Is it just me, or has ‘productivity’ become the white elephant in the room?
Trust me, I get it. I’m the founder of a start-up. Time equals money. How can I be so sure that working remotely hasn’t affected my delivery team’s performance?
I’m tuned into lots of chat at the moment about productivity in the face of the COVID and the shift to remote working that’s left most heads spinning. There’s commentary that some teams are more so, others are less so. Some leaders are fearful, observing far more people out for a surf or park run than pre-pandemic times. Other leaders are loving it with rents and travel budgets on the cutting floor. Managers are eager to get teams back into the office under a watchful eye. I’ve heard stories of “the best manager when we’re face to face, but now we’re remote I have to cc’ him on everything – video calls, emails, chatroom”.
Subscriptions are up on apps that track time, and even track mouse curser movements of team members. Are we fanning the flames of micro-management?
But my interest especially piques when I hear chat in the context of agile delivery teams, and what’s trending. I’ve heard of cases where team leads have asked Scrum Masters to tell them how many points a developer has completed per sprint, and whether this is up or down compared to pre-Covid levels of output…<sigh emoji>.
Is ‘Productivity’ still a relevant measure of success?
Productivity: The effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.
Doesn’t this definition feel a little ‘industrial ages’ to you? It squarely places productivity as a measure of output. I’ve written in previous posts about the difference between outputs and outcomes. The impact of the Agile mindset and goal frameworks such as OKRs have long shifted the focus from measuring business to measuring outcomes, or value. And yet we’re still trapped. I accept that outputs can be a leading indicator to value but qualify that with ‘sometimes’.
I do feel at the moment that all of a sudden productivity has become a dirty word, tinged with distrust. If you haven’t already it’s time to shift the conversation with your manager to the VALUE your team delivers, and whether that meets expectations.
I liken the distinction between team efficiency vs effectiveness. This was a picture from a presentation Dom Price @Atlassian gave a few years back, and it resonated.
Why then are managers and leaders feeling so vulnerable? Is because of a traditional focus on output, such as time spent in the office or billable hours to R&D activities? Maybe it’s time to start helping them make the shift to be outcome focussed, by agreeing what signals and metrics align in your company to give leadership the confidence and perceived control required that they’re delivering value.
Vanity Measures of Productivity
Yep, there are tools that track hours per day worked and the movement of an employees mouse. In software delivery, vanity metrics such as velocity is often held up as a poster child for team productivity. Here are some reasons why velocity shouldn’t be used a measure of productivity
- Velocity is representative of neither value or productivity. It’s a forecasting tool.
- Scrum replaced the descriptive term “commitment” with “forecast” 10 years ago for good reason.
- There is a lot of work that gets estimated in units of measurement other than story points such as time
- Velocity does not account for other completed tasks such as bugs, support, training, meetings etc.
- Typically, the most productive team member can end up doing the least amount of points.
- When the manager pins velocity to productivity, the team will pad their estimates to match expectations, ceasing to be useful planning metrics resulting in a less productive team
- Scrum has rules for the game; you accept them or you don’t. There’s no team that get’s onto the court to play basketball and can switch codes to Netball halfway through. Scrum doesn’t accept things like monitoring individual productivity, especially if your sprint goals are achieved and definition of done (DoD’s) are fulfilled.
As a side note, the team can game Pull Requests as a measure of productivity by making 20 pull requests with one line each. There’s lots more examples. Just saying.
I’ve written previously about the metrics Umano applies to visualise an elevate team performance.
Location has nothing to do with Accountability
The belief that employees are more productive in the office is so pre-pandemic! If people wanted to slack off they could do that anywhere. Coffees, hallway chats, meetings (…and more meetings) are the greatest time-wasters. Sure, equally if there were challenges with getting a focussed stretch of work at home such as building noise next door, as an example, then maybe the office is best.
Trust: Firm Belief in; the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.
“Relationships have to be built on trust”.
