Is Velocity a Vanity Metric?

A few weeks ago I went to a talk at Agile Yorkshire by Tom Hoyland where he discussed the how he formed an agile team. In it he claimed that Velocity is a Vanity Metric.

If you haven’t read it then I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, this was my main introduction to the term. In the book Eric talks about how a Vanity Metric is any figure which is skewed to inflate the success of a product. One of the example he gives is Number of Registered Users, a figure which will clearly go up and up over time. A better metric, Ries argues, would be Number of Active Users. Obviously if you’re looking for a successful product you’re more interested in how many users are currently using it than how many people completed the signup process.

He claims that by basing metrics and KPIs on these Vanity Metrics is akin to giving yourself a pat on the back for building a successful product while sticking your head in the sand about why your business was losing money (or the startup running out of runway as he describes it in his book).

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Beware the Vanity metric! Photo by bruce mars on Pexels.com

So, to return to Tom’s question – is Velocity a vanity metric?

Most Scrum Masters calculate a teams’ velocity by taking an average over the previous sprints. The number of sprints varies but six (around 12 weeks of work) is the norm. Using this figure the the team can then calculate how far a particular story is away from delivery or epic from completion.

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There’s no doubt that Velocity is a useful forecasting tool (although, as one of my colleagues pointed out recently that if you plan a sprint on your average velocity then you will, by definition, fail 50% of the time). However, is it deluding us into thinking we’re a successful team and detracting us from more accurate measurement?

I think this comes down to how you measure success. Most people would agree that judging a development team on how many features they can deliver is fairly narrow minded. A development team includes a Product Owner, their remit should be to develop a product not to simply crunch features. If that was their goal then they could simply create huge numbers of easy, yet useless features just to score points.

In this new age of DevOps a Development Team should use their PO’s expertise and take ownership of the success of their product. For them to be judged on how much work they produce, rather than how much success they’ve had is a limited measure. It reminds me of the from the book The Goal where they measured and optimised the workstations rather than asking whether the system was effective.

Therefore, although shocked when I heard it I agree with Tom. Velocity is a useful tool for the team to forecast. But if it’s chased as a KPI or used to measure the team then it is indeed a vanity metric and will distract the team from trying to improve their product. If we want to measure our teams’ success then we should look at the metrics of our products, not try to calculate some kind of Hours to Story Point ratio or chase an ever increasing Velocity. We should focus on Number of Active Users or Number of Requests via the API, this will measure the teams’ success, rather than it’s productivity. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, effective rather than efficient.

Just How Safe Do You Feel?

I’ve written quite a lot over the last few weeks about Safety in team discussions. What I haven’t really discussed is how to detect when the safety is starting to fail. Imagine you’re in a conversation with someone, at work or at home and they’re starting to feel unsafe. We know that this means they will stop sharing and will result is poorer group decisions. But how do we know if someone is feeling like that and what can we do to prevent it?

If you haven’t read it already I strongly recommend picking up a copy of the book Crucial Conversations. In it, the authors discuss that people generally go one of two ways when they’re feeling unsafe. They either go to silence or violence.

When someone goes silent they often stop talking or become very monosyllabic in their responses. Perhaps they want to shut down the conversation or move onto another, safer topic or maybe they’re only sharing certain parts of the story – the parts which support their argument rather than discussing the potential problems with it. However silence manifests it’s usually because the person doesn’t feel comfortable with the topic and wants to move on or gloss over the real issue.

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Other people tend to go to violence. I’m not talking about physical violence (at least I hope we’re not making people so unsafe they have to lash out). I’m talking about attacking an idea or, even worse, a person. Comments like “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” or “only a moron would say that” are attacks. People raise their voices and try to dominate the conversation through shear volume rather than calmly discussing the topic with someone else.

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It’s important to realise that both of these are natural reactions when someone feels insecure discussing something. It may be that you’ve said something which has upset them, or it may be that they’re worried about the whole topic of conversation.

In the example I gave a few weeks ago the developer had an idea which he refused to share with the group because he didn’t think the team would listen to his opinion. However, he could equally have turned to violence and tried to force his point on the group by making them feel unsafe challenging him. Both of these are defense mechanisms. It’s our role as colleagues, as human beings, to look for signs that someone is starting to feel unsafe in a conversation and to look for ways to reassure them so we can resume constructive dialogue.

