Some thoughts on metrics - Dave Nicolette

To help me stay focused on the reasons to measure and the uses of metrics, I remind myself that metrics have two purposes and three functions. The purposes are:

  1. To steer work in progress
  2. To support continuous improvement efforts

Regardless of which purpose we are interested in with any given metric, it will perform one or more of the following functions:

  1. Informational function — provide plain information about progress, financials, risks, or other aspects of the work
  2. Diagnostic function — serve as an indicator when an aspect of the work deviates from expectations and might interfere with delivery
  3. Motivational function — influence people’s behavior, whether intentionally or inadvertently


Whether responsibility for delivery lies with a steering committee, a designated manager, or a self-organizing team, the questions must be answered. Otherwise, you will have no idea what is going on. They are:


Measure outcomes, not activity

A simple rule of thumb that I find helps me stay focused on practical metrics is just this: Measure outcomes, not activity. This might sound pretty obvious, but many managers don’t measure outcomes. They depend on observations of activity to tell them whether they are making progress. They might measure, for instance, the number of hours each team member bills to a project per week; or they might track whether a development team is using some particular programming technique. Measurements like these can only be secondary indicators, at best.

Observations of outcomes provide a more direct indication of progress and earlier warning of problems than observations of activity. By tracking, for instance, throughput, cycle time, and other measures of results, we can tell whether we are delivering according to stakeholder expectations. When those measures trend beyond our defined limits of acceptability, they provide early warning that we need to conduct a root cause analysis and take corrective action.