Jun 26

Velocity is not the goal

There is a story. It’s s story about an answer. The ultimate answer to everything! The answer to the question of life, the universe and everything else. The outcome of that particular question is forty-two. For those of you who know this story by Douglas Adams, you can probably recognize the search by humanity for the ultimate question that goes with this answer. In the story the answer is already clear. But because the question was not formulated properly, humanity was stuck with something that they could not use. Just a number.

I think the same goes for the numbers we get from running projects with scrum. Often I get the question from management to improve the velocity of teams. Or if I can predict the outcome of the sprint velocity so I can give them an exact deadline. I always explain that velocity is just a number. That is is different and personal for every team and asking to improve or double velocity is the same as asking someone to loose weight so he or she can fit within the company. More important is that it does not stand for anything when there is no measurable product outcome. To often management just looks at the velocity of the team and not at what is actually produced. They forget to look at the real outcome. What happens at most projects is that the business value is not measured or clear. Ok, userstories are prioritized but there is no business value added to the userstories. This is strange. In an earlier blog I wrote about a way to start measuring business value so product-owners and business can map the business value- or money stream that comes out of sprints. To my opinion something way more valuable then team velocity.

This is why I slowly move away from taking estimation sessions with teams too serious. Don’t get me wrong. Estimating with points and poker is good. It gives you a directive and a sort of grip on the situation. You can help teams to protect themselves in not taking on too much work. And you can get a good feel of how much can be done in a certain time. But it is a feeling and it differs with every team, project and company. A very interesting blog by Vasco Duarte shows a complete new way of looking at estimation, velocity and the rest of the scrum universe.

He describes that is could be a good idea not to look at storypoints but just at the amount of work done. According to his ideas, this amount can be used to see how much a team can do in a given time and for management to look what can be produced. Simply by counting the stories themselves. I have tried this and I must say that it seems that this method has some merit. Every ten-day sprint has approximately 12 to 15  stories delivered. Obviously this is dependent of the situation and company. Sometimes it can be a bit more and sometimes less. But immediately I can see if a team has overcommitted or adopted to little work with just a glance at the sprintboard. And it is even possible to predict a ending for a project. I know, it is dangerous to predict anything, but at least it gives a good feeling and that’s worth something. You can imagine that when you start looking at work being delivered instead of focusing on storypoints, at some point it is even more interesting to know how much value is being delivered.

And that brings me back to square one. Story points are just the answer that you don’t really need. It is fun to make graphs with these numbers, but apart from that it is nothing more than just a number. You need to know something more important. How much value is being delivered every sprint and did you provide the right questions to get the expected value. The answer you get from that question is more powerful than you can imagine. It’s the answer to everything. And no, it is not forty-two!

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