Collaboration is hard, if we really want the best decisions then we need to hear all viewpoints and listen to everyone’s experience. We can’t do that if we bulldoze our view too firmly. The next time you’re passionate about an idea take a look around you and see how others are reacting to you… are they going to silence or violence? We cannot change other people’s behaviour but if we try and support other people’s confidence then we’re likely to get ideas and suggestions presented which we’d never have considered ourselves – after all, isn’t that the point of a team?

Crucial Conversations Book Review

I’ve been posting a lot about communication and safety recently and I want to give credit to the book which kickstarted my renewed interest.

Crucial Conversations is by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, and Ron Mcmillan. In the opening chapters the authors explain that a crucial conversation is any exchange where the stakes are high and emotions are running rampant. They describe how avoiding these conversations or handling them badly can leave lasting repercussions on our wellbeing.

Over the following chapters they describe how to recognise safety, how to reinforce it, and how to reach a positive outcome. It’s really strong stuff, in fact I’ve incorporated many of their ideas in my own style and recent talks.

The book isn’t targeted to a work environment, in fact many of the examples are close to home and personal scenarios. Asking for a raise or disagreeing with someone over a design choice will seem like small fry compared to some of the issues the characters in the book face.

However, I believe strongly that by using these techniques teams can communicate more effectively. By using some of the ideas Kerry and his fellow authors use to monitor safety in a conversation we’ll have better retros, planning sessions, and general collaboration.

If you’ve not read it then I strongly suggest you pick up a copy – it’s one of the few books I’ve rated 5* this year.

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Talent vs Hard Work

I recently read an article by Chris Brecheen, I follow his page on Facebook and his post about dungeons and dragons caught my attention on a slow Sunday morning.

In it, he discusses a D&D player with an unbeatable magic sword who saunters up to a dragon and, through lack of preparation, is reduced to a pile of ash. Meanwhile the team who have battled against ogres, orcs, and trolls for the last three years eventually manage to bring down the monster after several hours of hard fighting.

The message was that having “talent” in something (or at least believing you do), makes you overconfidence, brittle, and actually limits what you can achieve.

In his book The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin discusses how children are given positive reinforcement in one of two ways. Either they are told that they’re really good at something, maths for example, or they are told that they worked really hard.

The difference comes, Josh explains, when they meet a challenge they can’t overcome. The kid who is told that they’re good at maths immediately assumes when they face a question they cannot answer that they are not good enough. The child raised to believe that they succeeded because they work hard has a different outlook, they believe that they’re stuck because they’ve not worked hard enough. One child will continue to work the problem, the other will assume it is beyond them.

Believe it or not I’ve seen the same thing in developers, some with fifteen or more years of experience. When a developer is faced with a bug they cannot solve, either they assume they are not smart enough (or, far more often, that they have not been provided enough/correct information), or they simply shrug and say they’ve not found the problem… yet!

This behaviour, in my mind is one of the key differentiators between a good developer, and a great one. The outstanding developers on the team will continue to look at a problem without frustration, continually attacking it from different angles until they reach the next breakthrough. Even if that victory is only one small step to resolving it.

So what can we do to encourage this kind of behaviour in our teams? Try thanking people for their effort, rather than their smarts. Understand that real success comes from hard work, not from a bolt of inspiration.

Also, one more thing before I put aside my soap box. If we want to continue to grow then throw aside any delusions of being where you are by being the smart one, you got there through work – just like everyone else. You didn’t inherit a magical sword or extraordinary talent. So make sure you’re not relying on it the next time you meet a particularly scary dragon!

Why is Safety So Important?

I wrote recently about safety and how I’d describe it, I gave an example of a developer who suspected that a particular approach chosen by the team wouldn’t work but didn’t feel confident enough to speak out and challenge the design.

In this post I want to discuss just how serious that lack of safety is. Beyond that lack of a warning a lack of safety can lead to bugs, disengagement, and even resignations.

If you’ve not already read it then I suggest picking up a copy of 5 Dysfunctions of a Team but Patrick Lencioni. It really is very good!

