Can a Team’s Velocity Be Increased Without Overwork?

Velocity is defined as “the speed of something in a given direction.” In terms of productivity, it can be defined as the average amount of work that your team completes in a given period of time, especially as viewed by customers. Is it possible to increase your team’s velocity in a meaningful way that leads to real results customers can see? And can this be done without overworking your team? The answer to both questions is, “Absolutely,” though the answer may not be obvious.

If you are responsible for a product or are responsible for multiple project teams and operate in a competitive marketplace, boosting your team’s velocity is advantageous. Velocity is a measure of your organization’s throughout and increases customer engagement. Customers like a company that works quickly, releasing products early and often. They tend to view a company with a higher velocity in a more favorable light.

It’s a bit of a balancing act, however. If you overwork your team, it likely will put out subpar products, which will counteract any advantage you get in terms of customer engagement. Indeed, overtime and busyness are generally symptoms of a team whose output is mediocre at best in customers’ eyes. If your project team is haggard and harried, they will do mediocre work, which will counteract any advantage earned by promptness. Furthermore, velocity as a measurement of output is relative anyway. Without the proper context, it is a meaningless measurement.

The key lies in your planning and estimation techniques, which must consider short, medium, and long-range timeframes.

A Long-range Vision with a Short-Term Focus Results in Shorter Time to Market

As we said, one of the most effective ways of increasing velocity in the eyes of customers is to reduce your time to market. The more products you put in front of customers, the more aware of you they will be, and the more they will interact with your company.

But how can you reduce your time to market without sacrificing quality? If you simply start churning out the same products and services faster, compromises and sloppy work are inevitable. To avoid this, we recommend adopting an incremental release of products and services. Incremental or phased delivery allows you to have more frequent and earlier customer engagement. After all, customers only see the value of a product or service once they’ve interacted with it, so the sooner you get it into their hands, the better.

Think about it. Which company is more likely to stay top of mind: the one that takes forever in development and only releases a product every few years, or the one that releases a steady stream of great products and services? If you can provide incremental releases with a cadence of days or weeks rather than quarters or years, you will stay fresh in a customer’s mind over time. Consider ways to take your products and services and break them down into smaller “pieces,” which can then be released to customers in increments.

To do this well, you will need a strong shared vision for the long term. Interim products and services don’t provide full value, so you need that vision to be realized across all of your incremental releases to build engagement toward your product or service’s maximum value.

Once you have established a long-term vision, you can focus your team’s execution on the short term. Indeed, for maximum efficiency, we recommend focusing on one time-box at a time. Make your work in that time-box visible to customers and monitor your progress extensively. Making work visible will have the most significant impact on the velocity of your team.

Bear in mind, your planning and estimation techniques are going to vary for long-term (a year or more), medium-term (two to six months), and short-term (two to four weeks) time horizons. This creates quite a bit of complexity, so let’s explore the best techniques for each of them.

Planning Induces Focus

Start with your long-term planning, which is about your overall shared vision. Long-term planning should focus on creating that vision and developing a roadmap to achieve it. Include specific long-term goals based on customer priorities for the product or service, and develop a roadmap to achieve those goals, setting incremental milestones so you can track your progress.

Your medium-term planning is about hitting those milestones, so you achieve your long-term goals. To do that, you need to make an effective plan that establishes the project’s scope, including all due dates across your medium time horizon, such as monthly or quarterly. Make sure you have identified all milestones and mile markers along the way, then create estimates for the amount of time, effort, and human resources necessary to reach each one. This will ensure that your team’s results are both timely and high quality.

If your long-term plans are about the overall vision, your medium-term plans are about milestones; then, your short-term plans are about executing the next increment (i.e., the next time-box). Put another way. Short-term plans focus your team on doing the right thing at the moment. It’s essential to know the destination, but unless your team knows what they are supposed to be working on right now, they’ll never get there.

To achieve this, establish specific priorities for a short time-box of perhaps one to four weeks. Ask your team to provide estimates and use them to plan the time-box. These short-term priorities will help your team clear their minds of longer-term expectations that might otherwise hinder their velocity. Make sure that your short-term planning gives the team clear tasks, priorities, and responsibilities, so they know at all times where they should focus their efforts.

As long as you have an overarching vision, your team will understand how the short-term work ties into the big picture, but they won’t get distracted by trying to reach a goal post that is far down the road. Think of it this way. A runner needs to know where the finish line is, but if they don’t have markers along the way to reveal a path leading to that finish line, they will struggle to find the best way to get there. By giving the runner a steady stream of close milestones, they can maximize their effort for the very next part of the race. In the long run, this will help them get to the finish line with much greater velocity.

Use the Power of Planning to Improve Velocity

Let’s face it, creating meticulous plans and estimates across multiple time horizons is hard work. Adding to the complexity, your techniques for creating plans differ significantly depending on the time horizon. It might be tempting to avoid all of this so you can hurry up and get started building your next great product or service. However, you will more than compensate for the time spent on planning for multiple time-horizons through increased velocity and better customer engagement.

While the customer’s perception of your velocity is determined mainly by your products and services’ incremental release, you can’t focus so much on the next incremental release that you lose sight of the overall vision. Balancing the two requires planning across all of those time horizons. Take the time to get this right. If you can continue to provide incremental value to your customers while moving consistently toward your long-range goals, you will capture customer attention early and build engagement over time.

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