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Product Backlog Grooming: When estimation is not easy without some effort

For the past some posts, we have been talking about the Product Backlog Grooming process / meeting, and its importance in terms of being the precursor to the Sprint Planning meeting – it being a meeting where the Product Owner, the Scrum Master and the Scrum team meet to review the User stories that are expected to be used for the next and forthcoming Sprints; the discussion ensures that the User stories are updated with any latest information, changes are made (including dropping some User Stories if they are not relevant or not important any more) and if required, some rough estimates are made for the User stories (and as always, when discussing details of a meeting such as this, the exact detail of what is intended to happen depends on the teams involved – some teams just leave this at refining the User stories with the latest information, other teams may go to the level of getting some rough estimates in place for the next set of User stories).
I am considering the latter case where the process being followed by the team is in terms of trying to get the team to prepare some rough but reasonably accurate estimates for the User stories. But, the problem is that in some cases, preparing an estimation may not be easy. For example:
– The User Story is complex with several different workflows, because of which the team is finding it hard to prepare estimates
– The technical challenges of developing the User story may not be easy, in fact, without doing some work, it may not be possible to even prepare a reasonably accurate estimate
– The team is not able to conceptualize the User Story just based on the discussion with the Product Owner, and it may require more effort to get some details clear enough that estimates can be prepared

What happens in such a situation ? It is quite obvious that there is the need for more work to be done, but these relate to a User Story that has yet to be discussed in the Sprint Planning meeting and is not allotted for estimation and execution as a part of the Sprints. But is also obvious that unless this work happens, the team will need to spend a lot of time during and after the Sprint Planning meeting on the same kind of detailing and in fact, since they do not have accurate estimates, there is a more than fair chance that the actual effort that is spent will be different from the estimates, which will cause problems to the entire Sprint productivity.

So what needs to be done ? In the current Sprint, there needs to be some standing tasks (that have been already planned in the Sprint planning session), with the purpose of these tasks being to do the planning and estimation for the User Stories that will actually be coded and tested in future Sprints. During these tasks, the Scrum team will work with the Product Owner and if required, with the User Experience Designer to discuss and detail through some of the more complex and complicated User Stories and through this process, figure out some rough estimates that will be more accurate when these are worked through in the Sprint Planning meeting.

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