To back up my statement over resignations I want you to think of the last time you disagreed with your spouse, friend, or family member folder what to do one evening or weekend. Maybe they wanted to go shopping or redecorate a room. I want you to think about how you felt doing that activity and question whether you really gave it 100%

Not really being engaged is hardly unsurprising. Let’s say you wanted to see one film but you were talked into seeing something different. Are you really going to admit that you enjoyed it or will you secretly (it not so secretly) believe that your choice would have been better?

The point of this simple example is that humans struggle to commit to an idea while they still believe that their option would have been better. When we have joint design discussions if someone has an idea and doesn’t voice it or has concerns but gets shot down then they will never feel like their voice has been heard. They become disengaged from the end result, because they never wanted to do it that way anyway. It’s not malicious, it’s a defence mechanism because don’t want to admit that out way wasn’t better.

Only be encouraging all team members to openly discuss their ideas so we gain not just consensus, but buy in. As for staff retention, if your team member never feels bought into the work because they don’t feel like their view is listened to, how long do you think they will remain in that team?

What Exactly is Safety?

When I first heard about someone taking about safety in the workplace I assumed that it was part of an anti-bullying campaign, a Health and Safety initiative, or perhaps some huggy feely thing from someone in HR. It took a little while for me to realise that not only is safety everyone’s responsibility, it is perhaps the most important component of an effective team.

To try to illustrate what safety is I’m going to give you a fictional scenario.

I dropped in on the last few minutes of the team’s planning session. As their manager I’m not strictly required to attend but I like to join occasion to keep up to date with what they are working on.

One of the developers was up at the whiteboard, pen in hand, and he was gesturing enthusiastically at his design. The rest of the team nodded, some eagerly, others showing the fatigue so typical towards the end of a long meeting.

Seeing that the group were wrapping up I caught the eye of one of our senior developers. We had a 1:1 scheduled and I wanted to get started quickly so I wasn’t late for my next meeting.

A few minutes later, coffee in hand, he had just finished telling me about the new data access module he’d created for one of our legacy products. After giving him the appropriate thanks I shifted the conversation onto the upcoming work.

“So it sounds like planning went well?” I asked.

He shifted awkwardly in his chair, obviously not enamoured with the change in topic. “Yeah… but I’m really not sure it’s going to work.” He muttered “I tried something similar a few years back and it just got way to complicated too quickly, the code became unmanageable and we had to abandon the whole thing.”

My blood ran cold. There was a lot riding on the next piece of work. Deadlines, client expectations, the team’s reputation. Forcing calm into my voice into my voice I asked the most obvious question.

“Did you mention this in the meeting?”

“No…” he said “I didn’t think they’d listen to me…”

I’ve deliberately tried not to give extreme an example here. It’s all to easy to discuss nuclear reactors or operating theatres when taking about safety but that implies that the requirement to feel safe only matters in life or death situations. That’s not the case. The more confidence people have the better our teams will function at all times.

So, let’s talk about the problem here. The team has decided on a particular design for a piece of work. One of the developers believe that the solution is doomed to failure and has failed to share that concern. It’s very easy to blame the developer here, or the guy holding the pen for not listening, but in truth it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that people feel they can contribute important, and often unwelcome views without fear of reprisal.

But where does this fear come from?

Unfortunately it’s hard coded into our DNA. Based in the same rational as our irrational terror of public speaking the fear of speaking out and voicing unpopular views is grounded in our history as a tribal species. Millennia ago, if a member of the tribe appeared weak, either because their view had been successfully challenged or if they’d lost such a confrontation then they risked being ostracised from caveman society. We are programmed with a strong herding instinct not to challenge dominance or listen to viewpoints which may make us appear weak or incorrect. Unfortunately in the modern workplace these fears put projects at risk of failure.

Team members feeling safe enough to voice their ideas is crucial if you want your team to reach its highest potential. We need to build teams where everyone, not just those with fancy job titles or big egos feels safe to voice their opinions.

I plan to write more about safety over the next few weeks, however if you’re interested in learning more I highly recommend Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek and Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson.

But I’m Not In Customer Service…

I’m going to start with a confession before hopping on my soap box. I was recently copied in on a couple of emails going back and forth with a customer. I wasn’t overwhelmed by our responses, in fact there were quite a few things I would have changed, the information was accurate but it wasn’t conveyed particularly well. I was about to get involved when I had the thought “But I’m not in customer service…”

All I can say is that I’m extremely glad I didn’t say those words out loud, as soon as my internal monologue had paused for breath I realised just how little sense it was making. We are ALL in the business of customer service!

