Case Study: The Metric Mirage at AgileX Solutions

Sid Mustafa
March 22, 2024

AgileX Solutions, a leading Software as a Service (SaaS) company, is celebrated for its adoption of agile methodologies. However, the company encounters a significant challenge when its non-technical Chief Executive Officer (CEO) mandates the use of quantitative metrics to gauge the engineering team’s performance.

This requirement starkly contrasts with the perspective of the Head of Engineering (HoE), who advocates for a more nuanced, holistic evaluation approach.

The CEO’s insistence on employing analytical tools such as Jellyfish to monitor various metrics—including velocity, burn-down charts, lines of code and commit frequency—sets the stage for a critical exploration of the drawbacks associated with over-reliance on superficial or “vanity” metrics.

This case study delves into the imperative of integrating quantitative data with qualitative insights to foster a balanced assessment framework.

Key thing to understand is that with this kind of request, the CEO isn’t actually wanting insight into each individual’s or team’s performance to optimize or clean house, rather it’s an indicator that he doesn’t fully trust YOU

Ken K.

Key Issues at a Glance

  • Vanity Metrics vs. Value Delivery: The challenge lies in quantifying what truly constitutes a meaningful contribution.
  • Leadership Misalignment: A noticeable rift between the CEO’s quantitative demands and the HoE’s qualitative vision raises concerns.
  • Team Morale: The implementation of quantitative tracking mechanisms potentially jeopardises the engineering team’s spirit.
  • Protecting Team Integrity: The HoE faces the daunting task of safeguarding the team against practices that could be detrimental to their cohesion and productivity.

Engagement Questions

  • Balancing Metrics: In the quest for a balanced assessment approach, how would you reconcile the need for quantitative metrics with the intrinsic value of qualitative insights?
  • Leadership Alignment: What strategies could facilitate the alignment of non-technical leadership with the tangible realities of engineering work?
  • Team Morale: Facing the introduction of potentially intrusive metrics, what measures can be taken to preserve team morale and culture?
  • Holistic Measurement: Propose a metric or practice that effectively encapsulates the genuine value delivered by the engineering team.

Further Engagement

  • An invitation to participate in a “Metrics vs. Morale” virtual roundtable, aimed at debating the relative merits of quantitative versus qualitative metrics within agile frameworks. This forum is intended as a venue for sharing experiences and strategies.
  • The insights garnered from this case study will be further discussed in our upcoming Peer to Peer session. This presents an excellent opportunity to continue our dialogue, delve deeper into the issues at hand, and collaboratively explore potential solutions.

Your Thoughts

As fellow CTOs and engineering leaders, share your experiences and tips in the comments. Let’s collaborate to create a roadmap for effective leadership in the dynamic environment of a start-up. Your expertise could be the guiding light for many others in similar situations.

Peer Advice (Actionable Solutions from our CTO Community)

Ken K.

My take on this situation (and I’ve definitely been in this position before):

One of the key things to understand is that with this kind of request, the CEO isn’t actually wanting insight into each individual’s or team’s performance to optimize or clean house, rather it’s an indicator that he doesn’t fully trust YOU and how you’re leading, what you’re accomplishing with the department.

Now this isn’t to say you’ve done or are doing anything wrong, either in-fact (what you’re accomplishing) or in trust from the CEO not being strong.  But it is pointing out there’s some gap in their ability to trust you’re driving great value from what you’ve got.

Some CEOs need more data and detail than others, and perhaps that is the reason.  Often as leaders, even technology ones, we maneuver our teams, deliveries, and departments partially via intuition and finesse, and not precise algorithms or outcomes.  Some fantastic CEOs I’ve worked with are good with that, trusting me as the leader to keep them informed about how things are impacting the business.

Other CEOs it’s not that they love data and detail, they’re just subconsciously (or consciously) feeling the need to get involved, control, and take charge.  So this speaks to helping build his trust in you, the leader.

Now what I do in these kind of situations is to definitely put in place a series of metrics to regularly talk through with the CEO.  I’ll talk about what twist I put on it in a second, but just tracking and putting together metrics actually helps you as well, even if you don’t feel you need them.  “If you want to improve a thing, track that thing”  “The spotlight of awareness tends to make aligning to goals happen naturally on its own”  :slightly_smiling_face:

Okay, but to metrics.  The fundamental twist or distinction I make here is to have the metrics as a whole be about MY OWN success or failure, as a leader, at accomplishing my strategy and targets (which encompasses the teams and individuals).  Yes this can feel a bit vulnerable and make you anxious, but IMO it’s the best way forward.

  • you subtly change the CEOs frame from focusing on the teams’ output to your leadership effectiveness
  • you build more and more trust with the CEO about you as a leader, so they need or want the metrics less and less.

What does this mean?

  • It means having a solid clear technology strategy written down and understood by the SLT and CEO.  (you do have one of those, right? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: )
  • it means, yes potentially, folding team metrics in such as cycle-time, even velocity and burn-downs, but lean heavily into couching that data about YOU, not the team.  Why are you making the choices YOU are making, with the detail and insight YOU have about the teams and their delivery?
  • it means using tactics such as milestone-orientation — coaching teams towards MVP milestone goals with lots of room for scope negotiation as timelines loom, yet still achieve (and claim) success.
  • it means even for tech debt areas, having a business case up front about what ROI the time/$ would bring, and tracking afterwards if that actualized

just my rambling $0.02, but take Responsibility, take Ownership of the ask, the trust building, and opening up to show not just what decisions you’re making, but how and why you make them.  

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