August 28, 2016

Good Grief! Good Goals!

  —How not to abuse metrics. Or how to use metrics to support goals.

Martin Fowler has an essay on An Appropriate Use of Metrics. It's a useful summary of how metrics are abused and often obscure the true intent of the goals they support. It provides guidance on how to improve goals by placing metrics in a supporting role, instead of a deciding role.

If you've done research on this you've likely heard it all before. I like this essay because it's useful to refer to from time to time and it's broad enough that you can use it to educate others on how to get your metrics aligned with and supportive of the intent behind your goals.

I think it important to emphasize something that Fowler touches on when discussing explicitly linking metrics to goals. He states:
A shift towards a more appropriate use of metrics means management cannot come up with measures in isolation. They must no longer delude themselves into thinking they know the best method for monitoring progress and stop enforcing a measure that may or may not be the most relevant to the goal. Instead management is responsible for ensuring the end goal is always kept in sight, working with the people with the most knowledge of the system to come up with measures that make the most sense to monitor for progress.
Management is responsible for ensuring that the focus remains on the end goal and for working with the people who are best positioned to develop meaning measures of progress.

Absolutely. That means you need to engage.

I engage my software team in the development of goals. It's an imperfect process.

What's missing from Fowler's essay is language directed at ensuring the responsibility of team members is clear. That's important enough to say again: you need to engage. Whomever you are and whatever your responsibilities. Engage to create understanding and allow for the possibility that your perspective needs to be adjusted.

For example, I recently started a discussion on goals. One focused on testing. I estimated that this discussion would take five hours. It took ten.

Some feedback on during this discussion.
  • I was told such discussion were designed to make management look like they are doing something useful. I asked if we were investing enough in our tests. 
  • I was told that five hours is too much to time to spend on this. I pointed that five hours for the team was 1 week of 400 weeks of effort available this year. I asked if it was smarter to spend this time writing tests or determining how to get the best return on our investment.
  • I was told that the process was too democratic (because everyone could participate). I responded by saying there would be a testing goal and that people were free to contribute to its definition in whatever manner they thought appropriate (including not participating).
  • I was told that we didn't have a quality problem. I encouraged discussion by saying that we can disagree on this but we should understand the basis of our disagreement so that we can improve our lines of enquiry into the issue.
All of the feedback was valuable, but only one actually focused on the goal of testing. The fact that it provided a contrarian view to my own makes it that much more valuable.

One win arising from our discussion on testing is that while I sought to create a set of principles identifying what to achieve.  Some were concerned about losing control if the goal were too prescriptive. There was agreement on the outcome we wanted to avoid.

Since understanding what was best for the business was important we were able to identify this miscommunication early. I used Fowler's essay as the basis of part of that discussion but emphasized the importance of everyone's engagement.

Another win was the discussion on whether we had a quality problem.  Obviously we test. We have our challenges too. The fact that someone thought we had good enough quality created a situation where we could engage on what worked well and figure out how to leverage or reproduce it.

In all, I like Fowler's essay and the contribution it makes. I think it's a little too one-sided in calling out management responsibilities. Good goals are everyone's responsibility.

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