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  • Writer's pictureElena Leonova

The Best Way to Estimate Product Roadmap Quickly and Accurately

One of the responsibilities product & engineering managers have is product backlog estimation. Their goal is to understand what fits within a specific timeframe and what doesn't. And then create a predictable roadmap timeline. That's where agile estimation techniques come in very handy.

Product teams use this product roadmap together with its timeline to set expectations with broader cross-functional teams, such as sales, marketing, support, account management. And it also helps to justify additional staffing if something important didn't fit.

During roadmap planning cycle, teams are expected to estimate the entire product roadmap and provide high-level estimates. So no doubt, that this process is a critical and beneficial activity!


However, the product planning process most of the time is very time-consuming, exhausting, and energy-draining. Teams walk away from it feeling frustrated about wasted days or weeks and wish they have spent it doing other important things. If you have ever felt the same way, you are not alone!

But, there's a better way! Really!

So how can you estimate your product roadmap quickly and accurately? What estimation techniques can you use in Agile? Can you and your teams feel great about the process? Is it even possible? And the answer is YES!

So I would like to introduce you to the three-step agile estimation technique to estimate your product roadmap quickly and accurately. It helps estimate product roadmap of any size quickly, overtime build accuracy and predictability, and most importantly save everybody time so they can jump to what they would like to do instead. This process supports any Agile framework, and can be applied to quarterly, semi-yearly, yearly or else planning cycle.


Step 1: Choose Your Agile Estimation Units, and Stick with Them.


Each company is unique and has a different comfort level with various agile estimation units. The most popular options out there are:

  • T-shirt sizes

  • Epic Points

  • Story Points

  • Hours.

You can choose any agile estimation unit that your company prefers, but it's essential to be consistent with it as accuracy comes with consistency.

For T-shirt sizes, you would use S, M, L, XL, XXL, and so on. For Epic Points, you can use a Fibonacci sequence, as you would use for story points, but multiplied by 10, for example, 10, 20, 30, 50, 80, etc.


Step 2: Estimate Your Backlog Items using Relative Sizing Excersize.


Relative sizing, also known as affinity grouping, is the most efficient and, over time, the most predictable agile estimation technique. That's why we highly recommend giving it a try. This process will work with the estimation units you choose. Here's how you would do it.

Let's say you've chosen Epic Points as your estimation units.


Put each point on a sticky note on a physical or virtual wall, and start estimating each backlog item one by one.

A virtual board with epic points across it, and product backlog items on a side before the beginning of the planning process.
Your starting point during relative sizing estimation exercise

1. Place the first item in the middle; let's say it is 50 Epic points.

A virtual board with epic points across it. The first epic has been placed at the 50 epic points column.
Place the first epic where you think it belongs most. Don't overthink it. Shoot for the middle.

2. Then take the next item, and decide whether it has the same complexity, less or more. Place it accordingly. For example, your next backlog item might seem much easier, and that's what you want to put it into the 20 epic points column.

A virtual board with epic points across it. The first epic has been placed at the 50 epic points column. The second epic is in the 20 epic points column.
Compare Epic 1 and Epic 2 in its relative size & complexity. And place it accordingly.

3. The next person can either adjust your estimation, explaining their reasons. Or, if in an agreement, estimate the following item by putting it in the right column.


4. The next person can either adjust the previous estimate or estimate the next item.


5. This way, your team will go through all of your roadmap items by placing each new item into a relative size column compared to other similar ones.

A virtual board with epic points across it. All Epics have been placed in various epic points columns according to its size.
All epics are estimated in relative size to each other.

In the end, you should have all items placed in their relative sizing columns. Everybody participating in the product roadmap estimation process should be in complete agreement with the estimates. If you have a lot of back and forth on a particular item, it indicates a need to take a deeper look at that specific one. You might want to define more requirements, split them into smaller sizes, etc.

You can use the Trello or Miro board to power this process for you. It's very easy and free (you can find an example here).

Step 3: Refine Your High-level Estimates based on Your Learnings.


If you are just getting started with the agile estimation process using relative sizing exercise, you won't know how accurate your estimates are. And it's okay! Over time you will build a baseline of backlog items that you have estimated using this method. This historical data will help you understand the complexity and approximate duration of new items compared to previously completed.

For example, let's say you have estimated a few items to all be 80 epic points, but as your team worked on them, one happened to be less complex; and looking back, you would say that it has been 50 epic points rather than 80. So go ahead and adjust it.

Always look at your completed epics to get the lessons learnt. Adjust estimates if needed.

Making such adjustments will help you build out a base of reliable reference epics items that you can refer to in the future.

How to find out what your team can accomplish within a planning cycle?

Regardless of your planning cycle duration, whether it's six weeks, a quarter, or longer, at first, you need to take your best guess on how much you can complete within this first planning cycle.

Once it's complete, note how much has been completed, more or less of what you've planned. You should use this number for your next planning cycle. After a few cycles, you will determine an average team capacity, which will help you with a product roadmap predictability.

For example, you've planned to complete 200 epic points in the first planning cycle, but you have been able to complete only 150 epic points. So next quarter, plan for 150 epic points only. Over time, you will figure out your average capacity, which will give you a pretty good base for roadmap planning.


This process is called capacity planning. There's a decent amount of calculations that go into it, and it's at times intimidating who everybody involved. You can learn all secrets behind it in our step-by-step guide, so you don't feel lost in this uncharted territory. And additionally, you can also use tools like OneRank to power this process, so you don't need to spend hours doing manual calculations in spreadsheets.

The relative sizing estimation technique is simple but yet powerful. You will be able to estimate your extensive product roadmap in hours instead of days or weeks. You will be able to build a foundation for your relative sizing estimates to improve the accuracy of future ones. And everybody involved in this process will be much happier and engaged, as this activity won't suck much of their time and energy.

A traditional estimation approach, reviewing each backlog item separately, and estimating its absolute duration and complexity, has significant drawbacks. It requires you to think about each item independently rather than leverage your team's previous experience. It typically results in days or weeks trying to figure exactly how much time each item will take.

And on top of it, without a well-thought capacity planning approach, you will be spending a lot of energy trying to understand what you can complete when.

Takeaway

  1. To accurately and quickly plan product roadmaps of any size, we highly recommend using relative sizing exercise as your agile estimation technique. It allows you to go through a large backlog very quickly, compare new work with previously completed, which improves accuracy and predictability over time.

  2. Once all items are estimated, using capacity planning determine what your team can accomplish within a planning cycle. And advocate for additional resources if needed.

  3. Most importantly, always look at the historical data to improve the predictability and accuracy of your future cycles.

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