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Agile Points: Handy for Healthcare Software Development or Thanksgiving Dinner

If you are new to agile development, you’re probably swimming in a sea of unfamiliar terms: user story, spike, sprint, stand up, points.  In this series, we’re going to tackle one of agile’s trickiest concepts: What exactly is an agile “point,” and how does it relate to time and budget?

Points measure the complexity and effort required to complete a unit of work.  Pathfinder uses points because we find they are both more efficient and accurate than estimates of hours.

That’s the technical definition, but let’s relate this to something you’re probably more familiar with: Thanksgiving dinner.  You’ve decided your MVP (Minimum Viable Product) for Thanksgiving dinner is:

Roast Turkey
Gravy
Mashed Potatoes
Green Bean Casserole

cooked turkey photo credit: Benjamin Swift

A pretty slim offering, but you’ll have the guests bring the other sides and dessert.  Now that you know what you’re making, you’re ready to estimate.  To show increasing complexity and effort, we’re going to rate on the Fibonacci scale, where the next number in the sequence is equal the sum of the previous two numbers.

1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21

You assemble the team: you, your partner, and your teenage son.  Decisions are made based on the recipe, the team’s experience making this recipe before, and the team’s general understanding of the time and expense involved.  We don’t dive any deeper, because experience has taught us that the extra time spent hashing through details may actually reduce our accuracy.

Photo Credit: Stacy Spensley


To establish a baseline, let’s agree on a 2-point story.  Mashed potatoes are about halfway in complexity between the turkey and green beans, so the team agrees that this is a 2-pointer.

Next, green bean casserole is probably the simplest and least expensive thing here, and the team estimates it as 1 point.

There’s some discussion about the turkey, because even though we’re planning on a pop-up timer, grocery store turkey, it takes a long time to defrost and roast, and requires a bit of monitoring.  The team finally agrees on 3 points.  Gravy is barely any effort at all, so it is rolled in with the Roast Turkey.

Roast Turkey + Gravy

3

Mashed Potatoes

2

Green Bean Casserole

1

Total Points:

5

Great!  But now you find out that your boss is coming.  Suddenly, you need a more impressive MVP.

You start scouring the Food Network and Epicurious.  You decide to upgrade to a free-range, brined turkey and truffled mashed potatoes.  You’ll replace the green bean casserole with Brussels sprouts, maple syrup and bacon.  And you call Aunt Fern asking her to please not bother to bring the green jello/cheddar cheese salad, because you’re making Arugula salad with roasted beets, garlic and shallots.

Photo Credit: Father Jack

Your complexity and effort just went up, but that’s OK, our agile process is designed to accommodate change.  The team just has to re-estimate, taking into account the fact that we’ve never made these recipes before.

Brined Roast Turkey + Gravy

5

Truffled Mashed Potatoes

3

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

2

Arugula salad

1

Total Points:

11

Your MVP has more than doubled, but you decide the additional time, effort and expense are worth it to impress your boss.  And if new changes arise – like additional guests or the sudden need for six different kinds of pie – your team is now familiar with the process, and can easily revise the estimate.

Next week: how to points translate to budget and timeline!






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