In most corporations we’re split into various teams, often with complimentary skills. We are then given goals and objectives to complete. The majority of my time is spent supporting my team and working with upcoming releases. On a day to day basis I don’t speak to our customers that frequently (unless we’re collaborating on a new feature or UAT obviously).

Does that mean I’m not in the business of customer service?

Does that mean that I don’t need to consider the customer?

Absolutely not!

Aside from the fact that it’s our customers who pay my salary as a developer the entire goal of my working day is to provide a high quality product to our customers. There are many parts of that, a good design, a high quality implementation, but also the marketing and support we provide to our customers.

If you were searching the app store and you found two equivalent 99p applications one with beautiful screenshots and another with bad grammar, typos, and a vague feature list which would you invest your money in?

If you were making the decision for a multi-million pound software investment would you rather work with the team who fob off your questions or the one one who can provide high quality answers?

Now, I’m not saying that we all need to move into marketing and join the OU’s customer service courses. But I do believe that we all need to remember that the reason our business is operating is because we have customers – providing a good service to them is in ALL of our remits from the developers to the accountants and everyone in between. Build your features with the customers’ frame of mind, write your email with the phrasing you’d like to receive and let’s not any of us mutter the phrase “but I’m not in customer service!”

Measuring your Support Queue

Last week I wrote about how we use a dedicated “SWAT Team” to handle the inevitable unplanned work which threatens to creep in and disrupt our sprints. This week I want to talk about how we measure our SWAT Team, what KPIs we use and how we know whether we are doing a good job.

There are hundreds of posts out there which discuss the merits of KPIs for developers and how the wrong ones encourage behaviour such as cherry picking or incorrect prioritisation. I agree with them entirely, that’s why it’s important that the measurements you do take should reflect the customer experience, rather than the team’s performance.

For example, counting the number of tickets solved would be a poor metric because only quick wins would be looked at. Equally timing how long was spent on each ticket would also encourage people to rush in order to get better stats. However, recording how long a customer waited (from raising a ticket to resolution) measures the customer experience – which is, after all what we should be more concerned about!

In my team we use two main statistics to measure how well we’re performing. The first is one I’ve mentioned before. Average Support Ticket Age is crucial for us because it places a numeric value on how long customers are currently waiting for our help.

The second metric we use is Cycle Time, this is the time between a Ticket being passed to the team and it being resolved. In other words, how long is it taking to solve tickets passed to us This is taken as an average of tickets closed over the last six weeks.

The reason we like these two values is not only that they give a customer’s perspective on our work, but because they balance each other nicely. If we measured Cycle Time alone then we’d get fantastic results by simply solving tickets as they come in but longer running and challenging tickets would be left behind. Equally by focusing only on the older tickets it’s likely we’re missing urgent tickets and quick wins which could be resolved quickly. It’s only by continuously improving both values do we provide a good service.

You’ll notice that we don’t worry too much about the volumes of tickets. I find this doesn’t actually matter, the number of tickets being raised varies from month to month, from customer to customer, and will change as customers leave and (much more ideally) join us. If the team is becoming overloaded with tickets then this will be highlighted in the metrics we already have (as we won’t solve the tickets as quickly). A measure of tasks in the queue is less import than whether the team is keeping up with the required workload.

A final point to make us where we start and finish timing. If you’ve ever read The Goal you’ll know that one of Eli Goldratt’s key points is whether you are measuring the right thing (he points out that efficiency increases do not necessarily produce an increase in profit). The decision you have to make with your KPIs (particularly when a ticket was opened) is whether to start your timer when the customer raises the ticket, or when it’s passed to your team. There is no perfect answer here, if you want to understand the entire customer journey then you need to look at Customer to Customer timings, however – if your team only plays a small part in that journey (as in our development team’s case as we have several support teams before us in the process) then your metrics will be less valuable if they include areas outside your control. Consider what you’re measuring, but never forget that you may only play a small part of the customer’s overall journey.

