As a project manager, it’s your job to align everyone on tasks during sprint planning. Your teammates must leave the meeting clearly understanding their responsibilities in the upcoming sprint.

You’ll also typically use these planning sessions to determine the effort required to complete each task or user story. And you’ll want to get these estimates right, as inaccuracies can lead to a ripple effect of issues throughout the sprint, causing missed deadlines, project blockers, and wasted resources.

To solve this problem, you can use the Fibonacci sequence for agile projects. This simple numbering system determines the difficulty of each story on the sprint board relative to the others. When assigning story points, the Fibonacci sequence is an invaluable tool to estimate the effort required for items in the backlog so you can prioritize work appropriately.

What’s the Fibonacci sequence?

In a Fibonacci sequence, each number equals the sum of the two preceding ones, resulting in an exponential growth pattern. While you may use a modified Fibonacci sequence depending on your needs, the standard format looks like this:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89

This seemingly simple sequence has a long and prestigious history. The earliest recorded Fibonacci sequence occurred over 2,000 years ago in Indian mathematics. In Europe, mathematicians were introduced to the sequence in 1202 through the writings of Leonardo Pisano, also known as “Fibonacci.”

The Fibonacci sequence has proven helpful in mathematics, computer science, and natural sciences. Scientists have noted how many patterns in nature resemble the sequence, including the number of leaves on a stem or the spirals of a sunflower. The sequence has also made its mark in pop culture. It’s referenced in literature, like in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” music, such as the chord progression for Tool’s “Lateralus,” and even TV shows like “The Good Place.”

In recent years, development teams have found this numbering system useful for estimating the effort required to complete tasks. Agile teams, in particular, have embraced the Fibonacci sequence to help assign story points during sprint planning.

Why is the Fibonacci sequence important in agile?

When faced with a list of tasks, ranking them accurately according to their difficulty can be tricky. For instance, if you use a scale from 1–10, you might have trouble deciding if a task is a 6 or 7 because they appear so close on the scale.

The Fibonacci sequence eases this process by spacing the numbers further apart with each step. Humans have an easier time judging the distinction between things with a significant, noticeable difference. While there’s hardly a noticeable difference between a 6 and a 7, there’s a substantial difference between a 55 and an 89 — even when those two numbers appear side-by-side in the Fibonacci sequence.

Teams use the Fibonacci sequence alongside agile project management methodologies because it helps assign an appropriate amount of points to each task relative to the others on the sprint board. The goal is to provide a rough but relatively accurate estimation of the effort required to complete each item in the backlog and assign points accordingly.

How to use the Fibonacci estimation in agile: 6 steps

Fibonacci estimation fits naturally into the standard processes of agile product development. To get started, follow these six steps:

  1. Gather participants: This would typically occur during your Scrum sprint planning meeting. Include all relevant team members and other departmental leaders to promote cross-collaboration.
  2. Clarify tasks/user stories: With your team, consider what the project goal is, what the benefits are of project work, and everyone that’s impacted by its outcome. Your answers create end-user stories that are essentially sets of tasks your team will work toward.
  3. Establish a baseline: Choose a user story that the team agrees to be of medium complexity. Assign it a middle value in the sequence, such as “5.” This baseline helps the team orient themselves to understand the scale of the user stories.
  4. Play planning poker: To play, each team member receives cards (physical or digital) with Fibonacci numbers. For each user story, team members select the card they think represents the item’s complexity and effort. Then, all members reveal their choice simultaneously. This way, no one person’s choice influences anyone else’s.
  5. Discuss differences: If there’s a significant difference in estimates (e.g., one team member chooses “3” while another chooses “21”), encourage your team to discuss the difference. You can select the average score or determine the number by popular vote if you can’t reach a unanimous agreement.
  6. Determine the final estimate: Record the final point estimation and apply story points equal to the chosen Fibonacci number. Theoretically, if a task is assigned a “5,” it should require roughly five times the effort of a task estimated at one story point.

Benefits of using the Fibonacci sequence for agile estimation

The Fibonacci sequence can have a lasting, positive effect throughout each sprint. Benefits include:

  • Consistency across teams: A standardized Fibonacci approach gives different groups within an organization a consistent metric. This makes it easier to compare efforts, even when a point's actual “value” varies across teams.
  • Regular decomposition: If an item reaches the higher end of the Fibonacci scale, it probably means you should break it down into smaller, more manageable parts. Breaking stories into manageable chunks reduces employees feeling overwhelmed and improves overall efficiency.
  • Support for continuous improvement: Over time, teams will better understand what each Fibonacci number means for their team in terms of effort and complexity, so estimation accuracy should slowly improve.
  • Facilitating communication and collaboration: Using the Fibonacci series during planning encourages teams to discuss projects together and voice their opinions and differing views. This helps the entire team better understand the task at hand.

Further increase your efficiency with Tempo’s tools

The best agile tools facilitate more efficient processes for you and your team. Some teams may prefer the old-fashioned approach, using an actual card deck for planning poker, but most teams now use digital tools to optimize the process.

One of the best agile tools is Roadmunk by Tempo, a project management software that helps you identify priorities, analyze goals, and pinpoint dependencies. When combined with Timesheets by Tempo, you can create increasingly accurate and clearly defined task details for your team so everyone feels well-prepared to deliver great work.

If you already use Jira to manage your agile processes, check out Roadmunk for Jira. When you combine Roadmunk and Jira, you can use the “Progress by Story Points” feature to see a weighted percentage based on values for stories in a given epic. This gives you a deeper understanding of user point progress and the necessary time frames for different tasks.