If you’re leading or managing a team, you’ll want to think about how metrics can help. Metrics don’t tell you the whole story, but they are an important window into the health and effectiveness of the team.
Think of it like driving a car. Would you drive down the road staring only at your dashboard? I hope not! But you also shouldn’t ignore those lights and instruments on your dash. The speedometer, navigation system, fuel gauge, and warning lights all help you make sure you get to the right place safely and efficiently. Metrics can do the same thing for your teams when they’re well-selected and actively monitored.
Let’s discuss these three types of metrics and how they help teams achieve their goals and increase their effectiveness:
- Objective metrics. This is your GPS and map that help you see where you are headed and measure your progress toward your destination.
- Safety and sustainability metrics. This is your fuel gauge, tire pressure sensors, and collision and lane-departure warnings. Ignore these and you’ll find yourself stalled on the side of the road, or worse.
- Health metrics. This is your check-engine light. These aren’t as time-sensitive as objective and safety metrics, but can be an indicator that you need to look into something more deeply to make sure the team is performing optimally and taking advantage of improvement opportunities.
Your team needs to know where it’s going. What are you trying to achieve? Are you headed in the right direction to meet your objectives? How much progress have you made toward your goals?
Objective metrics should be:
- Business focused and directly relevant to the team. The team doesn’t exist for its own sake—it exists to deliver value to the business. Your objectives should help your team see how they contribute to the overall business. On the other hand, the team’s objectives should be relevant to the team rather than feeling like they are several levels removed. For example, it probably doesn’t make sense for an internal dev tools team to have an objective tied to business revenue. You want to find the sweet spot where the objective can be easily mapped up to the overall business and mapped down to the daily work the team is engaged in.
- Ambitious but achievable. Your objectives should stretch the team to deliver great results. That means that you might not know right away how you will achieve the objective. It’s up to the team to figure out how they can work more effectively to maximize their talents to meet ambitious goals (note: this doesn’t mean working extra hours). That also means the team shouldn’t be punished for not meeting the objective—praise should be given for best efforts and discussion should be focused on continual improvement. You also want to be careful not to set impossible objectives. Continuously falling short of unrealistic expectations is a quick way to frustrate a team.
- Consistent but adaptable. Your team needs time to dig into a challenge, find solutions, execute, and measure the results. Constantly changing their priorities and focus can be disoriented and frustrating. However, leaders should recognize that the value a team can bring to the business changes over time, as the needs of the business change. Balancing consistency with adaptability is a key consideration and function of these objectives.
- Measurable. This is where the tracking comes in. You want to know not only when you’ve achieved your objective, but how far you’ve come and how far you have left to go. This will help the team know if it’s on the right track and make adjustments if necessary.
Some examples of good objective metrics are:
- Increased revenue
- Increased active users
- Increased adoption of a new product feature
- Increased user satisfaction
At Lucid, we use the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework to help our teams set objectives. We set these objectives at the company, department, and team levels so that teams can see how their objectives roll up into higher level business objectives. We set goals that stretch the team. Scores are normalized from 0 to 1, with 0.7 representing a good result and 1.0 meaning that the team has knocked it out of the park. We set new objectives each quarter so that we can adjust to the needs of the business, and we check in to see how we’re doing during and after the quarter.
Safety and sustainability metrics
Even when we know where we’re headed, we won’t get there if we don’t pay attention to whether we are working safely and sustainably. Cutting corners to go faster can actually slow us down, cause us to lose our way, or leave us stalled on the side of the road.
Unlike objective metrics, safety and sustainability metrics aren’t ambitious. They establish a baseline expectation for the team. Thresholds should be established with procedures defined to get the team back on track when things aren’t going well. Since these are metrics we want the team to pay close attention to and act swiftly to correct when needed, only the most important and actionable metrics should be used for this purpose.
