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Escaping the Velocity Trap

stevepb / Pixabay

I was speaking at a conference recently, and during the Q&A an audience member asked a question that I hear a lot: what should an Agile organization measure, and where should they start? My answer: start by measuring customer outcomes. I could tell this wasn’t quite what he expected, because he said, well, sure, that’s nice, but that’s really hard. what about stuff like velocity? My answer was still the same, but to shed a different light on the problem I asked: What’s better? A hundred story points in the wrong direction, or one story point in the right direction?

Output matters, but only when delivered outcomes are right

The truth is, worrying about velocity is a trap: it says we don’t care where we end up, so long as we get there fast. That’s just wrong. Teams who measure their velocity but don’t or can’t measure customer outcomes may, quite simply, be driving in the wrong direction. When I talk to teams about this, they have a lot of reasons why measuring customer outcomes is very hard, and they are right but if you can’t tell whether you’re delivering something valuable, you might be wasting your time.

The root of the problem is that most requirements are wrong

Measuring velocity would be the right thing to do if you could be sure that you’re building the right thing. Most teams think they have sidestepped the problem by claiming that the Product Owner decides whether a Product Backlog Item is correct or not. And this is true except that Product Owners are not somehow magically omniscient; they have the same confirmation biases the rest of us have.

The problem is nicely researched in a number of studies by Ronny Kohavi.[1] In his research group’s long-term study of ideas and their impact on business results, they found that only a third of the ideas produced positive results, another third resulted in no change, and a third of the ideas actually made things worse. Things get implemented but are never used, or when they are used they require substantial rework to get them right.

One of the philosophical ancestors of Agile delivery approaches was the Toyota Way, which identifies 8 types of waste; at the top of this list is overproduction, producing items for which there are no orders.[2] Requirements that are never used or don’t deliver a desirable result is a normally invisible form of unsellable inventory, a form of waste.

Focus on Outcomes, not Outputs

Velocity measures output, how much work a team produced. Except that it really doesn’t measure useful work, just that they did something. Relying on the Product Owner or Stakeholders to tell the development team that the work was useful might seem like a solution, but they are usually the source of the PBIs, and they wouldn’t have proposed them if they didn’t think they were useful. Sprint Reviews are necessary, but not sufficient.

Years ago I was in charge of a product development group consisting of many teams and several Products and Product Owners. The teams really worked hard on a release, and we aggressively worked to deliver what we thought was what customers wanted. Shortly after the release I was meeting with some of our larger customers, and I asked them what they thought of the release. The answers I got back varied, but the general theme was that they didn’t think we had done very much.

I was stunned, more than a little confused, and frustrated. We thought we had listened to our customers and delivered what they wanted. My experience in this is not unique nearly everyone I know who has had responsibility for delivering products has had a similar experience. I thought about this a lot, and I finally realized what had happened we had delivered a lot of features to those customers, lots of output, but we hadn’t really improved the outcomes that they experienced.

Making hypotheses explicit helps

As I learned when I talked to customers, you can’t see any of this until you start to measure customer experiences. When you do start to measure experiences, the light bulb goes on, and it changes the way you look at the world. Every Product Backlog Item is really just a theory about how you are going to make someone’s life better, and your life gets easier when you state the PBI as a hypothesis, not a statement of fact.

Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden’s book Lean UX is a great resource for shifting your mindset to think about outcomes and hypotheses.[3] Among other insights, they offer a different format from the typical user story for capturing PBIs:

We believe that we will achieve [business outcome] if this user [persona] can achieve [user outcome] with this feature [feature].

The important difference from the typical user story is that the belief is made explicit, as is the business outcome that will be achieved when the user has a particular experience. What’s missing from this statement, but captured along with the statement, is how you will measure the user outcome.

Done really has to mean in use

It’s not enough to say that something is done because it’s been tested, or even that the Product Owner has agreed that it’s done, or even because stakeholders agree that it’s done because everyone may be mistaken in their assumptions about what customers really need. It’s not even enough to say done is deployed to production because we can’t test our assumptions until someone uses it; no one receives any value until the product increment is being used. This is a very high standard for most teams, and it will take a lot of work to get there, but until everyone understands that only outcomes matter, nothing will change.

Why Lead Time matters

When development teams, Product Owners, and Stakeholders start seeing what’s being used and how, their behavior changes. They start focusing on forming and testing hypotheses and learning fast. I talked to a lot of organizations when I was an analyst with Forrester Research, and the pattern that emerged was that once the lead time (the time between when an idea is conceived and when you can measure the results) drops below 3-4 weeks, people start working more experimentally. Anything longer takes too long for them to think of working differently; by the time they get the answers, they have forgotten the question.

