The Agile Tribe

“Is artificial velocity spoiling your team?”

on August 18, 2010

Authors: Ryan McKergow and Daniel Ginn

Artificial velocity is the velocity achieved when an agile team is not working sustainably. After recent discussions, the two of us decided to adopt the term to describe the dangerous precedents and practices that it sets. Artificial velocity can affect an Agile team in a number of ways, by reducing morale, and losing focus and creativity. Some examples of behaviour that promotes artificial velocity, include working long hours to finish a vastly underestimated story, or not realigning expected velocity when reality is not reflected.

Reduced Morale
One of the results of artificial velocity is reduced morale, which can come in many forms including: workaholics, old-school management styles (such as McGregor’s Theory X), and comparing yourself unrealistically to your colleagues.

For example if two kids are asked to mow the lawn, one sits down for 5 mins to work out whether going back and forth or going around in ever smaller circuits is quicker, and then finishes 15 mins before the kid who jumped straight in, is he lazy cause he’s now watching TV? No, he worked smarter. He’s achieved the same outcome in less time, meaning he has more time to do what he wants to do. People jump to conclusions when they look at the boy who is now relaxing. They assume he is being lazy, but he’s actually done the job much more efficiently.

We believe this is a result of misconceptions stemming from old school management techniques, thinking that the work we do in an office can somehow be related to the hours spent on the production line. In the office environment where a lot of our work involves cognitive thinking instead of brute force, there is a much bigger variance. Because of this mind set, some people try to emulate workaholics to “impress” the boss. This can lead to a loss of focus and creativity, because everyone is trying to look busy, as opposed to actually doing useful work.

Lost Focus and Creativity
We also believe it’s important to recognise the power of a fresh and focused mind. Tired minds are more likely to make or overlook mistakes which will put yet more pressure on the time it takes to complete a Story, or heaven forbid adding to the Tech Debt. You don’t need to continually wear yourself out by staying back late or losing sleep, honestly, are you really going to get much work done past 5pm? And if you think you are, where did you get the energy to do this, if you were working “hard” for the rest of the day? We need rest and time to relax. And it’s when we are relaxed when we are most likely to be hit with inspired ideas. So other than having a good night’s sleep, what are some practical ways at work to avoid artificial velocity?

So what can be done?
First off, believe in Agile! Agile provides some excellent practices that encourage the right behaviour, however, we would like to focus on a few established practices and a new one that might help avoid artificial velocity:

  1. Social contracts – These might be one of the greatest Agile tools with respect to avoiding artificial velocity. Incorporating expectations around what is and what is not acceptable behaviour in terms of supporting sustainable development is what is needed. Identifying instances where a different approach to a task resulted in a story point saving and sharing it with the team should be codified.
  2. Points bank – Another possible behaviour driving device might be the story point bank. A team member can ‘bank points’ when they can show that a smarter approach resulted in a point saving. Using a Big Visual Chart that team member can be recognised for the point saving. As an option the IM could spend the saved points by letting team members go early, or allow time to work on something different (Google time). In addition to this, the time saving approaches would be great to be fed into retrospectives.
  3. Working smarter – Setting the right expectations, not just for the core project team, but for everyone involved in the project (including upper management, and our project sponsors), should be equally encouraged. As Agile welcomes changes to the software or product, we need to be equally welcome to change in expectations on the project team. This requires you to be open and honest, even if it can be difficult. If an 8 point card turns out to be an epic, is it still reasonable to maintain the same expectations of time, cost and quality? We think not! You should revaluate the card and then revaluate the expected velocity for this iteration.
  4. Conclusion
    Artificial velocity is misleading to all. It places unnecessary pressure on the team, sets unrealistic expectations for the customers and reduces the creativity of individuals. So we would like to put it back to the reader, what do you think about artificial velocity?

    Inspired by

  1. The Creativity Formula, Dr Amantha Imber ISBN-13: 978-0646509624
  2. Rework, Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson ISBN-13: 978-0307463746

2 responses to ““Is artificial velocity spoiling your team?”

  1. Peter says:

    Guys, I think your argument around Lost Focus and creativity is pretty simplistic. You honestly don’t think that you don’t get creative thoughts after 5pm do you?. If you are a night time thinker but work dictates that you have to be there 9-5 than that’s what you do.

  2. Ginn says:

    Thanks for your comment Peter, it’s great to see that we are igniting your passion around this. You are correct in pointing out that creative thoughts are not limited to 9-5. What we are suggesting is that a relaxed mind is more likely to be creative. Which explains why, after getting home from work, settling down and shedding the stresses of the day, many people are at their creative peak. One of our aims is to provoke thought around how one might enhance creative behaviours during the time spent at work.

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