Probabilistic forecasting in agile

Probabilistic Forecasting in Agile

Probabilistic Forecasting in Agile: Breaking Down the Uncertainties


In the ever-changing business landscape, organizations are continually striving to make informed decisions that will drive success. One critical aspect of decision-making is forecasting, which aims to provide insight into how different scenarios might unfold based on historical data and future projections. However, traditional forecasting methods often fail to account for uncertainties and fluctuating variables that are inherent in complex projects. This is where probabilistic forecasting in agile comes into play, offering a more accurate and realistic approach. In this article, we will delve into the concept of probabilistic forecasting in an agile environment and provide a practical example to illustrate its application.

Understanding Probabilistic Forecasting in Agile:

Probabilistic forecasting in agile is a technique that enables project teams to consider uncertainties and forecast outcomes based on ranges of possible values, rather than single-point estimates. Unlike traditional forecasting, which provides a single number for a project’s completion date or budget, probabilistic forecasting embraces the inherent variability and complexity of projects. By accounting for uncertainties, such as unforeseen risks, unpredictable scope changes, and team productivity fluctuations, agile teams are better equipped to adapt and make more accurate forecasts.

The concept of probabilistic forecasting aligns closely with the agile methodology, which emphasizes flexibility, regular adaptation, and iterative development. Agile teams work in short time iterations, known as sprints, during which they deliver small increments of value and continuously adjust their plans based on feedback and changing circumstances. This iterative approach is well-suited for probabilistic forecasting, as it allows for regular reassessments of uncertainties and recalibration of forecasts.

Example: Probabilistic Forecasting in Agile

Let us consider a software development project as an example. Team A is working on building a new app, and they are currently in the second sprint of the project. At the end of the first sprint, the team completed 80% of the planned user stories. Now, they need to estimate the completion date for the entire project using probabilistic forecasting.

Instead of providing a single date estimation, which could prove unrealistic due to unforeseen circumstances, Team A utilizes a probabilistic forecasting technique. They assign a range of possible completion dates to each user story, reflecting the inherent uncertainties associated with development. Using historical data from previous sprints and considering the team’s average velocity, they calculate the probability distribution for completing each user story within specific timeframes.

Team A then combines these probability distributions to obtain the overall probability distribution for completing the entire project. By leveraging mathematical methods, such as Monte Carlo simulation, they generate thousands of possible project completion dates, along with associated probabilities. This distribution provides a more realistic representation of the potential outcomes, giving stakeholders a clearer understanding of the project’s uncertainties and risks.

The team can communicate these probabilistic forecasts to stakeholders, sharing the expected completion date range (e.g., 70% confidence between 8 to 12 weeks) instead of a fixed date. This approach fosters transparency, sets realistic expectations, and allows for better decision-making based on the tolerance for risks and uncertainties.

Keeping this concept of Probabilistic forecasting in agile in mind, a team can use this approach to understand when a product backlog item is to be completed.
To use probabilistic forecasting in Agile to understand when a product backlog item (PBI) will be completed, a team can follow these steps:

1. Split PBIs into smaller, more manageable parts: Break down the PBIs into smaller user stories or tasks, which are easier to estimate.

2. Assign Story Points to each PBI: Estimate the relative effort or complexity of completing each PBI. Use a Fibonacci sequence or any other agreed-upon scale to assign Story Points.

3. Track velocity: Measure the team’s velocity (the number of Story Points completed in each iteration). Velocity is essential for forecasting as it helps determine the team’s capacity.

4. Collect historical data: Maintain a record of completed PBIs, their corresponding Story Points, and the time taken to complete them. This data will serve as the basis for probabilistic forecasting.

5. Analyze historical data: Analyze the relationship between the number of Story Points completed and the time taken for previous PBIs. This will provide insights into the team’s average velocity and its variability.

6. Use Monte Carlo simulations: Implement Monte Carlo simulations to generate probabilistic forecasts. These simulations use historical data, along with the team’s average velocity and its standard deviation, to estimate the probability distribution of completing future PBIs.

7. Determine the probability of completion: Based on the results of the Monte Carlo simulations, assess the probability of completing a particular PBI within a given timeframe. For example, the team may determine that there is a 70% chance of completing a PBI within two sprints.

