Stale Velocity

As time goes by, teams get accustomed to operating at certain velocities. It is rarely the same across an entire organization, yet often similar. For example, a company with blitz culture would have some teams more stressed than others, yet it is unlikely you will find a team working a lackadaisical pace. On the flip side, an organization that has gotten too relaxed would have most groups underpromising and overdelivering.

Consider this velocity gauge:

Velocity Gauge
Velocity Gauge

It’s composed of these sections:

  • Hibernating: The underachieving organization has gotten used to stacking buffer upon buffer so that they always achieve 100% of sprints, yet moves nowhere.
  • Chill: Not quite as extreme as Hibernating, yet still consists of a team that plays in its comfort zone. While it might seem legitimate, groups in this state tend to lose velocity as time progresses slowly, and the organization grows.
  • Aspiring: Regularly choosing goals that are not a walk in the park. Not every sprint will require novel approaches, but aiming towards 80% of sprints with 100% delivery.
  • Blitz: I’ve written at length about this before, but this is unhealthy and should rarely be used. Often an indicator of lacking management.

As you can see in the diagram, I advise my clients towards the sweet middle of the Aspiring section. That’s because it is healthy to reevaluate the velocity you have gotten used to regularly, so it does not get stale, and so you keep pushing the envelope.

If your team’s underperforming, there are a few steps you can take to address the issue. First and foremost, eliminate fear and ensure there is enough trust throughout the organization. The number one reason excellent engineers get too cozy is that they learn it is too dangerous to make mistakes. All the managers under you should know how to respond to missed deadlines when they happen rarely, and how to coach their ICs when things start looking bad.

Second, you can make use of the “bright spots” in the team to level the bar. If there’s a group that’s better situated on the velocity gauge, empower them to help the rest. It can be involvement in spring plannings, mentoring, or even moving people across the organization.

Akin to using the bright spots, whenever there’s new blood in the organization, use that to question existing axioms. As time passes, we tend to converge to similar thinking, which can be a factor in getting too comfy. New employees have a grace period before getting assimilated, where they can provide a fresh outside perspective.

In retrospectives make a point of assessing the work done. We tend to discuss missed deadlines, while neglecting to pay attention to instances of impact-lacking work: time spent over-engineering or reworking capabilities that have no real significance. Talk about these so that next time, you’ll be able to put other things into the sprint.

The penultimate approach is to set goals for sprints versus chewed tasks. ICs that have a clear picture of what we are trying to achieve, its impact on customers, and enough Product Mastery are more able to deliver what’s necessary. A task force that’s focused on a target, and that understands their “commander’s intent” can be astonishingly productive.

Lastly, celebrate successes, novelty, and over-delivery. It’s not enough to accept mistakes. You should also make it clear how valuable pushing the envelope is for the company and business. A company-wide round of applause goes a long way.