Our Work


What Happens When Nothing Gets Done?

By Dina Nikitaides on March 31, 2015

Early in March the ILAO Builds Dev team hit a rough sprint. IllinoisLegalAidOnline.org, our organizational website, died taking our tech director’s time for half of the sprint (that’s right, she completely rebuilt a site on a new platform in a week, our tech director rocks!), our team was attacked by various illnesses (scary stuff, not your everyday sniffle), one member went on vacation (it wasn’t so rough for her), and we lost a member (don’t worry, she’s still with us, just focused on other projects). As a result, we got nothing done. And not nothing like you do a zillion little things but no big things so somehow it feels like nothing. Really NOTHING.

So what happens when not a single story gets completed in a sprint? The scrum flatlines. Fairly literally as you can see in the chart below. This is our “burndown chart” for a two-week sprint.

Since you might be wondering (what on earth is a burndown chart?), here is what you are looking at:

  • Story Points (vertical axis): Total number of story points taken on for the sprint. At the beginning of each sprint the scrum team decides which "stories" or tasks to take on and then asigns a point value. The point value is not meant to equal work hours. It is an arbitrary measure of effort the story will require. A higher point value may be because of known complexities, unknowns, work effort/manpower needed, etc. The idea behind story points is that over time we will get better at estimating so that stories with the same number require the same amount of work effort from our scrum team. Over time we will learn what range of story points our scrum team can tackle in a sprint and use that as a guide during our sprint planning meetings.
  • Time (horizontal axis): The length of our sprint.
  • Grey Line: The ideal work progression through a sprint with a team fully completing stories every few days of a sprint.
  • Red Line: The red line represents our work progression throughout the two-week sprint. To the far left, before any work is done, the red line starts at the total number of story points taken on for the sprint. As work is done and stories are completed, we “burn down” the story points and the red line drops, hopefully to zero by the end of the sprint. You can see our red line has a couple of drops and then flatlines with a minor dip blip. Sadly, those drops were not even completed stories. Those drops represent a loss of story points because we took stories out of the sprint as the above-mentioned unforeseen events came up. The minor blip at the end happened when we thought we completed a couple story but realized we had not.

So there we were, no days left in the sprint and 122 story points to go. The team did work on the stories, we just didn’t complete any and that’s the goal. In the agile development process the dev team breaks large projects into small tasks not only to have rounds and rounds of additions and improvements, but to have little successes and a feeling of accomplishment along the way.

It was rough, the team was feeling disappointed. But totally unpredictable, unwanted issues are going to interfere with success once in a while. And what really happens when nothing gets completed in a sprint? The scrum team rallies and quickly moves on because there is another two week sprint ahead, and another sprint after that, and one after that…

That’s a great thing about the agile development process, you get a fresh start every two weeks. You get another shot at hitting zero on the burndown chart like we did here in sprint 7. Woo-hoo success!


Dina Nikitaides
Interactive Content Manager