Velocity is a vector
Business and technology teams are under constant pressure to move faster. For organizations contemplating or adopting agile, the ability to move faster is often a key selling point. The vision for success in these efforts is centered on agile velocity, i.e., the number of story points worth of effort that can be completed in a single sprint. That these story points are easy to estimate, measure, and produce compelling visualizations for only deepens their influence.
Unfortunately, story points are only a measure of development team effort - they are orthogonal to business value delivered. Certainly the relative complexity of desired features should affect their prioritization, but most agile processes leave this prioritization almost entirely outside of their scope, choosing to devote the majority of prescribed ceremony activities to estimating effort and tracking and reporting on effort remaining and completed. Without conscious effort to the contrary, it’s easily to fall into the trap of thinking these numbers are the most important thing. A ‘high-performing’ team might achieve an incredibly high velocity with no material effect on the business if they aren’t focused on the right things.
This is the key insight - velocity is a vector. It matters both how fast you’re moving and also in what direction you’re going. In fact, the direction matters far more than the magnitude. No amount of moving faster will help you reach your goal if you’re heading the wrong way. This means some upfront rigor to effectively aim before you fire will pay off.
Though one of the key promises of agile delivery is the ability to iterative and incrementally adjust course, these adjustments are often small and take a considerable amount of time to accumulate into the large shifts that may be necessary should you start down an entirely unproductive path. Furthermore, there are many kinds of software where users simply won’t come with you on that journey - if you get it drastically wrong the first time they are gone for good. Spend the upfront time to validate hypotheses about what will resonate with users, do observational research and prototyping. Then you can proceed quickly in the validated direction.
Standard sprint velocity applied to an intentionally prioritized backlog is an incredible planning and forecasting tool (and worth the effort of collecting metrics for), but it’s important to remember that the end goal is business value, not effort expended. Keep the focus of your agile activities more on the value of what you’re building and you’ll deliver more meaningful results.
For more related content, see my webinar with Bobby Cameron, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester, and projekt202’s VP of Experience Strategy and Insight, Aliza Gold.