Five Signs of Trouble in an Iteration

During the course of an iteration, an agile team is able to track it’s own progress through the use of burndown charts. The team and the process facilitator can use the burndown chart to watch for signs of trouble. As a coach, I find the following five burndown shapes are common indicators of trouble.

But let’s first show the idealized “normal” burndown. This burndown shape shows that the team is on-track to get to done exactly at the end of the iteration. The work remaining has had a constant slope down through the course of the iteration.

Agile Advice - Burndown Chart Patterns - Normal.png

Now the warning signs:

1. Too Much Work

In this burndown, the team sees that it has likely selected too much work for the iteration. The process facilitator and the product owner need to work with the team to decide how to change the scope so that the team can get done. One might be tempted to add people to the team to get the work done faster, but this is rarely successful.

Agile Advice - Burndown Chart Patterns - Too Much.png

2. Not Getting Done

Frequently, when a team is just starting out with agile work, it commits to slightly too much work. It is hard to detect this at the beginning of an iteration. Instead, it is only near the end of the iteration that it becomes apparent that the team isn’t quite going to make it to done. The process facilitator must work with the team to determine the root causes of this and change things so it doesn’t happen again.

Agile Advice - Burndown Chart Patterns - Not Done.png

3. Early Learning

When a team is starting the iteration, it can discover new things about the work it has committed to accomplishing. This can include dependencies, new tasks, extra components that need to be built, etc. This discovery process is normal, but needs to be monitored closely. If the burndown doesn’t start going down again after about 15% of the iteration is over, then there is likely trouble brewing.

Agile Advice - Burndown Chart Patterns - Learning.png

4. Unresolved Obstacles

Sometimes the team will run into an obstacle that will completely stop their progress. Although the process facilitator is responsible for dealing with obstacles, it may be impossible for an obstacle to be fixed quickly. If the team finds that all the work it committed to for the iteration is dependent on someone who is sick or on vacation, that can lead to an unresolvable dead halt. This may be an opportunity to cancel the iteration.

One interesting example of this was observed by a coach I work with frequently, Deborah Hartmann. She was away from her team for a few days and when she came back, she observed this “flatline” burndown. After poking around a little bit to try and find the obstacle, someone finally described what had happened. At the time of the flatline, a Vice President in the organization had come into the team’s area, looked around, and loudly declared something to the effect of, “I don’t know why you guys are doing this project. It’s totally worthless!” Suffice it to say that the team was seriously demoralized. It wasn’t a technical obstacle, it wasn’t a procedural or bureaucratic obstacle, it wasn’t even a cultural obstacle. It was just a serious blow to morale. Of course, to fix this, the actual sponsor of the project had to be brought in to assure the team that it was actually an important project and that there were people in the organization who needed the work that the team was doing.

Agile Advice - Burndown Chart Patterns - Obstacle.png

5. Scope Creep

This last case is rarer for an agile team if the team and the product owner have been educated well about the rules. Nevertheless, it can happen. The product owner, or some other stakeholder, pushes the team to add scope to the iteration. The process facilitator is normally responsible for preventing this from happening. If despite this it does happen, the burndown chart makes the consequences of this scope creep.

Agile Advice - Burndown Chart patterns - Scope Creep.png

Special Quiz Section!!!What are the possible explanations for the following burndown shape? I have heard/experienced at least six different possible reasons. Leave your answers in the comments.

Agile Advice - Burndown Chart Patterns - Quiz.png

Update: at Agile Chronicles, there is a short article about this topic which mentions one more burndown chart pattern that is a bad sign: the “Late-Breaking Decline“.

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