Eric Schmidt’s Trillion Dollar Coach documents the influence and impact of legendary Bill Campbell on the emerging iconic companies of Silicon Valley as we know it today. Bill would talk about trust as keeping your word. If you told Bill you were going to do something, you did it. And the same applied to him; his word was always good. Trust means loyalty, integrity, discretion. It means creating an environment of psychological safety, supporting radical transparency, candour and the ability to disagree with someone, freely. The catalyst here…’your word’. Have the conversation if you’re sensing misalignment. Ask questions. Engage in free-form listening. Realign expectations.
What do you expect of each other? Acknowledge the give and the take. For Scrum Masters, it’s not enough to add your manager to the project board and assume by making work visible that it’s well understood. For Managers, it’s not good enough to walk away from the difficult conversation by not expressing any concerns you might have.
Asking questions will help you realise It could be that s/he doesn’t trust the commitments made by the Scrum team, or that there’s deeper misunderstandings that exist.
Questions you could ask include:
“Hey, it seems like something’s on your mind. What are you trying to figure out here?”
“What do you want to accomplish by going down this path?
Clear goals and roles have everything to do with accountability
If Mangers feel that there’s an expectation gap between the desired and delivered value, maybe it’s time to either revisit or reframe what expected value looks like. Get clear and get in synch. John Doerr has a lot to say about this topic in Measure what Matters.
There’s a balance between setting achievable goals the team can commit to delivering 100% and aspirational goals that stretch them. If you feel the team has latency and they’re hitting them out of the ballpark, are they being stretched enough?
Track for accountability
To help build a culture of accountability, install continuous reassessment and honest and objective grading. I completely get that loafing is actually what’s going on sometimes. Not everyone is made like a machine or has the learned habits that set them up for success and high performance. To build and sustain high performance, make sure you’re having one-on-one meetings to discuss progress made on goals. In the vein of continuous improvement and feedback loops, this is never a set and forget task. What other rituals and ceremonies are in place that need to be adhered to with discipline in order to build accountability?
What’s your benchmark for HOW you get there?
Also, are you clear on what your starting point is, or benchmark may be? Are you and the team clear on where you stand? How does that change over time? What data do you use to paint this picture for you? What metrics provide the signals that you’re on track to delivering value as planned? If these things have been identified and everyone is aligned, it will be crystal clear when a team is consistently on track, over or under. In the spirit of a Growth mindset it’s also critical that your Benchmark is your own, and that you’re competing against yourself to improve, not other teams. At Umano we use a rolling performance benchmark to help highlight trends, and make visible the times when we’re not performing at our usual best.
Motivation and Connection
The much bigger conversation is how you inherently motivate your team to do their best work. Do they have the autonomy, the mastery, the sense of shared purpose? Have they been equipped with the right tools to be empowered, self-managing and self-directed in they way they meet expected goals and deliver value?
The Self-Managed Team
At Umano we apply the Scrum framework, hence this being my point of reference but I think it’s relevant.
“Scrum Teams are self-organising and cross-functional. Self-organising teams chose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team.”
Mangers set the direction. The team works out how best to get there within the given constraints. It’s a social contract of trust.
To truly allow a team to self-organise, you need a mix of clarity, faith, trust and courage:
- Clarity in direction, be that a well-defined and understood goal or objective for the team to reach
- Faith in scrum, that if the high frequency of inspections and adaptations exist, people will be engaged in continuously improving their way of working
- Trust others – step into a growth mindset and adopt a perspective that finds the best and hidden genius in your team members
- Courage to let go: let people take the time needed to experiment and understand. Be available to help each other and name conflicting behaviours that undermine self-organisation.
Like all things in life, it’s about balance. No watchdogs, but absolute accountability please. Swing the pendulum too far one way, it’s about to come swinging back. So play to your higher selves. Get in synch. Build trust, disagree and challenge freely. Embrace data-driven conversations. And in the spirit of servant leadership, do unto others.
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