Using Individual Burndowns

I have my very own Scrum team right at home. There are seven of us in the family. I love each and every one of my family members equally, but that does not mean that each one of my family members is the same nor would I treat each one exactly the same. Of my three boys, each has their own wants, needs and desires that I need to help fulfill on a regular basis. One needs extra help for their homework, one needs extra time to help them with their driving lessons and my youngest just needs me to spend as much time as possible with him even if we don’t do much of anything (though we always seem to have something). In other words, in order to have a highly functioning family (team) I have to treat each family member (team member) a little differently. I don’t hand the car keys over to my five year old nor do I hold hands when I walk down the street with my twenty year old.

I have two second families right now, the two scrum teams that I have the pleasure of being acting scrum master for. Like my own family at home, both of these teams is comprised of individuals with different levels of Agile maturity. One team is close to highly functioning while the other is just now taking the first tentative steps into Agile. One team can handle nearly all their sprint planning while the other needs a great deal of time. One has tasks assigned to the team (and chooses tasks based on availability during the sprint) while the other goes through the effort of making sure that tasks are chosen during planning to ensure that they don’t over-commit.

This brings me to the idea of individual burndown charts. Some quick research on the web shows that most people believe thatindividual burndown charts are the spawn of the devil and should be avoided at all costs. Like most Agilista pronouncements, there is no context given. The question is not whether it is good or evil, but can an individual burndown be used to help a team become more Agile? The answer is unequivocally yes. I don’t now, nor wouldn’t ever, use these for my more highly functioning team any more than I would out my sixteen year old in time out, but I do use them for my more “junior” team as a means of making sure that I provide them with the support that they need.

How does it work? My current position uses SharePoint to track stories, tasks, hours remaining, etc. (management is too cheap to sprint for a mature tool) and Excel to create burndown charts for each team and the division as a whole. Each individual also has a hour capacity for the sprint. That capacity is plotted against the length of the sprint to get an ideal line (in our case capacity/10 days). Each day I can see what remains for each individual to complete during the sprint. This information is not used to beat up individuals but can very quickly show who might be having some trouble with particular stories and tasks (think bad estimation not bad worker). I can also see who might have the ability to help the individual. During our daily we can quickly discuss if someone needs help and provide it immediately. Over time I expect that this team will get better at estimating, communication, etc and will no longer need this kind of help because when they commit to work they will have a good idea of what it takes and a good chance of success. In the meantime, I watch them more closely so I don’t send them out to fail.

I’m sure that there will be a whole bunch of Agilistas up in arms, but I can’t tell you the number of times I have been able to properly and appropriately provide help to my team by using individual burndowns. Just like my family, I want to make sure that as each family member matures that I give the appropriate amount of help until they are able to better help themselves.

Beware one size fits all. Beware strident, uncompromising, almost religious zealotry. It is your team. Support it the best way you know how. As they mature you will need to change as well, always applying appropriate levels of support.

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