Burndown charts: Definition, limitations and alternatives

Taylor Bruneaux


Burndown charts are often lauded for their straightforward visual representation of project progress and team productivity, offering an immediate sense of whether a project is on track. But while burndown charts look great on a meeting slide, they’re not the be-all and end-all for every project or team.

Burndown charts are diagrams that show how much work remains over time. They help track a project’s progress and are particularly useful in agile environments, where quick decision-making and adaptability are critical.

However, the practical application and effectiveness of burndown charts can vary. Some projects may be too complex, or the team may require complete adherence to agile methodologies, which may reveal the limitations of burndown charts. Therefore, it’s essential to understand their practical applications and limitations beyond their surface-level appeal.

We can help you decide whether a burndown chart is the best choice for your team. We’ll consider factors like the size of your project, the complexity of your tasks, and how well your team follows agile practices. If a burndown chart isn’t the best option, we’ll suggest other approaches that might work better based on your specific goals and needs.

What is a burndown chart?

A burndown chart is a visual tool that displays the remaining work against the time left. It plots two axes: the vertical axis shows the work left, measured in units like hours, story points, or tasks, and the horizontal axis represents time. The completion of work is reflected by a downward trend in the chart, indicating progress towards completing the project.

Product burndown charts are instrumental for agile teams, including the project manager, to promptly assess if their progress is on track. A flat or insufficiently sloping actual work remaining line may indicate the need to catch up, necessitating adjustments. These charts typically feature an ideal work remaining line, a benchmark for the expected task decline over time, allowing teams to compare against the actual work completed.

Although the burndown chart, including variants like the epic burndown chart, is key for monitoring progress, its limitations include not capturing the quality of work done or the specific challenges encountered.

Overall, the burndown chart is a simple tool for monitoring timelines, part of a more extensive toolkit for successful project and product management.

Varieties of burndown charts: sprint and release

Agile burndown charts are crucial for monitoring development progress, presenting in two primary forms: the sprint burndown chart and the release burndown chart. Each plays a unique role within the agile framework, offering insights tailored to different aspects of the project lifecycle.

Sprint burndown chart

Importance of monitoring

Monitoring progress during a sprint, typically lasting 2-4 weeks, is vital for a team’s success. It necessitates regular checks to ensure goals are met.

Functionality and benefits

The sprint burndown chart tracks the remaining workload for each sprint day. Updated daily, it reflects outstanding tasks, enabling the team to spot and rectify deviations from their objectives quickly. This real-time tracking fosters an agile approach, encouraging daily adjustments to tackle challenges proactively. The chart is a crucial tool for maintaining focus and achieving sprint goals.

Release Burndown Chart

Broader perspective for strategic planning

In contrast, the release burndown chart offers a macro view of progress toward a product’s release, covering multiple sprints. It maps out the cumulative remaining work until the release, providing a comprehensive overview of the project’s trajectory.

Strategic value for stakeholders

This chart is essential for product owners and managers, allowing for long-term strategic planning. It aids in assessing overall progress, planning future sprints, and communicating timelines to external stakeholders. It’s invaluable for maintaining alignment on long-term objectives.

The sprint and release burndown charts are vital for offering real-time insights into project health. The sprint chart ensures that the scrum master, product managers, and teams remain agile and focused within short-term sprints. Meanwhile, the release chart supports long-term strategic planning, ensuring the project steadily advances towards major milestones within the agile development framework.

Crafting a burndown chart

Jira methodology

Generating a burndown chart is a breeze for teams in the Jira ecosystem. Jira software’s integrated functionality automatically produces burndown charts based on sprint configurations and project issues, providing a real-time view of progress with minimal manual input required.

Excel methodology

Teams not using agile-specific software or those who prefer a manual touch can opt for Excel to create their burndown charts. This approach provides flexibility and customization at the cost of additional setup time. Here’s a brief guide:

  1. Compile a list of tasks and their estimated efforts and input them into Excel.
  2. Record the actual remaining effort for each task daily.
  3. Utilize Excel’s charting tools to plot the estimated versus actual effort over time, creating a visual burndown of work.

Timing updates for release of burndown charts

The project manager usually updates the release burndown chart after every sprint. This update reflects the sprint achievements. It adjusts for any project scope or timeline changes, ensuring the chart reflects the project’s trajectory toward its goals.

Can burndown charts measure developer productivity?

Burndown charts track the volume of work remaining over time to represent progress visually. However, their ability to measure developer productivity needs to be improved.

Productivity in software development is multifaceted, encompassing the work completed and the quality of code, innovative problem-solving, effective collaboration, and technical skills. By concentrating exclusively on task completion, burndown charts overlook these qualitative factors, failing to capture the essence of developer productivity.

Here are some of the limitations of burndown charts in measuring developer productivity:

Speed vs. quality: A counterproductive mindset

The essence of burndown charts — diminishing the list of tasks in a sprint — can inadvertently shift focus towards speed, potentially at the expense of quality.

This emphasis on rapid task completion can lead to rushed coding, accruing technical debt, and a drop in the project’s overall quality. Decreasing tasks without considering the impact on the project’s long-term health can erode actual productivity, leading to more significant issues requiring reworking or correcting previously hastily completed work.

The dynamic nature of software development

Software development is inherently dynamic, with projects frequently encountering changing requirements, unexpected technical challenges, and tasks of varying complexity. With their static nature, Burndown charts need help to accurately reflect these shifts and the real-time effort developers invest in addressing them.