Hopefully I’ve given you a few ideas? Do you agree with my views? How do you measure the performance of your support teams?

Why Branching still has a Place in the Agile World

I’m sure every developer out there would love to have a single code base with builds which are automatically tested and pushed out to customers. However, let’s assume for a moment that you’ve not got a full CI system with triggered builds, automated testing, and thousands of automated deployments a day.

For the sake argument let’s say you’ve got some of these pieces in place. Perhaps you have nightly builds? Maybe even some unit tests! But if you’re like most of the companies I’ve worked with you still run manual signoff scripts and have a couple of guys who do the deployments, know every config setting by heart and can get your application to run in all kinds of new and innovative ways.

Despite what The Phoenix Project tells us deployments to customers are still a big deal and version management (finding a way to release bug fixes but not new features) is a fact of life.

If your customers are anything like mine they’ll be incredibly nervous about taking new features. They want lengthy UAT phases and opportunities to train their staff on new functionality. This may seem like Waterfall to us, but remember many of our clients have stakeholders in some very big business. In my industry (Health and Leisure) for example we have code freezes over the January period while New Years Resolutioners and marketing campaigns are at their peak. Very few businesses would open themselves up to the risk of IT failures during these critical times.

And yet support contracts and maintenance doesn’t stop. The busy times are when the software is really put to the test and we must be able to respond to any issue which may arise.

This is why we use maintenance branches.

Our job as developers and IT professionals is to deliver a good service to our customers. We need tools and processes to do this. Agile and Continuous Integration are two of those tools but if they don’t help us meet business needs then we should seek others which do.

My customers tell me that they want to be able to take patches quickly if required. That they want to be able to access fixes without the need to test and learn new functionality.

Techniques such as feature toggles help but in my view the only way to truly meet this need is to cut a release branch after each feature (or for convenience block of features) is completed. We usually use a minor version to represent this. Using this model we can support customers without surprising them with new functionality and continue to develop knowing that we can put out maintenance releases of older version at any time.

Controversial? Perhaps, practically over purity… I hope so. What are your views or release branches and support customers with on premise installations?

April Agile Yorkshire

I managed to get a seat at Agile Yorkshire this month, I’ve missed a few of these recently partly due to other commitments but also the sheer popularity of these events.

Royd (from NewRedo) organises and coordinates these evenings, this week he’d arranged for Chris Cheadle and Sean Craig from NHS Digital and John Le Drew who runs The Agile Path to speak to us.

Chris and Sean went first, they spoke to us about an event they’d run a little before Christmas. They’d called it Firebreak, during a two week period almost the entire organisation downed tools and worked on “whatever they wanted”.

They’d started with almost a kickstarter approach, people posted ideas on postit notes and their colleagues pledged their time – once a project was fully resourced it was banked and it would go ahead.

I love the idea of this sort of thing, really opening the doors to let teams work on what they want – what they feel wild make a difference. Anything from process improvement to a proof of concept or a piece of server maintenance. It certainly seemed to be a positive experience for the NHS team, some of the projects saved thousands of pounds on licence fees!

The second talk of the night was about Safety and how important it is to effective teams.  John explained that he considered safety to be “free to make suggestions, give feedback, and make mistakes without fear of punishment or humiliation.”

For me this feeds into the fundamental requirement of trust which Patrick Lenconi described in his book Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He postulated that without trust (or in John’s words safety) teams would not challenge each other and discuss ideas.

John had a few examples of this, my favourite was a role play exercise where three characters were so determined to avoid taking the blame for pressing The Big Red button which would overload the nuclear reactor they refused to cooperate to press the three buttons which would save them. Contrived? Perhaps… but it makes the point that if you are scared to look foolish then you’ll naturally be less confident to make suggestions.

Something which did niggle me was the idea of accountability, as managers we need to hold our directs responsible for their performance but this is challenging without undermining that feeling of security. In Lenconi’s book he encourages the team to hold each other accountable, finding the balance between a blame culture and safe, self motivating team is a difficult balance to find!

I’d certainly recommend listening to John if he’s speaking in your area. At the very least I’d say every manager should hear his views about engagement and workplace stress! I for one will be listening to his podcast.

It was a great night, as I’ve said before I’d always suggest Agile Yorkshire if you’re a Leeds based  geek!