MUCH LATER: Organizations certainly need good productivity. Sometimes they ask for improved productivity, and a way to show that we have improved. Is this always evil?

Early in her tenure as CTO, Kate Oneal sent a brief note to her teams, saying

I'd like the teams to work on continuously improving productivity. Each team, please put together a team plan for how you'll do that, and how to communicate it briefly, in writing, so that we can roll up and learn from your reports and package them for the executive team. Get together with me if you need to, and I'd like your plans by the first of the month, please. Thanks.

Kate’s teams had various reactions, ranging from hunkering down to starting to track some metrics to see what they could find. The Rimshot team had talked among themselves. There were a few main schools of thought:

Jane said, “Kate should tell us what she means by productivity and how to measure it, so that we can do exactly whatever she wants.”

Bill said, “We should resist this with all our might. Everyone knows that optimizing numeric measures doesn’t work.”

James said, “Let’s just figure out some ways to improve and track improvement, and give her that information.”

David said, “Maybe we should wait and see what other teams do.”

Bill said, “No! This is just another damn scheme to get more work out of us.”

James said, “It’s not that bad. We don’t know Kate well enough yet, and she doesn’t know us. We should work on building a trust relationship.”

Bill said, “I’m a programmer, Jim, not a shrink. I do code, not relationships.”

Everyone laughed at the old Star Trek schtick.

The discussion seemed likely never to end, so they decided to set up a meeting with Kate to talk about the request.

...

A few minutes before the meeting, everyone was in Kate’s meeting room, ready to go, as people always were for her meetings. Just as the clock ticked the hour, they heard the sound of Kate’s wheels in the hall, and she whipped into the room and pulled to a stop at her accustomed spot at the table.

Bill, who had been sure Kate would be late at last, whispered to Alan next to him: “How does she do that? One minute she’s nowhere to be found, the next she’s here.”

Across the room, Kate said, “Teleporter in the wheelchair. I was in Denver a moment ago.”

Everyone laughed. But how had she heard that?

Kate opened the meeting: “Hi, guys, what’s up?”

If the team had been standing, they would have shuffled around until James was somehow at the front of the group. As the suddenly designated spokesman, James decided to speak.

“Well, you sent out that memo about productivity?”

“Yes,” said Kate.

“Well, we wanted to talk about it.”

Kate smiled and waited.

“We want to find out what you want, so that we can do it,” James said.

“So you want to find out what’s needed, so you can do it?” Kate asked.

“Yes. What’s needed.”

“OK, ask away.”

“Well,” said James, “what do you need?”

“What I’m asking for is that we work on continuously improving productivity, and do it in a way that shows how we’re doing.”

“OK, well, what is improved productivity?” James asked.

“What do you guys on the Rimshot team do?” asked Kate.

Down at the corner, Bill leaned over to Jane and whispered. “Doesn’t she even know what we do?”

Jane whispered back, “She knows everything.”

Kate looked across the room at Jane, smiled, and nodded.

Kate, “So, pretend I don’t know. What does your team do?”

“Well, we do stories for the Rimshot product owner.”

“Good,” said Kate, “I hoped that was it. What might productivity mean to you then?”

Silence. Then Jane said, “We could do more stories?”

Kate replied, “That sounds good. Would more stories mean more productivity, then?”

Bill had to correct this mistake. “Not necessarily, what if we did more stories but they had more bugs in them.”

“Bugs are bad, right?” asked Kate.

“Duh. Of course they are,” said Bill.

Kate grinned. “Duh, indeed. So would fewer bugs be better?”

“Sure,” said Bill.

“Wait,” said Jane. “What if we had fewer bugs but also fewer stories? That might not be good.”

“I see,” said Kate. “How do the number of stories and the number of bugs come into productivity then?”

The team conferred briefly. James got pushed forward again. “Well, more stories is basically better, unless something else gets worse. And fewer defects is basically better, unless it slows us down too much.”

“Sounds right to me,” said Kate.

“So you’re saying we should record defects and number of stories and work to get the one up and the other down?” asked Bill.

The team knew this was a trick question. So did Kate. “It’s your decision. But if you just worked to those numbers, wouldn’t there be a way to game them? Not that you would do that on purpose of course.”

Kate had trumped Bill’s best card before he played it.

Bill went on. “Um, yes. Our biggest concern with metrics is that they will just drive us to do bad things. Even if we track a lot of metrics, it just gets more and more complex and still doesn’t drive real results.”

Kate said, “That’s right. That’s why I’m not asking for metrics.

“One of my favorite books relating to that is ‘Punished by Rewards’, by Alfie Kohn. What I get out of that book is that incentives, rewards, and punishments don’t really work very well. I have a copy in my office if anyone wants to borrow it.

“But still,” Kate went on, “we aren’t perfect, are we? We do have room for improvement? Is there some way to improve, and to know that we have?”

The team thought a bit, then James stepped in. “Well, there are things we do that waste time. When we were getting ready for this meeting, someone pointed out that we spend too much time fixing integration problems. It’s something like eight person hours a week. That’s a whole day!”

“If you reduced that time, what would it give us?” asked Kate.

“Well, more time,” James said.

“Why would that be good?” said Kate.

“Um. We could spend that time doing something more productive. It would give us a whole day to refactor, for example.”

“Why should I care about refactoring?”, Kate asked.

“It makes the code cleaner,” Bill said.

“And why should I care about cleaner code?”

“We go faster when the code is clean.”

“And faster is good because?” Kate said.

“Well, because we’ll get more stories done?” Bill said.

“That would be good, if it didn’t get in the way of other good things, wouldn’t it?” Kate said.

“Yes,” said James. “If we cut back on those integration things, we would be less stressed, we could do a bit better job on keeping the code clean, and we might be able to slip in another story as well. Would it be OK if we gave you a plan that, over the next few months, said we wanted to reduce integration problems, turning those hours into productive time?”

“Sounds good,” said Kate. “Is there some way you could show where that time went? I suspect people would like to know it was used wisely.”

“Here’s an idea,” said Jane. “What if we set our goal to be to reduce the time wasted fixing integration problems, and to move that time to more valuable activities. We could report progress with two little graphs, one showing something like number of integration problems and time to resolve, and the other graph showing our percentage allocation of time overall.”

“What would that second graph show us?” said Kate.

“It would show how we’re spending time. If we do things that make us better, we will probably see more time going into good things like new stories and refactoring, and away from bad things like fixing bugs and hassling with integration,” Bill said.

“It sounds good to me. If everyone wound up talking about how they saved time, and where the time went, we should be able to compare notes and share ideas. Plus, I’m sure that other departments outside Technology will enjoy knowing what you’re up to. Can you think about your idea and decide if you want to go that way, and if not, build on that idea to come up with something better?” said Kate.

The team conferred. “Yes, we can do that,” said James. “And we will. Thanks.”

“Thank you, people. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.”

The Rimshot team walked back to their open space. Everyone was pretty happy.

“OK,” said Bill, “we got her to answer our questions and we don’t even have to do any really dumb metrics.”

Everyone began to agree, then Alan said, “Wait. Kate didn’t answer our questions at all. We figured it out, right there in front of her. We’re better than we realized!”

Far away, in her office, Kate smiled and nodded.