7 Best Practices on How to Improve Team Velocity

I’m sure you have heard of the term “do more with less”, which sounds like a common-sense goal that we should all aspire towards, but does it always make sense? Is it always possible? What would we have to sacrifice in order to achieve this?

In the Agile community, there are diverging opinions regarding whether measuring team velocity is a positive thing for the team or an anti-Agile behavior. The differences in perspective come from the fact that many organizations utilize metrics in a manner that leads to negative dynamics; even if this is not the intended consequence, many teams feel that their management use metrics as a “weapon”, or a tool to micromanage teams, which goes against the principles of Agile development. Whether you believe that metrics is a good or not-so-good tool, it is a part of our everyday norm in most organizations, which means we must find a way to work within this system and try our best to leverage it in a positive way.

Assuming that you feel improving velocity is a “good thing” – that more outcome equates to more customer value, which is not always the case – there are a few techniques that you may consider in order to increase your team’s productivity. Let’s take a look at a few examples and see if these may be applicable to your team.

1. Don’t be obsessive about metrics – As mentioned previously, metrics can lead to unintended behaviors that don’t lead to more or better outcomes. Hence, it’s okay to talk about and use metrics, but do not dwell on them excessively. Avoid the temptation of saying “we should do more points next sprint!” which may motivate your team to inflate points of work items rather than find innovative ways to produce more quality.

2. Automate everything – Improving the efficiency of your existing processes will enable more throughput. This means that you may benefit from doing a Value Stream mapping exercise on your current processes and identifying/removing bottlenecks. For example, if you have a manual process for building or testing software, implementing automation will shorten the time and increase your team’s ability to focus on building more value/functionality.

3. Focus on removing impediment-removal – Obstacles slow things down for your team, so it makes sense to make sure you have a consistent process for managing, tracking, and resolving issues. Most Agile teams tend to not follow a structured issue management framework because this approach feels “non-Agile”; however, basic issue tracking can still provide meaningful benefits.

4. Reduce size of work items – Smaller work units will enable a better flow of work, which means your team should examine large work items (i.e. anything that takes more than 1 week to design/build/test) and see if there are ways to decompose that into smaller portions.

5. Experiment with WIP limits – Limiting WIP (Work In Progress) is a lean method for optimizing the flow of work. This technique can also improve focus by reducing context-switching. Some teams can benefit significantly from this method, especially if the nature of the work allows the team to “swarm” on specific tasks. Some experimentation may be required to see if this can help your team.

6. Pay down technical debt – Having unfinished work or shortcuts in your product/system is similar to accumulating financial debt; this burden will continue to grow and will eventually impede your team’s ability to do any meaningful work if left unchecked. If your team can consistently and incrementally eliminate technical debt, the team will be able to focus more of their energy on building the desired solution.

7. Experiment with pair-work – Pair work can provide massive benefits because it often increases product quality while enhancing team knowledge at the same time. When applied consistently, this technique will improve your team’s capacity to do more complex work, which will likely translate to more output.

To summarize, increasing team productivity is what most organizations desire. It is important to keep in mind that monumental increases in team output are not typical, and investments are usually necessary in order to inspire meaningful change to occur. Teams have a natural rhythm with which they work, and organizations need to provide the appropriate level of support, both financial and emotional if a sustainable “new norm” is desired.

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai
how to improve team velocity