Sizing Agile Marketing Stories: Don’t Go It Alone

Story sizing.  I just felt the collective grown from the mere mention.  In Agile, we’re expected to understand the size of work before we do it.  Then we give work, or “stories”, a size relative to other work we need to do.  It seems pretty straight forward right? [insert moan]

SIDEBAR: Is it just me or does calling work “stories” sound like something a Communications Major came up with?  (Sick PR burn!)

agile_user_storyFor the better part of a year, I’ve been working in an Agile Marketing organization and story sizing is something I constantly struggle with when putting it in a marketing context.  I can’t be the only one. But what I’ve learned is the value of not trying to do it by myself.

In Agile Marketing, there is no need to work in a vacuum.  Whether you are on a completely marketing-focused team or are the only marketer at the table, talking it out with the other people at the table can be really productive.  I’m sure the agile nerds will have an opinion, but I really like Estimating Poker.

Here’s how it works in a nutshell.

Everyone in your agile team sits down once an iteration and discusses the work that needs to be done.  The owner of the work explains what it is and the scope as they understand it. The rest of the team has the chance to ask questions and, often, identify gaps the owner isn’t even aware of.  (This is the point when agilists will tell me there is no owner since the team shares the work. Are you suggesting that everyone knows everything about everything and there are no specialists anywhere?  No, I didn’t think so. Sit down, the marketers are talking.)


After discussing all of this with the team, each person secretly chooses a numbered card in front of them – 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, etc – that aligns to how much work they think the story is compared to the smallest (1) work being done.  Everyone flips. Wild outliers have the chance to explain their rational and the group comes to consensus. This is the part that’s so valuable. 

When people have the chance to bring up why they think something is so much smaller or bigger than the others, clarity emerges.  Either not everyone understood and you need to clarify the work more or others understand the requirements even better than you do.

Let me give you a few examples of what this means in a marketing context.

powerpointhellAny marketer or comms professional knows that SMEs rarely write their own slides.  They provide some sort of incoherent outline to us and we make it understandable and attractive. Your executive has just done that.  He’s got a big keynote address coming up in 3 months and you need to get it done. How do you size that?

  • Volume – 45 minute presentation at 1-2 slides per minute = 70ish slides
  • Complexity – 1st draft is difficult.  Subsequent drafts are generally simple.  
  • Knowledge – Low-Medium.  Audience is largely very technical so a subject matter expert will need to review everything for accuracy. 
  • Uncertainty – No idea how many revisions this bad boy is going to go through.  Maybe 4? Maybe 30?

Let the estimate poker begin.  One person on the team may size the story really low, citing a presentation they already did earlier that year that has most of what’s needed and has already gone through approvals.  Or they may say that legal and compliance need to review for whatever reason, and this presentation is going to be much bigger than you think.  My team likes to add points to presentation stories for every two reviewers – or every one C-Level involved. 

Here’s another example.

Say-Market-Research--One-More-TimeYour product team is considering entering a new line of business.  It’s your job to understand if the market is ready for this. That could take the form of 3rd party research, empathy interviews with existing customers, ad testing messaging, analyst interviews – lots of different forms.  The product team doesn’t care how you do it, as long as they get an adequate answer within 2 months. How do you size that?

  • Volume – How much of what?  Interviews? Test ads? Hours of 3rd party research?  Hell if I know.
  • Complexity – Just complex enough to answer the question adequately, whatever that means.
  • Knowledge – High.  You know how to do all these things.
  • Uncertainty – No idea where to start or which approach to take.

By using the knowledge of the team, whether they’re marketers or not, you can better define the work that needs to be done.  You get the chance to explain your trepidation and let them get you unstuck. I often find that if someone’s asking for it and I’m that lost, they usually don’t know what they want either.  By having the chance to layout options and discuss the relative work of each, they often have the opportunity to refine their request or the research question itself.  Is two months enough time or do you need a smaller question to answer? It’s this type of discussion that makes estimate poker so incredibly valuable to Agile Marketing teams.

Sizing stories is a pain.  Believe me I get it. But Agile teaches us to be transparent.  And part of transparency means being able to lean on your team for help and guidance.  No one is going to judge you if you don’t know everything all the time. So open up the process and share the burden. What you’ll find is less scope creep and more nights at home with your family because your team didn’t let you overestimate your capacity.

One thought on “Sizing Agile Marketing Stories: Don’t Go It Alone

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  1. This is awesome for teaching estimating to a team! I love your examples. At the end of the day, the estimate isn’t about having the correct number… it’s about reaching a shared understanding of the work that’s planned and how it will impact the customer. You tell that story really well! And of course…who doesn’t love more nights at home with family?

    Liked by 1 person

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