Everything Is Made Up… and The Points Don’t Matter

By: Rick Pollick

Originally posted on Medium.com on April 29, 2020

What are metrics?

Metrics, as they pertain to businesses or projects, can be defined as: “STANDARDS OF MEASUREMENT BY WHICH EFFICIENCY, PERFORMANCE, PROGRESS, OR QUALITY OF A PLAN, PROCESS, OR PRODUCT CAN BE ASSESSED.” — businessdictionary.com

Interestingly, the use of the term “metrics” has increased rapidly, after the 1950’s. Does that mean that, as a whole, people have suddenly begun to standardize measurements of efficiency and success? — Yes and No.

Yes, standardization has become more common in recent years with the advent of organizations such as OSHA. However, humankind has always benchmarked various things and tried to do better or be more efficient.

One example of a historical shift in how things are done and measured is through observing the invention of the train. Trains allowed civilizations to abandon slower older ways of travel. In the 1800’s USA, mail traveled faster without using the “Pony Express”, and as a result of the new railways being built, telegraph wires were also run in parallel. The quantum leap in efficiency from the train also brought about other changes … and so on.

There could be a whole different conversation as to the interrelationship, or piggy-backing, of innovation — where other innovations were brought about as a result of something else (recall the telegraph wires along the train tracks) — but, back to metrics.

In the example, one can surmise that metrics is more than just numbers and benchmarking. The use of “good” metrics exposes areas of improvement. However, even good metrics are worthless without cultivating a culture where individuals are able to act on what is revealed.

For a brief case study, let’s consider the train example again:

It took the typical group of settlers 40 days (think Oregon Trail all you retro gaming geeks) to cross the American sub-continent, and it took the pony express 15 days. The whole reason there was a “Pony Express” was to attempt to expedite the flow of information to the West Coast of the USA. It was pretty obvious that there must be a faster way … thus the train and the transcontinental routes. But, do you think that these trains, materials, and routes appeared overnight? — No way! There were significant monetary and manpower investments put into their creation … and I’m talking Cornelius Vanderbilt style dough.

What’s my point? Well, someone somewhere (Richard Trevithick) during the Industrial Revolution (The Gilded Age) created a train to speed things up and make them more efficient. So, benchmarks were recorded and realized. Trains could now move info, people, and material across America within days. But, in order to make use of these advancements, effective investments of resources were needed (time, manpower, money, etc.). You see, metrics can be just numbers or comparisons … but, without knowing what they represent and how to act on them metrics are worthless.

The key to understanding and managing any type of metrics, is to recognize what’s important. In today’s business and tech world, it is much harder to realize what metrics are telling us and what is actually important information to act on. People don’t always have the clarity of a decision between a horse and a train. And, usually, when considering metrics, productivity measurements, and areas of efficiency improvement, people already know WHY and WHAT they are offering or tasked with doing. Simon Sinek offers a good look into figuring this out here.

But, in order to effectively consider the state of what is being done and how to best make adjustments, certain observations must be made.

To distill it down, there seem to be three key focus areas which yield the best results when considered properly. Interestingly, I can’t bring myself to add Time as a key focus area, and perhaps you’ll see why that is.

People –

People are the most important factor of any project, product, team, endeavor, or just about anything else. Let me first clarify why … because you need people to both create and consume. That’s a big ‘ol DUH! If you aren’t playing to the strengths of your team and designing a product (or doing something) that others will use or take advantage of … then you’re wasting time.

The What –

The key area of people offers a great segue into “What”. When considering what, seriously consider what. Ask the following types of questions:

  • What am I doing?
  • What kind of a team am I dealing with?
  • What are the team’s strength?
  • What is the most important part of what is being done?
  • What is the timeframe that it needs done in?
  • And so on …

The Why –

“Why” Ask the following types of questions:

  • Why am I doing what I’m doing?
  • Why is the most important part of what is being done actually the most important part?
  • Why is the timeframe defined as it is?
  • And so on …

These types of questions should be asked consistently throughout a project, task, etc.; whether it be in a 2-week style sprint retrospective or otherwise. These types of questions should be an ongoing cycle. Think:

People first.

What are we doing? Is what we’re doing adding value to the end consumer in the preferred timeframe and manner?

Why are we doing it that way?

​​When you align whatever numbers, measurements, or metrics to these key focus areas, the result will be useful/actionable information — like a story. Ronald Regan once said: “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” However, I would add: “But be afraid of not making the right changes.”

How can metrics be “dangerous”?

So, if the good use of metrics can reveal actionable items, what are some examples of bad metrics? Well, in short … all metrics are bad and meaningless if they don’t facilitate improvement.

I was recently recalling a development team which was being measured on common metrics such as velocity, engineering days, and say/do percentage as part of a 2-week sprint cycle. This team was meticulous in their estimations (again, that could facilitate an entirely different conversation), and so they were burning down hours. Interestingly, the team realized that they were having difficulty completing all of the work they planned to in a two-week period. So, in order to look better to management teams, they overestimated stories and inflated their working hours. That meant that what work may have typically took one day to complete, was planned to take 2–3 days and the hours worked were manipulated along these lines.

When the numbers were published, it looked as if the team did the same amount of work, in terms of velocity and effeteness, and met their commitment, when in reality they did less! The most important thing in the case of this team was not what it should’e been (the people, the what, or the why), but rather how they looked to management and their peers. While there is some merit to measuring up … what good is it if causes delivery slow-downs and hinders quality work?

What now?

One may wonder the best way to move forward? Simple: Measure what’s important.

There’s and old adage which says: “What gets measured gets managed.” Ok. But, why manage anything that isn’t important? Back to my thoughts around the advent of more efficient transportation, like the train. If you focus on what’s important, not only will value be added, but other creative and useful things can come to be! By looking at the core reasons something is being done and how to best improve/add value, the next best steps can be taken (whether that be additional research, new development techniques, or the like).

The most valuable thing to offer stakeholders (people) is giving them what they want, by understanding what they need and then getting it to them efficiently. A final thought, which can be applied to any type of team or process: Why do something, in any manner, if the end result is not useful. — The whole rationale around recording and managing metrics should be to increase visibility, share feedback on what’s being done, and push things “forward”.

Think about what’s important. Measure that. Adjust. Repeat.

Originally posted on Medium.com on April 29, 2020