe we like to say we are empirical, facts-based, objective in our assessments of progress and in the way we inform planning. How then does it make sense that we allow every team to bootstrap themselves in a way of their own choosing – which results in CEOs and senior leaders unable to quantify the capacity of the work we do (as a whole) and match that to the capacity of our organization (as a whole). If we were to create a bill of rights for a CEO then it would surely include that metrics and quantifications be applied in a consistent way.

So consider normalizing your estimating. In a later post I will explain how to do it.


Question: If estimating is normalized does that mean that two teams would separately produce the same points estimate for a given story?
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