Some examples of these sorts of metrics include:
- Number of unresolved bugs
- Production error count
- Uptime percentage
- Application performance
It’s important for team members to hold themselves accountable to the metrics and thresholds they set. External stakeholders are mostly interested in the progress the team is making toward its objectives and what value it is delivering. It’s up to the team to make sure that it’s operating in a safe and sustainable manner.
At Lucid, we use the KPI (Key Performance Indicators) framework. Each quarter, we set a goal and a “work stops” threshold for metrics like those mentioned above. We strive to reach our goal during the quarter. If at any point we exceed our “work stops” threshold, we stop what we’re working on to figure out what’s going wrong and make a plan to fix it. This might mean spending a sprint fixing bugs or cleaning up tech debt to get back on track, or adjusting our processes to fill a gap that we’ve been overlooking.
Beyond objective metrics (e.g. OKRs) and safety and sustainability metrics (e.g. KPIs), there is another category of metric that can be useful to give you a sense of whether there may be a problem lurking beneath the surface. These metrics don’t necessarily tell you that something is wrong, but they do tell you to dig deeper to find out if there is something the team could improve to be more effective. Accordingly, you may not regularly talk within the team about these metrics, but as the team leader or manager, you might keep an eye on them and only bring it up when you’ve noticed an irregularity.
Agile frameworks like Scrum and Kanban come with their own sets of metrics that can fall into this category. Things like sprint goal success rate, planned story completion rate (i.e. sprint carryover), cycle time (time to complete a work item), and throughput (number of items completed in a period of time) can be used for this purpose. Outside of agile frameworks, you might consider measuring the number of comments on pull requests, release frequency, time spent in meetings, or self-reported satisfaction of team members as indicators of team health.
Dos and don’ts of metrics
Here are some guidelines to ensure your use of metrics is most beneficial to the team:
- Do start measuring something, even if it’s not a perfect metric. Don’t be afraid to start somewhere and then change or refine your metric over time.
- Do gain buy-in from the team. Communicate the purpose to the team so they understand the reasoning behind the metric. Better yet, have the whole team participate in the process of choosing what metrics to track.
- Do make it easy to measure. Make it easy to record and gather the data needed and compile the metric. Ideally, it should be automatic so that the metric can be kept up-to-date without a lot of overhead from team members or managers.
- Do make metrics transparent to the team. A dashboard could be used for this purpose, or a frequent, easily-digestible status report.
- Do talk with the team about how they are performing with regards to these metrics. A metric that is ignored won’t do much good. It will only be valuable if we talk about them and use them to help make improvements.
- Do celebrate when goals are achieved. Celebrate when we are making improvements or hitting milestones. Discuss how to get better when we are not.
- Don’t focus exclusively or primarily on metrics. Remember not to stare at the dashboard! You have to look out the window to see what’s going on around you. Metrics are not a replacement for being involved with the team. If you are a manager who doesn’t actively participate in the team day-to-day, spend a week immersed with the team to get a feel for how they operate.
- Don’t create an overly competitive atmosphere. Comparisons across teams may be useful at times, but focus more on improvements within your team over time. Every team is working on different things, in different contexts, with different people. You’re not competing against the team across the hall. You’re competing against how your team did last quarter or last week.
- Don’t use punishments and be careful of rewards. Metrics should be used to shed light on inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement. They should definitely not be a source of fear, and usually they’re not a good source of motivation. Even using rewards can be discouraging when you miss out on a reward because of a number. Your team should be motivated by what’s behind the number, not the number itself.
- Don’t worry too much about metrics being “gamed”. Any metric can be gamed. Trust your people to do the right thing. If you see people gaming metrics, it may be a sign you are focused on it too much and people are fearful of being seen as failing. It could also be because you didn’t get buy-in and communicate the purpose behind the metric, or maybe there’s a culture issue on the team that should be addressed.
Finally, remember that people come first. Don’t get so lost in the numbers that you lose sight of what makes your team unique, fun, and effective. But taking some time to define and check-in on metrics can help make sure your team is headed in the right direction and gets to its destination safely and efficiently. Happy travels!