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Want High-Performing Teams? Stop Measuring the Wrong Things

Eli Goldratt Quote on measurements related to high-performing teams

Anthony Mersino

Wed Nov 22 2023

1:44 PM

Avoid Measurements that Inhibit High-Performing Teams

Most leaders would say that they want to create high performing teams. Unfortunately, many don’t see that the way that they measure, track and report on their teams actually causes performance to suffer. Poorly chosen measurements can lead to negative team performance and undesirable results.

dilbert comic

Wells Fargo hit the news in 2016 with stories about corporate fines, employees fired, and $1.4B in market capitalization being wiped out. All of this was because the company tracked and rewarded employees for opening new customer accounts.

Though it seemed like an innocuous thing, the measures and focus on new account growth was in conflict with the best interest of the customers of the bank.

Similar things can go wrong when we track the wrong things with our Agile Teams. Managers and leaders often give little or no thought to what is being asked of teams and seem oblivious to the impact of their measurements and reports.

They want high performing teams but what they actually measure is something else, and the result is anything but high performance.

In hindsight, it is clear how the measures and rewards set up at Wells Fargo led to the unethical and fraudulent behavior at all levels of the organization.

Though I doubt that any leaders at Wells Fargo said “please act unethically”, the message of the measures and rewards was exactly that.

eli goldratt quote

There Are Measures that Support High-Performing Teams

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of metrics and measurements. For example, I marvel at the change in behavior that I see from my friends that are using Fitbits or other personal fitness tracking devices.

Those simple devices, and a public “scoreboard” have encouraged lots of people to adopt healthier habits like going out of their way to walk or run more. The “prize”? To be the current leader on the board for their group.

That is the reward. Oh, and it also leads to good health. (My wife’s company just introduced a form of Schrute Bucks as a reward for physical activity that gets their heart rate up!)

Schrute Buck

Avoid These Types of Measures that Decrease Agile Team Performance

Where do managers and leaders of agile teams go wrong? Here are some of the more problematic measurements that I have seen:

1. False Productivity Measures

Because it is easy, most organizations measure outputs and treat them the same as impacts. They are different. Examples of outputs include lines of code written by the team, deliverables produced, test cases developed, or time spent on production support.

Impacts are things like cost savings, cycle time reductions, or new customers obtained. The more impact you can get with the least amount of output, the better.

Measuring impact or outcomes is often more difficult than measuring outputs, and that is why many managers and leaders simply measure activity outputs or activities instead. I often see this with Agile teams when the managers want to use an Agile lifecycle management tool like Jira or Team Foundation Server.

Some managers insist on reviewing team activity reports from the tool, rather than focusing on the impact the team is making for the customers of the product being developed. High-performing teams are tuned in to what their customers need and focus on satisfying those needs.

2. Anti-Team Measures

Sadly, I’ve also encountered managers who track things that work against desirable team behaviors. Some managers try to track which team members are responsible for each individual story in the sprint, in particular, any that don’t get completed.

Focusing on individual ownership undermines a sense of team ownership and cooperation. I’ve also experienced functional managers trying to maintain their old reporting lines by asking team members to track things that subverted team goals.

A Quality Manager at a major bank insisted that all the test professionals working as members of agile teams report defects to him on a weekly basis. Why? And what behavior will likely result from it? Will finding a lot of defects make you think that I am doing a good job? How does my defect reporting affect my team?

Similarly, some managers request that agile teams report all their notes from their retrospectives, even the “what didn’t go well parts”. Or worse, they insist on sitting in on the retrospective to get a feel for how things are going.

They cannot imagine doing it any other way. (Note: You can learn more about conducting effective team retrospectives from my related retrospective articles here.)

3. Simple Red, Yellow and Green Status for Agile Teams

Most PMO organizations want to boil the team status down to just one indicator – Red, Yellow or Green. This is sometimes referred to as “RAG Status”.

The results? Most teams report Green, right up until they need to deliver something to the customer and then they are red. The problem is that the Red, Yellow and Green is too simplistic and too focused on the wrong things.

There is also the situation when using the Red, Yellow and Green status of Watermelon projects. Watermelon projects are the projects that everyone on the team knows are a problem, but that doesn’t get reported accurately up and throughout the organization.

There is a “greening” of status reports as they get farther and farther from the team. These are called watermelon projects because they are Green on the outside and Red on the inside.

4. Measuring Hours Worked By Individuals

My all-time least favorite measure is the one that managers and project managers seem to latch on to like a dog with a bone. They want to keep track of hours worked or time spent on tasks within agile teams in the sprint. This is another form of activity measure that ignores the outcomes or impacts of the work being done.

Hours worked by person is easy to measure, especially if teams are using a tool like JIRA. But measuring hours worked is subject to the Goldratt quote above. People will behave in ways that they think management wants.
If I think you want high actual hours, I will record that.

If I think you are watching the variance between my plan and actual hours, I will make sure my actual hours reported turns out to be as close as possible to the plan, even if I have to inflate the plan to always hit it. Whether or not that is the reality, my behavior will produce the numbers I think you want and value.

Sadly, I know of a company that does this, much to their detriment. The “scrum masters” for each team track the hours worked vs. plan every day, and they produce individual burndowns showing the plan and actual hours worked for the current sprint.

These individual reports go out each morning to the team member and their manager. There is an expectation that each person would “burn” the hours they planned, and if they didn’t, their managers were supposed to do something about it.

The problem that the organization was trying to address was rampant multi-tasking due to the over assignment of projects to people. The problem was exacerbated by managers who changed priorities to try to put out fires and reassigned people working on teams. Do you think the daily individual burndown reports did anything to help the situation?

As one might expect, most of the reports were simply ignored. They just became more noise in an already chaotic and frantic environment. To avoid trouble, most team members ensured that their hours were “burning down” exactly as planned.

The reports went to managers who were busy directing this person to this project or task and fighting fires on all fronts. But nothing changed the fact that there was too much work – a management problem – and not enough motivated people to do it.

An Action Plan for Agile Leaders Who Want High-Performing Teams

#1 – Think before you introduce any type of measure or reward.

It would be helpful if leaders gave some thought as to the type of outcomes or impacts they are looking to achieve, and not on the means to achieve it. Leave the “how” to the team.

And make sure the measures don’t undermine team ownership and performance. Finally, give some thought as to the gaming of the measure. Avoid the Dilbert ‘pay for bugs’ approach shown in the cartoon above.

#2 – Get honest with yourself about your own desire to control people

A bit of self-awareness would be useful to you. Most of these measures are designed to control people, rather than to set them up for success. Let go of control and focus on coaching instead. (See more about leading in an Agile environment here.)

#3 – Empower and trust your teams

The best way to create high-performing teams is to give them the big picture goals and let them figure out the best way to get things done. The 5th Agile Principle says to “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

#4 – Discuss and Agree on Measures with your Teams

While you might have great ideas about what would be most effective, take the time to discuss it with the team. Make sure that everyone understands and agrees. The time to get alignment with the team will pay off later.

What does your organization do about metrics and reporting for agile team members? In my next post on this topic, I make some recommendations on the things that should be measured.


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