Metrics Are not All Good or Evil

The use of metrics continues to be a touchy subject in the development space. Managers use them, coaches get nervous about their use, and team members are stuck in the middle.

Metrics are not all good or evil. It’s what you do with them, which is a function of your mindset.

My friend Doc Norton has written a book about metrics. At a recent talk, he said this about the “planned vs. actual” metric (comparing what we thought tasks would take to what they actually took):

“It is intended to inform your planning. It is not to figure out if the team is doing things wrong. Plans are a guess; actuals are reality. The intent is not to bend reality, it is to improve our ability to guess. This metric ends up getting used backwards: we act as if the plan is good and the inability to hit it is bad.”

In the same vein, let’s talk about velocity — how much work the team generally gets done — which is meant to help with short-term forecasting. I’m sure you’ve seen a case where a team’s velocity dropped suddenly; how did people react? That’s a function of their mindset:

  • If they equate velocity with performance and assume that it ought to be predictable, then something must be wrong.
  • If they assume that the team’s velocity is the sum of individual members’ velocities, then somebody messed up.
  • If they expect velocity to fluctuate and the drop seems to make sense, they’ll simply move on.

If you’re concerned about the metrics in use, figure out the mindset that guides their users, and help them shift it in a more helpful direction.


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