Want Productivity? Focus on Predictability Instead

Focus your team on predictability, and productivity will come. Focus on productivity, and you’ll get neither productivity nor predictability.

Focusing on predictability drives a team to:

  • Small user stories that can be completed in a day or two
  • Working on a small number of stories at once
  • A strong story definition of done with little or no gap between it and the release definition of done
  • Individuals crossing disciplines to get things done without unpredictable wait times
  • Making achievable commitments based on past results

On the other hand, focusing on productivity—usually leads to:

  • Individuals optimizing for their own productivity (i.e. lots of tasks getting done)
  • Over-committing
  • Starting stories without necessarily believing they’ll get done (“If we’re going to get all these stories done in this sprint, we’d better start them as soon as possible!”)
  • Sacrificing quality for speed (i.e. taking on technical debt—”Just get it done; we’ll clean it up later.”)
  • Communicating and collaborating less (“All that conversation slows me down. I need to focus on my work.”)

The (ostensibly) productivity-focused behaviors may show a velocity increase in the short term. But you’ll pay for it later. More likely, you’ll see an erratic velocity, sometimes high, sometimes zero. And there is likely to be some nebulous chunk of work between the last story and the release.

Over and over again, I’ve seen the predictability-focused behaviors lead to a stable or, more often, a slowly increasing velocity. Small stories are easier to estimate and to get done right. Building quality in keeps the system easy to maintain and extend. And when done really means done, the Product Owner can make meaningful predictions and commitments around delivery. “Working software is the primary measure of progress,” after all.

Note: This assumes energized work. If your team doesn’t care about getting anything done, they could predictably deliver nothing, which isn’t particularly satisfying. With this team, focus on motivation, then predictability. As the Manifesto also says, “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” Motivation comes first.

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