[From the Archives] Story Points as Spicy-ness; Using RSP to estimate Story Points

I‘ve been blogging about Scrum and Agile software development since 2005, and you can find my older work on my personal website. Some of the material has proven to be very popular over the years. So, in an effort to share this the material with a wider audience I’ve decided to start a series featuring the best of my material. Let me know in the comments if you find this interesting or useful.

I‘ve long struggled with the concept of Story Points and how to effectively communicate this to clients. It’s never been a natural concept for me, and most explanations of Story Points are half baked. Explanations such as “Story Points are relative measure of complexity”; are quickly countered with “What about situations where something is not complicated by takes a long time to build?”

Most Agile practitioners end up trying to cover all bases by defining Story Points as some measure of both size and complexity [3].

Spicy-ness Analogy to Story Points
The analogy that I’ve personally come to favor is spicy-ness. Anyone who has eaten in an Thai restaurant will immediately understand that a 3 star item is a lot more spicy than a 1 star item, and that a 5 star item will likely cause physical pain. One of the benefits of using spicy-ness as an analogy is that it’s immediately understood be both senior management and the project team.

I’ve even started to use the same dialog as my favorite Thai restaurant [4]: “How spicy would you like that Story?”

Using RSP to estimate Story Points
Rock-Scissors-Paper (RSP) is a simple children’s game that has a wide appeal [1], [2]. A concise definition of RPS can be found on the WorldRSP website [5]:

RPS is a decision making game of wits, speed, dexterity and strategy between players who are unable to reach a decision using other means. The result of a game is considered a binding agreement between the players. RPS is a game played by honourable people and therefore every effort should be made to commit to the outcome. The game is played by substituting the elements of: Rock, Paper and Scissors with standard hand signals.

When estimating Story Points using RSP the game is played in the same manner. The essential difference is that rather than throw a Rock, Scissors or Paper, the players throw a Story Point estimate indicated by the number of outstretched fingers.

One immediate disadvantage of using RSP for Story Point estimation is that it’s limited to the number of fingers on one hand (i.e. 0 to 5). In practice, however, this has never been a problem.

A Practical Example
To illustrate how RSP Story Point estimation is used, it’s best to consider a complete example.

Step 1.

      It’s always important for the Customer to explain what the problem is. Part of the discussion should include Acceptance Criteria. That is, what does the team need to deliver so that the Customer is comfortable with saying that a Story is complete.

Discussing the business problem and potential solutions can be a time consuming process. It’s important, however, to have a fully discussion so that the team has a shared understanding of what needs to be achieved and the best possible way to achieve it.


Step 2. Having discussed the problems and some potential solutions, the team is read to begin estimating. Here we see that the team is already primed ready to play RSP.


Step 3. RSP has begun and the team is in action.


Step 4. The results of the RSP Estimation. The Story Point estimate is obtained by taking the most numerous estimate [in this case 4] as shown below:


Advantages of using RSP Story Point Estimation
Story Point Estimation using RSP is a very rapid way for a group of people to determine a single order of magnitude estimate (ie. Spicy-ness) of a Story. This approach has some advantages over existing methods of Story Point Estimation. These are:

  1. In group activities it’s not uncommon for team members to defer judgment to the team “lead”. When using RSP estimation all participants reveal their estimates simultaneously, making it is difficult for an individual to use his position to influence the group.
  2. The range of options is conceptually very simple and limited to the range 0-5. There is not possibility having an exponential scale (or a scale based on fabonicci numbers [6]), and hence offers greater simplicity.
  3. It’s fast … very fast!

I’ve introduced the idea of using a variation of a simple children’s game to help speed up the process of estimating Story Points. This approach is limited to providing estimates in the range of 1 through 5. It is, however, very efficient and can be used to quickly coordinate a large group.

Finally, I’d like to thank my collegues Victor, Eric and Zoltan for their help and support.

[1] http://www.worldrps.com/
[2] http://www.rpschamps.com/
[3] http://www.mountaingoatsoftware.com/pres/AEPScrumGatheringFall2005.pdf
[4] Thai One On Restaurant review
[5] http://www.worldrps.com/gbasics.html
[6] http://www.mountaingoatsoftware.com/articles/aepsample.pdf

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