Don’t Equate Story Points to Hours

I’ve been quite adamant lately that story points are about time, specifically effort. But that does not mean you should say something like, “One story point = eight hours.”

Doing this obviates the main reason to use story points in the first place. Story points are helpful because they allow team members who perform at different speeds to communicate and estimate collaboratively.

Two developers can start by estimating a given user story as one point even if their individual estimates of the actual time on task differ. Starting with that estimate, they can then agree to estimate something as two points if each agree it will take twice as long as the first story.

When story points equated to hours, team members can no longer do this. If someone instructs team members that one point equals eight (or any number of) hours, the benefits of estimating in an abstract but relatively meaningful unit like story points are lost.

When told to estimate this way, the team member will mentally estimate first in number of hours and then convert that estimate to points. Something the developer estimates to be 16 hours will be converted to 2 points.

Contrast this with a team member’s thought process when estimating in story points as they are truly intended. In this case, team members will consider how long each new story will take in comparison to other stories. You and I might agree this new story will take twice as long as a one-point story, and so we agree it’s a two.

However, you might be thinking that’s five hours of work, and I might be thinking it’s 10. In this way, story points are still about time (effort), but the amount of time per point is not pegged to the same amount for all team members.

If someone in your company wants to peg one point to some number of hours, just stop calling them points and use hours or days instead. Calling them points when they’re really just hours introduces needless complexity (and loses one of the main benefits of points).

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Mike Cohn

About the Author

Mike Cohn specializes in helping companies adopt and improve their use of agile processes and techniques to build extremely high-performance teams. He is the author of User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development, Agile Estimating and Planning, and Succeeding with Agile as well as the Better User Stories video course. Mike is a founding member of the Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance and can be reached at If you want to succeed with agile, you can also have Mike email you a short tip each week.

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