A pretty burn-down usually means ugly Scrum

Scrum Nov 16, 2020

Why you should be worried if your burn down charts are perfect

Many Scrum Teams examine their burn-down chart at every Daily Scrum. When we’re below the perfect line, life is smiling at us, and things are going great! When we’re above the imaginary line, worry starts entering our minds.

“What if we won’t be able to complete everything in the Sprint?” We pray things will be better tomorrow when we examine our burn down chart together again.

Photo by Edward Howell

Except tomorrow, things don’t look any better, and everything just seems to have gotten worse. We’re further above the line than ever. On top of that, something new and important gets added in collaboration with our enterprising Product Owner, drifting us away even further from the ideal line.

All hope is lost, and a feeling of disappointment starts sinking in: we probably won’t complete what’s left in this Sprint.

But what if this feeling makes no sense and we’re wrong? What if burn down charts are actually not that important? What if the opposite is true, and an ugly burn down chart means we are doing something right?

The Empirical Core of Scrum

The core of Scrum is shaped by Empiricism: making decisions based on what is known. What does this actually mean?

When you do Scrum, you need to work with what you know to figure out what you don’t know. Scrum is intended for complex work, which is a fancy way of saying you need to do and learn simultaneously to come up with optimal solutions. Just being book-smart won’t cut it, you need to get your hands dirty too. You need to learn what really matters by encountering reality.

So what does a perfect burn down chart indicate?

  1. Your plans don’t change. Everything initially decided and planned remains unchanged.
  2. Your actions don’t produce unexpected results. Everything you do pans out precisely as initially predicted.
  3. You’re not learning. You knew everything there was to know, and as a result, there is no need to make any changes.
  4. You’re too risk-averse. You are doing too much upfront planning and design.

Now let’s answer the opposite question, what does a messy burn down chart tell:

1. Emergence. Your team is figuring things they didn’t know before during the Sprint and learning from it.
2. Adaptation. When plans and actions turn out to be wrong, they get adjusted.
3. Flexibility. The team is willing to change the Sprint and pick up additional work if it makes sense

So, looking at it this way, what do you prefer: a burn down chart that is messy or one that looks perfect?

If you agree that it’s a good sign that your burn down is messy, then why do we spend so much time trying to have our burn down chart conform to a Platonic ideal that is never attainable and counter-productive?

If you don’t need emergence, adaptation, or flexibility, then you don’t need Scrum. You’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. You’re not doing complex work where more is unknown than known. You know everything there is to know, before even starting.

If you’ve managed to produce perfect burn down charts every single Sprint, maybe it’s time to consider dropping Scrum. You can decide, plan, and predict everything up-front. You don’t need to be Agile, as you’re not doing complex work.

Messy burn down charts show your Agile heart is beating

Pretty burn down charts are a clear sign of an Agile heart that stopped beating. It means everything goes as planned, and no work is added. Don’t aim for your plans and actions to be unvarying but for the Sprint's outcome to be predictable: delivering a Product Increment that meets the Sprint Goal. How you get there is supposed to be messy as you just don’t know enough to make perfect plans and have flawless actions that work out precisely as you expect.

Your plans, actions, and the results they produce will never be completely predictable. But you’ll be making the best decisions every step along the way by figuring out what matters most as you perform the work and observe what is happening. When doing complex work, the most control is achieved by adjusting your plans and actions, depending on the outcome you’re expecting and observing.

Here’s to ugly burn down charts and teams that are unafraid to deal with uncertainty and the unknown as it appears. Reality is too messy to try and fit on a simple, straight line.