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What Is Churn in Agile?

The word ‘churn’ takes on a variety of definitions, but it usually denotes some form of movement or transformation. In the business world, churn measures the rate at which customers turn away from a brand or a particular product. In Agile, churn is when changes are made to the list of tasks or user stories that a team must complete within an Agile iteration. In the Scrum framework, this to-do list is known as a product backlog

Agile churn is sometimes inevitable, but it should not occur consistently. It often arises as a result of context switching, another practice that is considered undesirable in an Agile project. The goal should be to reduce Agile churn during your iteration or sprint — there should be minimal changes to your backlog if any. Your Agile team members will already have estimated the effort required to complete an iteration on time, using story points. Making changes in the middle of the development process will affect this estimation and potentially derail progress. 

Example of Agile churn

Let’s take the example of a software development team updating an existing mobile app. The Scrum team members are working through a number of backlog items, which include bug fixes and extended functionality. This backlog must be completed within the current sprint, which is two weeks long. One week in, the team’s product owner suggests adding a new item to the backlog: a feature that allows users to customize their profile. This additional feature means the Scrum team now has to reassess the workload to see if all deliverables can be achieved within the allotted time. This could put team members under significant pressure to meet their targets, potentially leading to Agile burnout.

How to reduce Agile churn

To reduce Agile churn, teams should take note of the following tips:

  • Create shorter iterations/sprints: If Agile churn is a consistent problem, teams can consider reducing the length of their iterations. For example, if iterations periods run for a week rather than a month, there will be fewer instances of churn. If changes aren’t urgent, they can be made the following week in a new iteration.
  • Communicate with the product owner: By spending more time on iteration planning, developers and product owners can remain closely aligned on end deliverables. They should meet before every iteration starts to confirm these deliverables and reduce the possibility of Agile churn.

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