Visualizing project data effectively is one of the key elements of the Agile methodology. One of the most popular tools to do so are the Agile Burndown charts. So, let’s explore how and why you would use one.
Amongst the many tools a project team can use to keep track of progress, an agile burndown chart is one of the most popular because it is both simple and effective. In this article, we’ll introduce what a burndown chart is, the benefits of using one in Agile, and what a burndown chart consists of. Then we’ll compare and contrast burndown charts vs burnup charts so that you can clearly understand the differences and when to apply each one.
What is an Agile Burndown Chart?
Agile burndown charts visualize how fast your team is working by plotting user stories against time. It’s a great tool for helping agile project management teams keep track of what they’ve done, what still needs to be done, and how much time is left in the project.
The chart works from the end user’s perspective and is only updated after the successful completion of a user story. The chart records a team’s pace – also known as ‘velocity’ – and predicts their performance.
In agile projects, burndown charts are either product burndown charts or sprint burndown charts.
Product burndown charts show you how many of the product goals your team has achieved so far and how much work is left. Rather than dates, the horizontal axis shows you the sprint number while the vertical axis shows the story points.
Sprint burndown charts, by contrast, focus on the ongoing sprints. This will display the user stories selected by the development team in their sprint planning session. It also displays the dates on the horizontal axis to track performance, like so:
Benefits of using a Burndown Chart in Agile
Burndown charts are useful for Agile projects because of their simplicity and adaptability. At their most basic, these charts show you:
- Total work at each point in time or iteration
- Remaining tasks
- The actual speed of the team
- Estimated speed of the team
From this information, you can also see another benefit: The Agile burndown chart compares planned and actual progress in a way that’s clear to see. This means you can tell right away if progress is not going according to plan.
It can also help team leaders and managers to avoid scope creep.
The simple visualization of progress is great for enabling effective collaboration and keeping everyone in the loop. The charts don’t take too long to create or to read and understand, which helps everyone to stay on the same page.
The burndown chart’s simplicity can be helpful because it outlines the velocity history of a project. ‘Velocity’ is an Agile term that means the total effort estimates associated with user stories that were completed during an iteration or sprint.
A burndown chart can also help to motivate team members. It keeps everyone involved and the constant comparison with ideal performance on the graph can encourage members to perform consistently. In most agile workplaces, the burndown chart is kept in a focal point where everyone can see it or access it easily, as it helps keep everyone updated and focused.
On the other hand, while there are several benefits to using burndown charts, there are some drawbacks as well. Burndown charts only show the number of user story points completed. They don’t show changes in the scope of work as reflected by the total points in the backlog.
This means it can be hard to tell if changes in a burndown chart are due to completed backlog items or because of an increase or decrease in story points.
Key components of an Agile Burndown Chart
Each burndown chart will contain some variation, but they all include the following:
An Agile burndown chart’s horizontal axis will display time/iteration and its vertical axis will display user story points, items or estimations. The leftmost point of the horizontal axis shows the starting point of the current project iteration or sprint, while the rightmost point shows the end of your project or sprint.
2. Ideal work remaining line
The ideal work remaining line indicates the remaining work that a team has at a specific point of the project or sprint under ideal conditions. This line uses the past performance of the team to estimate their performance and gives you a way to measure your performance. The ideal work line displays as a dotted or different colored line and shows as a constant, negative slope whereas in reality, teams work with different velocities throughout the project.
3. Actual work remaining line
In contrast to the ideal work remaining line, the actual work remaining line on a burndown chart shows the real progress of the project. The actual and ideal work lines start at the same point on the chart, but the actual line is drawn as the team progresses and completes user stories. Because it reflects genuine progress, it will go above or below the ideal line, according to whether your project is running behind or ahead of schedule.
If the actual line is above the ideal line, your project is running behind. Similarly, the actual line being below the ideal one means your project is ahead of schedule. In the images the actual work remaining line is marked in blue.
Agile Burndown Chart vs Burnup Chart: Which is better?
Burnup charts are another popular way of visualizing projects. They are similar to burndown charts as they share the same coordinate system. However, a burndown chart shows all the remaining work and burnup charts tell you how much you’ve achieved.
Where a burnup chart adds user stories to the vertical axis as they are completed, a burndown chart keeps track of the remaining work by removing user stories from the vertical axis as they are completed.
As a result, it can be hard to tell if changes in the burndown chart are due to completed backlog items or because of an increase or decrease in story points. Having a burnup chart resolves this problem by having a separate line in the graph for the overall backlog size.
While burndown charts proceed in a downward direction, burnup charts start from the bottom and climb up. Burnup charts also have a separate scope line that indicates how far your product is from the requirement.
Here’s a chart showing monthly numbers of new and completed items in Teamhood.
Agile burndown charts are simpler, while burnup charts show more details and can tell you about the changes in scope beforehand. Whereas burndown charts show changes in features and scope only after an iteration is completed, burnup charts can help you plan for changes in scope and increase your efforts to meet the deadline.
Either can work well – it’s up to you to try them in your organization and see which is most effective for you.
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2019 - Present Co-founder and CEO @ Teamhood.
2015-2019 Head of software engineering department at Danske Bank.
2017-2018 Partner Associate Professor at Vilnius University. Lecturer of Software Architecture course
2011 - 2015 Managed numerous smaller IT teams at Prewise.
Co-founder of RaveIT, Eylean, No Brakes Games
Certified Agile product owner and practitioner. Managed large scale enterprise projects as well as launch of small startup products.
MSc of Software Engineering at Vilnius University.
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