Episode #3: A Vicious Cycle

[ guest-post  metrics  series-managing-metrics  ]

Previously on Tales From a Metrics Journey…

In Episode #1, our metrics adventurer uncovered the dark secret of 75-day Lead Time. He introduced metrics to the company in the hopes of being able to track, understand, and improve Lead Time metrics. In Episode #2, he found that metrics can be a powerful tool - but with power comes risk and responsibility.

When the executives got their first taste of the power of metrics, they wanted to leverage them everywhere. Teams were full of anxiety trying to figure out how to attach metrics to their complex, unpredictable, inter-dependent, and nuanced work.

Vicious Cycles

When we attempted to take the next step in our journey and introduce more metrics, specifically metrics that the teams themselves would use, we ran into a chicken-and-egg problem:

  • Teams want to use metrics that are useful
  • Metrics become useful when teams use them

Given that we had taken our first steps with a somewhat top-down approach (i.e. teams did not come up with the metrics), we were caught in a vicious circle:

  • Top-down metrics
  • Teams don’t have opportunity to build muscle to come up with their own metrics (since metrics are handed to them from top-down)
  • With no muscle to come up with metrics, no team level metrics are made
  • Go to step 1

Breaking out of Vicious Cycles: Virtuous Cycles

So what do you do in a situation like this? We tried a few tricks, all centered around iterative improvement:

  • Boot-strapping: to get things going, we had no choice (with some teams) but to push metrics on them just to start with any metric for the team, even bad ones
  • Periodic Review: with executive mandate, we introduced periodic review of these bootstrapped (initially bad) metrics
  • Taking execs out of the review: creating a safer space to review these initial (often bad) metrics

This started to create a virtuous cycle:

  • Start measuring a metric or look at an existing metric
  • Review it
  • Teams point out problems with metric (either with it as a metric, or the way it is collected, or how it is interpreted)
  • Ask team for suggestions to improve
  • Take action
  • Go to step 1

Sounds easy, right? Worked like a charm?

On the Next Episode

Tune in to the next episode and see how we got stuck on the first step of our virtuous cycle!

Lessons Learned

Even when metrics show their value, it is still very hard for teams to own and evolve their own metrics. Some lessons we learned:

  • Top-down metric setting can disempower teams so that they don’t have muscle to build their own metrics
  • Metrics only become useful when they are used!
  • Sometimes, starting from a bad metric and using it can help move it forward towards better metrics (use this with caution)
  • Mitigate power dynamics in implementing and reviewing metrics (e.g. take executives out of the team level metrics)
  • Periodic review and questioning around metrics can lead to learning and creating a virtuous cycle
Written on April 18, 2022