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Rethinking Agile Metrics to be Outcomes Focused

Emily Clark, Transformation Coach, Prudential
Emily Clark, Transformation Coach, Prudential

Emily Clark, Transformation Coach, Prudential

In the age of big data, there is more information at our fingertips than ever before. We measure in order to establish a barometer that informs us if performance is matching expectations. Sounds harmless, right? And yet, metrics can be a source benefit or harm, depending upon how they are welded. Metrics, used correctly, can help align business and technology and be powerful indicators that inform if an organization should persevere withits current strategy or pivot to a new strategy. Used incorrectly, however, metrics can produce unintended consequences such as anti-patterns in teams’ behaviors. As part of any large-scale agile transformation, it is critical for an organization to understand exactly what is being measured and why, and to determine how these measures will be used to inform and guide teams on such a journey.

Understanding Anti-Patterns in Metrics

As a unit of measure, velocity is a common means by which a team can trend their rate of completion of work per iteration. So you might be asking, how could such a solid piece of data cause an anti-pattern in teams? Well, anyone who has spent time on an Agile team has seen velocity metrics misused as an indicator of output that is expected to increase over time or as a comparison of productivity among different teams. This misuse causes teams, willingly or sub-consciously, to sandbag their estimates to increase velocity and thus lose out on what is supposed to be a practice to drive common understanding and predictable planning from the team.

  Even the most well-intentioned metrics will result in teams adjusting their behavior, so it is best to be thoughtful in order to promote positive behavioral change versus anti-patterns 

In another example, traditional management often asks for capacity forecasts for an upcoming quarter. Often in this situation, management or individuals will find work to do until they have allocated people 100%. A busy shop is an effective shop, isn’t it? Not really. By loading up the organization to be full of busy people planned to capacity, there is no slack in the system to quickly pivot to work on the highest valued work or find time to innovate.

Even the most well-intentioned metrics will result in teams adjusting their behavior, so it is best to be thoughtful in order to promote positive behavioral change versus anti-patterns.

Rethinking Metrics to Focus on Outcomes, not Output 

The first step in rethinking metrics is to recognize that different measures serve different purposes, and that the ultimate measure is the delivery of value. Agile Maturity, Execution, and Team Health are all extremely useful metrics, but they are enablers that speak to an organization’s ability to be outcomes focused and deliver value.

We can build new muscles in our organizations were teams focus on outcomes and ask if they are building the “right things” by having them think through measures that focus on value and outcomes. An example of how to develop the right measures include working with teams to construct well formulated OKRs(Objectives & Key Results) with corresponding metrics associated with the key results. This exercise will allow the team to gauge if they are making progress towards the business objective. Going through the thought process is often as useful as the measure itself as it will help teams construct objectives that are based on desirable outcomes versus specific deliverables.

Reinforcing Positive Behaviors Through Thoughtful Metrics

When metrics are used thoughtfully to measure the “right thing” for the “right reasons”, they can help drive positive behaviors in an organization. For instance, measuring both cycle time and number of features released per quarter will drive teams to break features down into smaller chunks of value and in turn help them establish guardrails that limit their Work in Progress (WIP). This net result is a desirable behavioral change as it will help organizations achieve agility by delivering value sooner. In another example, by encouraging teams to capture Net Promoter Scores, they will be more customer centric in their designs, as delighting the customer will be viewed as a goal prioritized higher than execution metrics.

Metrics that focus on an organization’s well-being serve two powerful purposes. First, an organization with highly engaged and motivated employees, connected to a common mission, directly impacts performance. Second, an organization that views measures such as sustainability and reliability sends a message that leadership cares about the well-being of their teams, which helps build trust in an organization.

Leaders send messages to teams through the types of metrics they collect, and metrics often have the consequence of impacting behavior. Thus, it is always important to collect the right metrics for the right reasons in order to positively impact behavior and help drive organizational agility.

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