8. Communicate and plan accordingly: Share the probabilistic forecasts with stakeholders and the product owner. Use this information to plan the product roadmap, set expectations, and make informed decisions regarding product feature prioritization.

By incorporating probabilistic forecasting into Agile, teams gain a more realistic understanding of when PBIs can be completed. This approach acknowledges the inherent uncertainty in software development and allows for better adaptation and decision-making throughout the project.

There are a few different approaches that agile teams can use to incorporate probabilistic forecasting into their methodology:

1. Monte Carlo Simulation: This approach involves generating thousands of probable scenarios based on different variables and probabilities. By aggregating these scenarios, the team can gain insights into the likelihood of different outcomes and make more informed decisions.

2. Kanban Flow: Kanban is a visual project management method that focuses on improving flow and reducing waste. Teams can use probabilistic forecasting to estimate lead time and cycle time for each task or user story, allowing them to better plan and allocate resources.

3. Forecasting Poker: This approach involves the entire team jointly estimating the effort required for each user story or task, using the Fibonacci sequence or other estimation techniques. By incorporating probabilistic forecasting, the team can assign a range of possible durations to each story and consider the likelihood of completing it within the estimated range.

4. Percentile-based Forecasting: In this approach, the team uses historical data from previous sprints or similar projects to identify the percentage of completion at different points in time. They can then use this data to forecast the probability of completing current work items within specific timeframes.

5. Burnup Charts: Burnup charts can be used to visually track progress and forecast future outcomes. By including probabilistic forecasting, the team can plot multiple lines on the chart representing different potential outcomes based on different assumptions and uncertainties.

These approaches can help agile teams incorporate probabilistic forecasting into their processes, enabling them to make more accurate predictions and adapt their plans accordingly.

What are the Pros and Cons of Probabilistic forecasting in agile
Pros of probabilistic forecasting in agile:

1. Flexibility: Probabilistic forecasting allows for flexibility and adaptability in the face of uncertainty. It recognizes that predictions are not always accurate or precise, and allows for adjustments and iterations based on new information or changing circumstances.

2. Transparency: Probabilistic forecasting provides a transparent way of communicating uncertainties and risks associated with the forecast. It allows stakeholders to understand the likelihood of different outcomes and make informed decisions based on that information.

3. Better risk management: By considering a range of possible outcomes and their likelihoods, probabilistic forecasting enables better risk management. It helps identify high-risk areas or potential bottlenecks in the project, allowing the team to take proactive measures to mitigate those risks.

4. Improved decision-making: Probabilistic forecasting provides a more realistic and nuanced view of the project’s future. It helps in making more informed and rational decisions by considering both the expected value and the range of potential outcomes.

Cons of probabilistic forecasting in agile:

1. Complexity and time-consuming: Implementing probabilistic forecasting in agile can be more complex and time-consuming compared to simple point estimates. It requires gathering and analyzing historical data, establishing probability distributions, and regularly updating forecasts based on new information.

2. Uncertainty may create anxiety: Probabilistic forecasting acknowledges uncertainties and risks, which can create anxiety and discomfort for some stakeholders. It may be challenging for individuals accustomed to traditional deterministic forecasting methods.

3. Limited accuracy in short-term forecasts: Probabilistic forecasting may not be as precise or accurate in short-term forecasts compared to deterministic methods. It relies on statistical models and historical data, which may not account for sudden changes or unexpected events.

4. Resistance to change: Implementing probabilistic forecasting in an agile environment may face resistance from individuals or teams accustomed to fixed or deterministic schedules. It requires a change in mindset and a willingness to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.

Overall, while probabilistic forecasting has its challenges, the advantages of flexibility, transparency, and better risk management make it a valuable technique in agile project management.


Probabilistic forecasting in agile acknowledges the uncertainties and complexities of projects, making it a valuable tool for decision-making in today’s dynamic business world. By embracing a range of possible outcomes instead of relying on single-point estimates, agile teams can adapt to changing circumstances and provide stakeholders with more realistic forecasts. Organizations that implement probabilistic forecasting in agile gain a competitive edge through improved planning, risk management, and resource allocation, ultimately leading to increased project success rates.

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