The smallest possible release: one outcome, one persona

Using Lean UX vernacular, the smallest release that is worth measuring, or even releasing, for that matter, is a single improved outcome for a single cohesive set of users (represented by a persona). Anything more than this increases your lead time by delaying the benefits that might be experienced by a more narrowly focused set of users. And anything less than this is simply a waste, a bunch of features that don’t improve anyone’s outcomes, and a lot of effort for nothing.

A lot of leaders in product deliver organizations want faster delivery, but they are still stuck in a big release mindset and they spend a lot of time and money trying to speed up the delivery of big releases. The fastest way to improve lead time is to reduce the size of the release, or the batch size, using Lean vernacular.

The smallest meaningful batch is one outcome for one persona. The sooner they do this, and the sooner they start measuring outcomes, the sooner they find out that most of what they thought they needed to deliver isn’t needed, but some things they didn’t even think of are really essential.

Their situation is much like the one faced by John Wannamaker (1838-1922), a successful merchant, who observed:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.[4]

Reducing Lead Time and release size by focusing on one outcome for one persona gives them the rapid visibility that they need. One outcome, one persona is really the minimum viable release.

If you can’t maximize Outcomes, maximize Learning

Sometimes you can’t tell what the desired outcome is, but you can form hypotheses about what you think customers want and then test them. The faster you can do this, the faster you will learn and the sooner you will be on your way to delivering something of value.

In reality, we should worry less about continuous delivery and more about continuous learning. Delivery is essential to learning quickly, but learning is the real goal. Customer’s needs are always changing, and the need to learn, to inspect and adapt, never really goes away.

How to get started

It’s easy to say measure outcomes, not outputs, but doing so means lots of small, and even some dramatic changes, by lots of different people.

  • Product Owners must state PBIs in terms of outcomes and success measures. This helps everyone, development team and stakeholders, because it more clearly describes the goals that everyone needs to achieve. The discussions that result are healthy and invigorating, and they help everyone be more creative in coming up with solutions.
  • Product Owners must set Sprint Goals in terms of outcomes and learning. Achieving a particular customer outcome is best, but when you don’t have enough information for that, making the goal to learn specific things about the customer will help you to converge on delivering the right solution.
  • Product Owners must scope releases in terms of outcomes and personas, the fewer the better. This will reduce the complexity of releases, give everyone clear targets, and reduce batch size which reduces lead time.
  • The Development Team and Operations must work together to create a reliable delivery pipeline. Smaller and more targeted releases mean that organizations will need to release products more frequently. Developers and Ops need to get really good at releasing reliably all the time.
  • Developers need to create reliable automated regression tests for legacy applications. Every application today is connected to lots of other applications. Fear of breaking something often prevents organizations from releasing quickly because they know they can’t adequately test all applications manually. Automating regression tests takes time, but measuring outcomes helps. If you instrument your code to identify dead code that’s never run, you can identify a lot of regression testing that doesn’t need to be done.


[2] Jeffrey Liker, The Toyota Way, 2004, McGraw-Hill, pp. 28-29.

[3] Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden, Lean UX, 2016, published by O’Reilly Media, Inc.


10 Ways to Get More Mileage from SlideShare

Spending hours upon hours over several weeks on a presentation to present once at a conference is a waste and a missed opportunity. Whether you had 10 attendees or 2,000, your slide deck deserves to live on past that breakout session.

SlideShare marketing

Giving your slides a second life, whether you made them for a presentation at an event, a meeting, a webinar, training or what have you, has a ton of marketing advantages, especially with powerful tools like SlideShare.

What is SlideShare?

I’d personally define SlideShare as the most overlooked social media tool by marketers. SlideShare’s title has a graceful way of explaining what it is; it’s a tool that allows you to share your slides!

Well, there’s a bit more to it than that

SlideShare marketing LinkedIn top SlideShare presentations

SlideShare was founded in 2006, and acquired by LinkedIn in 2012. It has become one of the 100 most visited websites in the world, with over 18 million uploads in 40 categories.

With such high website authority, marketers have seen the SEO benefits that sharing their slides can have with SlideShare. Whether your goal is to gain exposure, website traffic, or become recognized as a thought leader, there are paths to do all of these things by leveraging SlideShare’s massive and engaged community.

Step 1: Perfecting Your Slides

Before sharing your slides on SlideShare, you should make sure they’re top-notch in terms of content quality and design, and optimized to please. Below are a few tips to set yourself up for slide sharing success.

Tip #1: Craft a Compelling Title and First Slide

With SlideShare’s LinkedIn partnership and rapid growth, you might feel a bit wary that your slides are going to get lost in the mix. This is why luring in your viewers with a compelling first slide (or slide cover) and click-worthy title is absolutely critical to get eyes on your slides.

Check out the slide cover below for example. The enticing title steals the focus, dragging the reader in. The headline is extremely strong it uses numbers (which statistically get the highest headline CTR’s), it evokes emotion with the promise will change your life, and it creates curiosity, leaving the reader wanting more. The images create curiosity too, providing a sneak peak of what’s to come.

