Metrics, Trust and Communication

Good managers try to measure important aspects of their business with leading metrics (aka “key performance indicators”) that precede desired outcomes. Managers seeking agility often try to measure behavioral compliance to agile practices, but can inadvertently create a lying culture. When  people don’t understand the metrics or can’t provide feedback, they perceive metrics as bureaucratic nonsense that gets in the way of “real work”. Trust-building lies at the heart of good metrics programs, particularly those that involve self-reporting. Managers can promote honesty by revealing their own personal motivators (their “internal metrics”), by researching others’ personal motivators, and by working to align business goals with all those motivators. Managers build understanding by collaboratively developing and retrospecting on measurement efforts. This honesty and understanding improves the accuracy and utility of the metrics.

In every company I’ve coached, managers want to measure peoples’ adherence to the ceremonies, roles and artifacts of Scrum. They are desperate for data to tell them whether the teams and company are doing better or worse in agile, to identify hot spots where coaching should occur, expose areas of risk, and determine whether costly training and coaching are paying off.

One problem with these “behavioral metrics” is that some people game them. Usually behavioral metrics programs involve surveying a member of the team. It seems to be very easy for a team member to answer a question like “Do you have 15 minute Daily Scrum Meetings?” with “Yes” even though the team meets for 2 hours once a week; I’ve seen it many times. But what’s in it for them? If they answer honestly, they have to admit to a flaw, they invite intervention on a matter that seems unimportant to their team’s success, and they put their career aspirations at risk.

We can blame teams or management for gaming, but in either case it points to distrust, a lack of thoughtful communication, and a lack of integrity. The solution requires making sure the metrics are really highly-correlated with improved outcomes, educating managers and Scrum team members on the relevance and purpose of the metrics,  and finally plain-old trust-building between upper-management, middle-management and teams.

You can dramatically improve trust by better aligning peoples’ personal goals and values. This is harder than it seems in large companies. Everybody should come to work with an attitude that we are going to try to make things better for our colleagues (including managers and individual contributors), largely by focusing on what (should) matter to all of us: increased profitability, increased user and customer trust in our products, and increased relevance for the company in society.

Clayton Christiansen, in his article How Will You Measure Your Life, asks us to examine how we will spend our limited time on the planet, and how we should measure and improve our own behavior. He shows how successful companies must work very hard to ensure their peoples’ interests align (see the section “Create a Culture”) otherwise their managers must use threats and coercion to secure cooperation.

Christopher Avery taught me that if you want to establish a highly effective and collaborative group, start by discussing, very frankly, what motivates you. Is it tinkering, family time, completing projects, higher salary, travel, peer recognition, independence, solitude, sports, partying, religious life? Everyone is different. Then ask your peers, manager, product owner and employees what motivates them. You have set the stage by frankly revealing your personal motivations, and others will likely follow your lead to reveal their own motivators. Then work to align everyone’s interests, as a team.

I start out every business and family negotiation with a frank discussion about what’s in it for each of us, and try to make sure everyone benefits somehow by whatever we are doing. The first time you do this won’t be easy, because you are revealing personal motivators and asking others to do the same. However, the results, for me at least, have been great. In most companies, efforts to get people’s interests aligned reap huge rewards, not only for profitability, but also peoples’ happiness and fulfillment.

Once you’ve built trust, any metrics program you might consider has a higher likelihood of success. You’ll likely include your team in questions about what to measure. Since you will have shared personal motivators and aligned team member interests, the metrics you think are important will likely line up with theirs. Fewer people will want to game the metrics, because everyone wants to succeed.

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