Prioritising acceleration over velocity for faster agile teams.

March 5th, 2024 - Agile & Software Development

Do you want your teams to go fast? Or do you want them to go in the right direction? Hopefully your answer is “both”, but if you had to pick one to focus on first, which would you pick?

I would strongly recommend “direction first” for a few reasons, partly because going fast only helps if it’s in the right direction, but also because it’s super valuable for teams to build up their ability to forge ahead in new directions. They’ll be doing it a lot.

Here is a rambling conversation I had with myself, in a totally healthy way, that will hopefully help to illustrate the point:

Jason: Why does everyone focus so hard on a team’s velocity metrics?

Rhetorical Responder: Oh Jason, you fool, velocity is just a word, bro. It describes how fast a team is going; they probably thought speed wasn’t a cool enough word, so they tried to science it up a bit.

Jason: Ah, but doesn’t a squad’s velocity indicate a direction of some kind? In my experience, the “goal” or “KPI” or whatever the new buzzword of the month is in corporate land is the direction. So doesn’t this mean that velocity is inherently “speed towards a target”?

Rhetorical Responder: Alright, that makes a little bit of sense, I’ll half-accept your premise. But what you’re describing is just “how we do SCRUM” right? We pick a quarterly goal and work on it in two-week sprints until it’s done. Then I guess someone (probably someone in the c-suite) works out if it was good enough and we get a plan then for the next quarter.

Our PM tells us what our velocity is each sprint review by totalling the number of story points we managed to get done. If it goes up we did good.

Jason: Ok, maybe we’re getting somewhere, because what you’ve just described is that your velocity is a measure of how fast you’re getting work done on a specific plan right? And I guess that’s fine to be the thing that you’re prioritising, if you’re 100% confident that you’re going in the right direction. So, I guess that’s one option - it works great if the person picking the goal got it right, cause you’re prioritising going as fast as possible at delivering that one thing.

Rhetorical Responder: I mean, my boss did once think that Kubernetes was a breakfast cereal. I guess this will get tricky if they’re wrong about this too right?

Jason: Mmm, worse than that though. In this scenario they have to not just be right this time, they have to be consistently right every single time. That or your organisation needs to be able to absorb losing a whole quarter’s work to the wrong idea (which is sadly how I’ve seen many organisations deal with this kind of oh-so-wasteful approach).

Rhetorical Responder: 😬

Jason: Yeeeeeeah… Ok, so how about I suggest an alternative then: Why not prioritise improving the team’s ability to do that direction picking themselves? And then, probably more importantly, highly prioritising that team’s ability to increase their velocity in the new direction (i.e. acceleration). Think of it like a car. Instead of just focussing on the top speed the car can keep up, and dropping way behind at the corners, you’re making your car better at handling those corners, and then speeding out of them on the other side.

Rhetorical Responder: Oof, analogy time eh.

Jason: Shush. So what this looks like in the short term for the team (let’s say over a quarter) is that they are likely to pivot (change direction) several times throughout the quarter. And, compared to the “velocity-only” approach, their story-points-per-sprint might be a little lower overall. The thing to bear in mind though, is that these story points are now much more likely to be going in the right direction and delivering higher business value. And you’ve also now got a team that has trained that muscle of kick-starting in a new direction, so when inevitably a new change or pivot to what they had planned comes along in the future, they’ll be way more efficient at navigating that corner without losing too much speed.

Rhetorical Responder: Ok, and how about the long term?

Jason: Even better. The longer the timespan the team is working over, the closer to 100% the odds get that some sort of pivot or change is needed. The world isn’t static, and even the perfect direction and goal today might not be in a year’s time.

By ensuring that your teams are constantly evaluating if the direction they’re going is delivering the most amount of business value, you’re not only reducing your business risk, you’re going to end up getting to where you need to be faster.

Ok, ramble over.

I thought that would be a fun way of emphasising why a team’s acceleration (or in other words their small-a-agility) is the most important thing for success. In my experience this is the key differentiator between teams that are constantly busy but aren’t having much real impact, versus teams that really deliver business value.