These charts do not capture the critical but intangible aspects of development work, such as research, planning, and collaborative discussions. As a result, the productivity measured by burndown charts may only partially align with the development team’s actual contributions and efforts.

A holistic approach to measuring productivity

Given these limitations, more than burndown charts are needed to assess developer productivity comprehensively. Both quantitative and qualitative metrics must be incorporated to make an assessment more accurate and meaningful.

Tools and methods that evaluate code quality, innovation, teamwork, and change adaptability offer a deeper understanding of developer contributions beyond task completion. Embracing a broader perspective on productivity can enhance the evaluation of development teams, ensuring that all aspects of their work are recognized and valued.

Should you use a burndown chart?

There are scenarios where more effective approaches may be more effective than using a burndown chart. Understanding these scenarios can help teams choose the right tools for project management and ensure successful project outcomes.

Here are some excellent examples of when not to use a burndown chart.

Complex or non-linear projects

Burndown charts excel in tracking the progress of projects with clearly outlined tasks that follow a linear path, employing “story points” to gauge the effort and progress of individual tasks.

However, burndown charts might need to precisely represent progress for intricate projects characterized by a strong interdependence among tasks or where the project scope is prone to substantial alterations.

In these scenarios, alternatives capable of managing complexity and fluid changes more effectively, such as Gantt charts or Kanban boards, could offer a better solution. These tools can accommodate the dynamic allocation of story points, reflecting the evolving nature of the project’s requirements and tasks.

Projects without clear deliverables

Burndown charts require a clear set of tasks or deliverables that can be “burned down” over time. Projects that are exploratory or need more straightforward deliverables at the outset may not benefit from a burndown chart. Focusing on milestones or using timeboxing strategies without a strict task list could be more effective for these projects.

Teams new to agile methodologies

The burndown chart might introduce additional complexity for teams new to agile methodologies before they are ready. Learning to estimate work accurately and manage tasks in an agile framework takes time. More straightforward tools or methodologies that emphasize the agile learning process rather than strict progress tracking might be more beneficial.

When motivation Is negatively affected

Burndown charts can sometimes create undue pressure on team members, especially if the chart is not trending downward as expected. This can negatively impact team morale and motivation. In situations where a team is sensitive to perceived pressure or demotivation from progress-tracking tools, alternative methods that focus on qualitative feedback and team collaboration might be preferable.

Short-term or tiny projects

If you can complete projects or tasks quickly in the short term, you may not need to justify setting up and updating a burndown chart. Instead, you can track progress and ensure the team completes tasks on time through a simple checklist or a brief status meeting.

Checklist: Is a burndown chart right for you?

Before creating a burndown chart, consider whether it’s the best tool for your project. Based on your project’s characteristics and team dynamics, select “Yes” or “No” for each consideration. Tally the number of “Yes” answers versus “No” answers. If most of your answers are “No,” it might suggest that an alternative project management tool or method could be more appropriate for your project.



Is the project's duration and scope clearly defined?



Can project tasks be easily quantified and estimated?



Does the project involve highly interdependent tasks, or is it likely to have significant scope changes?



Is the team experienced and comfortable with agile practices?



Is there a strong need for regular visual updates on progress?



Will the team respond positively to the visual pressure of a burndown chart?



Will a burndown chart enhance collaboration and communication within the team?



Is the project very short-term or of minimal scope, making the setup and maintenance of a burndown chart unjustifiable?



Alternatives to burndown charts

Measuring developer productivity through traditional metrics like burndown charts can be limiting. To gain deeper insights, embrace a more holistic approach considering several other factors. Tools and approaches like DevEx, a Kanban board, a Gantt chart, and Cumulative Flow Diagrams can offer a broader perspective on project health and team efficiency. These tools can help you understand developer productivity more nuanced and accurately.

Developer experience (DevEx):

Central to a modern productivity assessment, developer experience platforms like DX help understand the quality of the development environment, including tool usability, workflow efficiency, and overall satisfaction. This approach recognizes the critical role of a supportive ecosystem in fostering innovation and ensuring developers can perform at their best.

Kanban boards:

This approach is ideal for ongoing workflows rather than finite projects, as it offers a dynamic view of work stages, helps identify bottlenecks in real time, and adapts quickly to changes, providing a continuous overview of project health.

Gantt Charts:

When you have projects with multiple interdependent tasks and deadlines, using a project timeline can be very helpful. This technique can detail how tasks overlap and indicate critical milestones, offering a granular view of project timelines and dependencies.

Cumulative Flow Diagrams (CFDs):

CFDs, or Cumulative Flow Diagrams, help analyze workflow efficiency and stability. They track the accumulation of tasks across various completion stages, spotlighting workflow bottlenecks and efficiency patterns. This tracking helps balance work intake and delivery, enhancing overall workflow efficiency.

Why DX is a great alternative to a burndown chart

While burndown charts offer a straightforward visual representation of project progress, they often fail to capture the complexities of developer productivity and the dynamic nature of software development.

This is where DX excels as an alternative. DX provides a comprehensive suite of tools beyond the surface-level metrics of burndown charts. With features like DevEx 360 for understanding developer experience, Data Cloud for unifying metrics, and real-time feedback through PlatformX, DX offers a holistic view of your development processes. By leveraging DX, you can gain deeper insights into code quality, innovation, and collaboration, ensuring a more accurate and meaningful assessment of your team’s productivity and project health.

June 20, 2024

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