A burn-up agenda tracks progress towards the planned topics for a workshop. It can be used for any meeting, but is especially useful for time-boxed workshops with a list of topics to be covered.
— Martin Fowler (@martinfowler) August 5, 2014
Burn-up agendas emerged from intensive brainstorming workshops, such as inceptions and ideations. Even though such workshops invite broad discussion, typically they have a time box and must cover a few topics, achieving the desired outcome.
The sequence of photos shows a burn-up agenda on different times. Starting at 8 am, when the agenda was created, then snapshots at 9:20 am, 10:50 am and noon when the workshop ended.
The vertical axis is the amount of topics to be covered, and it’s measured up in units customized to your own plan. The horizontal axis is time, usually measured up in hours or days.
The topics to be covered must be grouped in a way that the topic discussion duration is somewhat similar. For instance, if your agenda has five topics, and you expect that topics 1 and 2 take half hour each, topics 3 and 4 take one hour each, and topic 5 takes two hours, then you should consider having the topics grouped in the following way:
- Topic 1&2
- Topic 3
- Topic 4
- Topic 5.1
- Topic 5.2
This way, each topic grouping has similar expectation on the duration of the discussion allocated to it. Please, note that despite of the actual timing (it should take 10 minutes, half hour or two hours), the most important thing is that a topic grouping has similar expectations on the amount of time taken.
Another important aspect is for the topics to follow a chronological order. Just like a clear meeting agenda: first we will cover this, second we will cover that, and so forth. The sequence of the topics must be clear.
Agenda time marks
The time marks on the horizontal axis must identify equal interval of times, starting on the beginning of the workshop, and finishing on the expected end of the workshop. The burn-up agenda example show time marks as half-hours. The time parks units (such as minutes, hours, days) should be related to the excepted duration for the topics.
Consider you are building an agenda for a 5-day workshop with 10 topics. Perhaps an hourly-based time marks would be too fine grained; a daily or half-day time marks feels more appropriate.
The Target and the meeting pace
The advantage of the burn-up agenda is the clear understanding of the target, the point in which the scope line meets the end time line. The target is shown in the next picture.
By drawing a diagonal line from the start point (the point where the axes meet) to the target point, you do have a clear indication of the pace for the meeting or workshop. On the figure, it is depicted as the planned line.
Another important measure is the scope line, the horizontal line above the last planned topic. Such line clearly tracks if and when new topics have been added or removed to the meeting. It also allows you to visualize the intersection of this horizontal line to the vertical line representing the end of the workshop.
Everything under discussion should be a topic. If new topics emerge, they should be added to the topic list and the scope line must be adjusted. This way, the scope line allows you to easily spot when topics are being added, which will affect the completion time. Whether this topic is essential to the discussions, it is an important signal that the completion time may need to be moved in response. The scope line also tracks where topics are being removed to meet a fixed deadline. Again, this is important to know as it may impact the other topics on the agenda, and is something that needs to be clearly discussed with everyone.
From time to time you can see the amount of topics covered and the total amount of planned topics. The distance between the horizontal lines marking the current topic and the last one to be covered is thus an indication of the amount of topics remaining.
When the two lines meet, the planned agenda will be complete. This is a powerful measure of how close you are to complete the planned agenda.
Regularly checking progress is an important part of time management. There are two basic movements on the agenda, and they are both horizontal movements: (1) time has changed; the post-it with a big arrow representing the current time moves to the right, and (2) an agenda topic discussion has ended; the respective topic post-it moves to the right to the current time.
This tracking mechanism allows you to instantly identify certain types of problems, such as a deviation from the excepted duration for the first topics. These problems can then be discussed and corrective action can be taken at an early stage, rather than when it is too late.
Consider the snapshot represented on the next picture. It is 10:00 am, the middle of the workshop, and only four out of ten topics have been covered. The burn-up makes this visible.
Draw a line from the start time to the last topic covered, and then extend it to the end line. This is the actual line. With it, the target is questioned. What to do? Accept the current pace, and reduce scope (remove topics from the agenda)? or move faster on the remaining topics?
Having the burn-up agenda visible to everyone builds confidence and trust in both your time management, and the progress of the meeting or workshop as a whole. Yet simple, it is an effective tool to help plan and facilitate important gatherings.