October 24, 2020


News for Agilists

“Fixation On Story Point Velocity Nearly Destroyed Our Team”

“You failed to meet your objective. You only managed to increase your velocity with 5%. What are you going to do about it?”

Henry is a manager of 4 teams and he has had it with team Pronto. For the third quarter in a row, they failed to grow their velocity with the targeted 10%. They didn’t even come close. 3% in the first quarter, 6% in the second, 5% in the third. This is why he decided to confront Jane, the Scrum Master.

“I ask very little from this team. A mere 10% increase in 6 Sprints. Do you know the book “Twice the Work in Half the Time”? The writer is talking about a 400% increase, doing double in 50% of the time. I’m only asking for 10%. You’re not even able to achieve that. What does this say about your ability to improve?”

Jane bows her head, “I know. But I’m doing my best. Honestly.”

Looking at Henry’s body language, this is not what he wanted to hear. He stands up and points his finger to Jane, “Well, your best isn’t good enough. That is very disappointing. But I have an idea. Have you considered working overtime?”

Jane leans back with her eyes widened, “But how would the team sustain this? If we can only increase our velocity while working extra hours, we need to do this all the time.”

Henry gets back into his chair, smiling, “Either that or being a bit more creative. Perhaps the prospect of working overtime can bring the team to new ideas.”

“I’ll discuss it with them, Henry. Your message is clear.”

Jane breaks the silence, “We have to do something, you see? We just spent 30 minutes to discuss options. We are running in circles. It can’t be that we don’t have any.”

Anne is one of the developers. She had been silent the whole time, but now she leans forward, “They will not force me to work overtime for no reason. This has nothing to do with how self-organisation works. Henry can go to hell!”

Jane closes her eyes. Then, “We need to find a solution. We can’t ignore our commitment to increasing our velocity.”

Shaking her head Anne responds, “Perhaps it helps to plan better and use our dailies effectively. Let’s not jump the gun by starting to work overtime immediately.”

“That’s the best we can do I guess. Are we all ok?”

Still, Jane is dull-eyed. “I don’t know whether I should be happy or sad. It took the team considerable effort to achieve this, working overtime. They’re exhausted. I don’t see how they can maintain this pace. Meanwhile, you expect them to burn 10% more next Sprint.”

Henry’s smile has vanished, “What’s this? Are you telling me that this success improvement was a fluke only? You can’t be serious. This is very disappointing. Scrum is all about finding improvements in your delivery. We are talking 10% per quarter. This is next to nothing. Your team is underperforming. I don’t want to hear any more excuses. Just fix it!”

“Don’t get me started”, Jane replies, “Sometimes I hate my job.”

“What’s the problem?”

Jane looks up to Varun, “How are you doing it? How are you dealing with the velocity growth commitments? My team is drained. We can’t do this anymore. At the same time, I see your team flourish. ”

Suddenly Varun has a smile from ear to ear, “We are creative. Henry wants us to reach higher velocity. Well, we give him what he wants. We simply inflate our story points.”

Jane tilts her head slightly, “You inflate story points? What’s that?”

It’s brilliant. We meet all our targets and make Henry happy. Here’s how it works. Suppose we estimate a story to be 5 points, we make it an 8. A 13 turns into a 21. We can do this repeatedly. Three months from now, we will turn a 5 into a 13. And so on.”

Varun takes a sip of his coffee. His smile is even bigger than a minute ago.

“This is cheating!”, Jane responds, “You are fooling Henry.”

“So? Henry is happy and so are we. What’s so terrible about it? Story points should never leave the team anyway. Henry wants to compare apples with oranges. Well, he can get it. We achieved that he no longer haunts us with his absurd orders.”

Then he leans towards Jane, “I recommend you do the same. Your team is suffering. This is the solution to all of your problems.”

Jane shakes her head again. Varun offered her an easy way out of the mess. But she doesn’t look convinced.

Sarah looks up and smiles, “Sure, what do you want to talk about?”

Jane quickly looks around and notices Henry at a close distance. “Let’s find a room to discuss.”

A few seconds later, Jane closes the door of the nearby Scrum room. She doesn’t beat around the bush: “I’m in trouble. My team is suffering from the velocity increase commitments. We managed to reach the targets three Sprints in a row, but it took a lot of working overtime. The team is drained.”

Sarah briefly puts her hand before her eyes and takes a deep sigh, “Oh my. What a jerk. Henry went out of line. He has no right to do this. This is awful.”

“I know Sarah, but he is our manager and I don’t see how we can stand up to him.”

Sarah looks Jane in the eye, “It’s straightforward, but it takes courage. You need to push back as a team and you, the Scrum Master, should take the lead. Do you know Henry went rogue? C-level doesn’t support his actions and they already informed him that he should stop doing so. He is hard-headed.”

Now Sarah leans towards Jane, “There’s a thing that you may not like. But I have to be honest. You failed to help your team. You should have pushed back when Henry came with these requests. On top of that, you should have informed him that Scrum Teams are self-organising and that velocity is a bad indicator of success. The real success comes from the value that you create. “Value” doesn’t equal “Effort”. You should have shielded the team.”

Jane sighs and nods her head, “You are right. But it is hard to stand up to your direct manager. You run the risk of harming your career. There’s so much on the line.”

“True. But this is what the Scrum Master does. It is a tough role and often people underestimate it. It takes courage and relentless commitment. You need to stand up for your team.”

“Of course you are right. I guess I know what I have to do.”

“OK. Let’s discuss in the Scrum room.”

When they enter the room, Jane swiftly closes the door, “Henry, we are no longer going to commit to your velocity increase requests.”

Henry’s eyes widen, “What?”

“I checked it with our CTO. He confirmed we have no such policy. On top of that, it violates everything Scrum stands for. So we will stop reporting on story point velocity. But I can offer you something better. We are going to put effort into monitoring on value. There are many ways to do this and we will experiment. Value is what matters. To us, but also our stakeholders, like you.”

Henry gasps for air. After an eternity of silence, he responds, “What is this all of a sudden? Why are you putting up a show like this?”

“This is no show. This is me taking my responsibility. Don’t try to push us to continue to work on our velocity. I won’t have it.”

“You caught me off-guard, but this will not be the last time we discuss this. I don’t like your attitude at all. I’m not your enemy. I just want to help.”

“Well, it didn’t help us at all. And it will stop now.”

Janes’ team recovered and is now working full-throttle. They re-established their objective to deliver the highest possible value and re-embraced self-organisation.

Henry initially had difficulty to stand at the sideline, but he has grown in his role. He learned to trust the team and the team learned to trust him. Just in time, he has embraced his last chance.

  • Henry had wrong ideas about story point velocity. It should not be a measure of success.
  • Henry had a wrong idea about “Twice the Work in Half the Time.” This is not only about improving your delivery. It also is about making the right choices, skipping the parts that don’t add value. A better phrase would be “Twice the Value in Half the Time.”
  • Henry, the manager, didn’t know that he had to butt-out. He is a stakeholder of a self-organising team that chooses how to perform their work.
  • Jane, the Scrum Master, didn’t help Henry to understand his role. She didn’t have the courage to step up and neglected a vital part of her role.
  • The Scrum Team didn’t step up either. It is not only Jane but the whole team that failed to embrace self-organisation, lacking the courage.

A Scrum Team may face all kinds of challenges. Both the Scrum Master and the others on the team need to step up to face them. This requires courage and commitment. It’s not easy. But to be truly effective as a team, it is vital.

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