Aiming For What’s Not There
Much of the work required of a product owner or scrum master is aiming for targets that don’t exist in order to hit the ones that do or the ones they need. Time for a thought experiment.
There are many performance metrics available to Agile leaders – sprint velocity, backlog burndown, backlog volatility, effort estimate accuracy, etc. What’s used and how depends on the project and the composition of the team. For the thought experiment, I’ll use velocity.
Say you want your team to increase their average velocity from 30 to 40 points per sprint. You make a plan and if everything goes according to plan – that is to say, you get lucky – your team eventually reaches an average velocity of 40.
But luck is unpredictable. In fact, if you were to rely on anything predictable it would be that surprises will happen. The path to “40” will be influenced by unexpected forces and obstacles.
Much like if you were climbing a mountain, the path toward establishing and sustainable and stable sprint velocity of 40 points will probably be unexpectedly blocked or even disappear. Our progress could be interrupted by competing priorities, changes in the project, or changes in the team membership. Many things can conspire to cause us to end up somewhere other than where we expected. Usually short of the goal.
We know this will happen. So we spend time trying to think of all the things that might interfere with our plans and we re-plot a path to point “50,” a destination designed to accommodate the adverse conditions as best we know them. In other words, we aim for a target we’re not likely to reach so that we hit the one we do.
We arrive at our destination. Shiny!
This can play out in many ways. We have several target metrics for a team, for example, a backlog with no stories sized grater than a 5 or a predictable sprint velocity after 6 sprints. We know the team will under perform to start, but along the way we employ a multitude of techniques and practices to incrementally improve their performance. These are all mechanical interventions that keep the team focused on “50” so that they eventually arrive at “40.”
There is a much more important feature to this approach when the goal is to develop individuals or teams. If a scrum master doesn’t recognize they have a responsibility to continuously find ways to challenge their team to over perform they will consign the team to a path toward mediocrity, for settling with the minimum. If they are not pressing them to continually aim for “50” even though they are more likely to land at “40,” they will end up at a lesser place.
My inspiration for this – and something that keeps me going in the face of adversity and obstruction – is the message psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl, delivered in a conference lecture on the search for meaning. A sample from the lecture:
If we take man as he really is, we make him worse, but if we overestimate him …. If we seem to be idealists and are overestimating, overrating man, and looking at him that high, here above, you know what happens? We promote him to what he really can be.
So, we have to be idealists in a way because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.
Do you know who has said this? “If we take man as he is, we make you worse, but if we take man, as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.” This was not my flight instructor. This was not me. This was Goethe. He said this verbally.
The master Agilist isn’t seeking to be liked or congratulated or recognized with awards. The master Agilist works hard to establish trust and earn respect by challenging their team in meaningful ways. You can achieve the former while allowing a lackluster team to languish. But you must have the latter if you wish to guide a high performing team forward to great achievements. Put in the work and the recognition will take care of itself.