SlideShare marketing how to create a great first slide

Tip #2: Differentiate the Design of Your Slides

We’ve all seen slide decks with boring headlines, too many bullet points, and stock images of business men. Sticking to this template without putting any effort into your slides’ design is not going to help your marketing goals in any way, shape, or form. In fact, if the design of your slides is sub-par it could actually hurt your brand reputation.

So, what can you do to stand out? First off, if you have an in-house designer, put them to work! Tell them what your vision is and get their expertise and assistance to bring that vision to life.

Make sure you include compelling images (preferably with humans!), minimal text (one point per slide), and consistent colors and fonts to provide an enjoyable experience for your viewers.

SlideShare marketing how to create memorable slides

Still struggling? SlideShare has a helpful design center for creators where they lay out some useful best practices, including tips for choosing images, fonts and more. The cover image above is from designer Jesse Desjardins’ presentation, and not only are the tips spot on, but it’s a beautiful illustration of its own advice.

Tip #3: Set a Clear Agenda

After your cover and introduction slides hook your audience in, the next step is laying out a clear and concise agenda of what your SlideShare deck will cover.

Why is this important? Viewers like to know what they’re getting themselves into. If critical parts of your presentation are baked into the middle or end of the deck, and that information isn’t readily exposed in the agenda, users who want that info might abandon your deck before they get to the good stuff. Setting the stage with an agenda also helps set the flow of the presentation from the start.

SlideShare marketing lay out your agenda

Here’s an example of a deck that lays out an agenda for what’s coming in the rest of the slides.

Tip #4: Provide Actionable Takeaways

In order for your SlideShare content to be truly successful, it must leave the reader with actionable takeaways that they can implement after going through your presentation. Whether it be strategies to test out or a new way of doing something, the reader won’t feel as if they get value from your content unless they’re able to take something useful away from it. This will also make your brand more memorable, and could lead to pushing more leads down the funnel if the takeaways tie in with your product or offering.

Tip #5: Include a Call-to-Action Midway Through

As a marketer, you’re always thinking about how to drive more traffic to your website and closer to your buy buttons. Well, SlideShare is an incredible way to do so, but you need to ensure your deck contains a call-to-action (CTA) to direct viewers there.

SlideShare’s CTA feature allows you to insert a clickable link in your deck, making it easier for the user to move down your funnel.

CTAs typically appear on the final slide, but you can include them earlier just in case viewers don’t make it all the way through.

SlideShare marketing calls-to-action in presentation

Tip #6: Triple-Check Your Grammar

There is nothing worse than publishing something only to realize later it contains a spelling or grammatical error. While many may not notice, there are a subset that will, and this takes away for the legitimacy of your brand. If a viewer catches your errors, they’ll think you’re sloppy and lose trust in your authority, and their chances of turning into a lead will vanish. So TRIPLE check your spelling and grammar, and have your copy editor check it as well.

Step 2: Promoting Your Slides

Once your slides are looking stunning, you can’t just sit back, relax, and expect your SlideShare to go viral. You need to invest some time into promotion to drive as many eyes as possible to your hard work.

Tip #1: Optimize Your Presentation for SEO

Make sure you spend time optimizing your presentation to get indexed. A few simple steps like creating an optimized title with the keywords you’re targeting, adding a compelling description that also includes the appropriate keywords, giving users the ability to download, and adding tags can improve the scrape-ability of your presentation.

According to SlideShare, tags increase searchability by 30%!

SlideShare marketing use tags to maximize visibility

Tip #2: Share Like Crazy on Social Media

You should be spreading the news about your SlideShare all over your social networks. Pin your deck to the top of your company Twitter feed, create a post promoting your SlideShare on Facebook (using a targeted audience), and take advantage of the tools LinkedIn has to offer to promote your SlideShare.

Tip #3: Embed Your SlideShare on Your Company Blog

This tip is useful because it won’t only help drive more eyes to your SlideShare, but it will also help with SEO rankings for both your presentation and your blog!

You can build backlinks toward the blog post in which you embedded your presentation, and you’ll hit two birds with one stone: your blog post will rank higher and your presentation will rank higher, too, says Mauro D’Andrea at kissmetrics.

Tip #4: Email the Slides to a Relevant List

Lastly, take advantage of the leads you already have to spread the news about your stunning SlideShare presentation by sharing it via an email marketing campaign. Who knows, this could be the lever that turns an on-the-fence lead into a customer!

SlideShare Analytics: Analyze Your Slides’ Performance

Another beneficial feature that SlideShare provides is access to free analytics, showing a graph of your slide presentation’s views over time, as well as traffic sources, actions taken, social shares and even more in-depth information around each viewer.

SlideShare marketing performance metrics

After you post a deck to SlideShare, spend some time analyzing your stats to see if your strategy was effective, and use that data improve upon your next deck.