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Measuring the Wrong Thing is Worse Than Measuring Nothing

Updated: Jan 22


Measuring the wrong thing is worse than measuring nothing.

Agile frameworks have revolutionized the product development landscape, improving collaboration and adaptability and fostering a focus on benefits provided to the customer.  But this new way of working takes some getting used to.  It can be challenging for organizations to let go of old working methods.  As organizations strive to quantify the productivity and effectiveness of their agile teams, the adage "you get what you measure" becomes increasingly pertinent. In pursuing metrics, it is crucial to recognize that measuring the wrong things can have detrimental consequences, potentially eroding the principles that make agile successful.


Changing Behavior Through Measurement

The saying "when you measure something, you change behavior" profoundly impacts agile development. Metrics are potent influencers that can shape the actions and priorities of individuals and teams. Two examples are cautionary tales, illustrating how misguided metrics can lead to counterproductive outcomes.


The Task-a-Day Fallacy

In one instance, a Scrum team's leaders mandated developers to close one task daily, with performance reviews hinging on this metric. The unintended consequence was a surge in superficial task closures, often labeled as "still working on xyz." This obscured the team's actual progress and introduced busy work, diminishing transparency and overall team performance. The focus on quantity over quality created an environment where developers prioritized closing tasks at the expense of delivering value.


The Point Inflation Dilemma

In another scenario, a team implemented a metric tracking the number of story points closed by each developer per sprint. This well-intentioned effort to gauge individual contributions resulted in a distortion of behavior during sprint planning meetings. Developers, driven by the desire to boost their personal metrics, inflated the point values of Product Backlog items assigned to them. This compromised the accuracy of forecasting measures and fostered a sense of paranoia within the team. Developers hesitated to invest time in refining the Product Backlog, fearing it would negatively impact their individual statistics.


Do this instead:  Measure the Impact on Customer Outcomes

Instead of fixating on measuring the busyness of individuals, organizations should redirect their focus toward assessing the impact that agile teams have on customer outcomes. The essence of agile lies in delivering value to the customer through continuous collaboration and adaptation. Metrics that align with this principle include customer satisfaction, time-to-market, and the delivery of high-quality, valuable features.


Organizations can foster a culture of continuous improvement and innovation by prioritizing outcomes over activity. Metrics should serve as tools to enhance understanding, collaboration, and decision-making rather than becoming arbitrary targets that distort behavior and compromise the essence of agile methodologies.


Conclusion

Measuring the wrong things can be more detrimental than not measuring at all. The cautionary tales of teams focusing on arbitrary task closures and individual point metrics underscore the need for thoughtful and purposeful metric selection. Instead of fostering an environment of busy work and paranoia, organizations should measure the impact of agile teams on customer outcomes, ensuring that metrics align with the core principles of delivering value and fostering collaboration. In pursuing success in agile development, let us not forget the sage advice: "Measure wisely, or measure not at all."


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