Measure Agile Metrics that Actually Work
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Measure Agile Metrics that Actually Work

I think the Agile community needs to change how it measures success for agile teams. The ways that we gather metrics and the information we seek out of those metrics is actually getting in the way of what’s most important: making working software.

The way I see it, there are two major problems:

  1. The observer effect: The observer effect states that observing a process can impact its output. For instance, telling a team that you’ll be keeping a close eye on their velocity might cause that team to overestimate their items in order to increase their velocity. This is especially dangerous when working with story points since there’s no way to compare the validity of an estimate. Should your Scrum team stop using story points?

agile observer effect2. The streetlight effect: The streetlight effect is our human tendency to look for answers where it’s easy to look, rather than where the actual information is. For instance, counting the lines of code produced is easy but doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the application, the functionality it provides or even the effectiveness.

agile streetlight effect

So let’s apply these concepts to some common metrics.

What’s easy to measure?

Unit Tests Written

Most agile developers write a lot of unit tests, and test driven development creates even more tests (both of which create better quality code). So measuring a developer’s productivity by the number of tests they create must be good!

Actually, the observer effect kills this one dead. Telling a developer that they’ll be measured on the number of tests they write ensures they’ll create many tests with no respect to the quality of those tests.

Individual Velocity

Once again the observer effect makes this a bad metric. If a developer knows they’re being individually graded on their performance and also knows that they only get credit for the things they specifically work on, then they’re actively discouraged from contributing to the group. The developer is placed in a very un-agile situation of competing with their team rather than contributing to it.

In a perfect world, an agile team is collaborating, interacting, discussing and reviewing almost everything they do. This is a good thing for building quality software and solving problems fast, but this level of interaction makes it near impossible to separate a person’s individual productivity from the group; so don’t try, you’ll simply hurt your team’s ability to make good software.

Team Velocity

This is one of the most misunderstood metrics in all of Scrum. A team’s velocity is unique to them. It simply can’t be compared to another team. Let’s say that team A estimates a certain amount of work at 50 pts for a sprint and team B estimates that same work at 150 pts for the same sprint. Now if both teams finish their sprint successfully, then team A has a velocity of 50 pts and team B has a velocity of 150 pts. Which team is more productive? Neither. They both did the same amount of work.

If the team can’t properly plan a sprint then that puts your entire release in danger of shipping late.

Okay, smart guy, what metrics should we use?

Glad you asked. We measure productivity by the working software we deliver. We measure actual output rather than contributing factors. This approach is more agile because it frees the team to build software in whatever way can better contribute to their success rather than whatever way creates better metric scores. It’s also much more logical since working software is something that we can literally take to the bank (after it’s been sold of course). So, here are the metrics you should use.

Value Delivered

You’ll need your product owner for this. Ask them to give each user story a value that represents its impact to the stakeholders. You can enumerate this with an actual dollar amount or some arbitrary number. At the end of each sprint, you’ll have a number that can tell you how much value you’ve delivered to your customers through the eyes of the product owner.

This metric does not measure performance, instead, it measures impact. Ideally, your product owner will prioritize higher value items towards the top of the backlog and thus each sprint will deliver the maximum value possible. If you’re working on a finite project with a definite end in sight, your sprints will start out very high value and gradually trend towards delivering less and less value as you get deeper into the backlog.

On Time Delivery

People sometimes tell me that agile adoption failed at their company because they couldn’t give definite delivery dates to their clients. I don’t buy this. One thing that an agile team should definitely be able to do is deliver software by a certain date. It’s possible that a few stories may not be implemented but those are typically the lowest value stories that would have the least amount of impact on the client. That being said, a team’s velocity should be reasonably steady, if it goes up or down it should do so gradually. Wild swings in velocity from sprint to sprint make long-term planning harder to do.

Here’s the metric: if a team forecasts 5 stories for an upcoming sprint and they deliver 5 stories, then they earn 2 points toward this metric. If they deliver 4 stories or they deliver less than 2 days early (pick your own number here) then they earn one point. If they deliver more than 2 days early or they only deliver 3 (out of 5) stories they earn no points. At the end of a quarter or the end of a release or the end of the year, the team will be judged by how accurately they can forecast their sprints.

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