I was recently involved in an online discussion about how to calculate the benefits realized by software development teams. As with most online discussions it quickly devolved into camps and the conversation didn’t progress much after that. In this case there was what I would characterize as a traditional project camp and a much smaller agile/lean product camp. Although each camp had interesting points, the important thing for me in the conversation was the wide cultural and experience gap between the people involved in the conversation.
The following diagram summarizes the main viewpoints and the differences between them. The traditional project camp promoted a strategy where the potential return on investment (ROI) for a project would be calculated, a decision would be made to finance the project based (partly) on that ROI, the project would run, the solution delivered into production, and then at some point in the future the actual ROI would be calculated. Everyone was a bit vague on how the actual ROI would be calculated, but they agreed that it could be done although would be driven by the context of the situation. Of course several people pointed out that it rarely works that way. Even if the potential ROI was initially calculated it would likely be based on wishful thinking and it would be incredibly unlikely that the actual ROI would be calculated once the solution was in production. This is because few organizations are actually interested in investing the time to do so and some would even be afraid to do so. Hence the planned and actual versions of the traditional strategy in the diagram.
The agile/lean camp had a very different vision. Instead of investing in upfront ROI calculation, which would have required a fair bit of upfront requirements modelling and architectural modelling to get the information, the idea was that we should instead focus on a single feature or small change. If this change made sense to the stakeholders then it would be implemented, typically on the order of days or weeks instead of months, and put quickly into production. If your application is properly instrumented, which is becoming more and more common given the growing adoption of DevOps strategies, you can easily determine whether the addition of the new feature/change adds real value.
Cultural differences get in your way
The traditional project camp certainly believed in their process. In theory it sounded good, and I’m sure you could make it work, but in practice it was very fragile. The long feedback cycle, potentially months if not years, pretty much doomed the traditional approach to measuring benefits of software development to failure. The initial ROI guesstimate was often a work of fiction and rarely would it be compared to actuals. The cultural belief in bureaucracy motivated the traditional project camp to ignore the obvious challenges with their chosen approach.
The agile/lean camp also believed in their strategy. In theory it works very well, and more and more organizations are clearly pulling this off in practice, but it does require great discipline and investment in your environment. In particular, you need investment in modern development practices such as continuous integration (CI), continuous deployment (CD), and instrumented solutions (all important aspects of a disciplined agile DevOps strategy). These are very good things to do anyway, it just so happens that they have an interesting side effect of making it easy (and inexpensive) to measure the actual benefits of changes to your software-based solutions. The cultural belief in short feedback cycles, in taking a series of smaller steps instead of one large one, and in their ability to automate some potentially complex processes motivated the agile/lean camp to see the traditional camp as hopeless and part of the problem.
Several people in the traditional project camp struggled to understand the agile/lean approach, which is certainly understandable given how different that vision is compared with traditional software development environments. Sadly a few of the traditionalists chose to malign the agile/lean strategy instead of respectfully considering it. They missed an excellent opportunity to learn and potentially improve their game. Similarly the agilists started to tune out, dropping out of the conversation and forgoing the opportunity to help others see their point of view. In short, each camp suffered from cultural challenges that prevented them from coherently discussing how to measure the benefits of software development efforts.
How Should You Measure the Effectiveness of Software Development?
Your measurement strategy should meet the following criteria:
- Measurements should be actioned. Both the traditional and agile/lean strategies described above meet this criteria in theory. However, because few organizations appear willing to calculate ROI after deployment as the traditional approach recommends, in practice the traditional strategy rarely meets this criteria. It is important to note that I used the word actioned, not actionable. Key difference.
- There must be positive value. The total cost of taking a measure must be less than the total value of the improvement in decision making you gain. I think that the traditional strategy falls down dramatically here, which is likely why most organizations don’t actually follow it in practice. The agile/lean strategy can also fall down WRT this criterion but is much less likely to because the feedback cycle between creating the feature and measuring it is so short (and thus it is easier to identify the change in results to the actual change itself).
- The measures must reflect the situation you face. There are many things you can measure that can give you insight into the ROI of your software development efforts. Changes in sales levels, how often given screen or function is invoked, savings incurred from a new way of working, improved timeliness of information (and thereby potentially better decision making), customer retention, customer return rate, and many others. What questions are important to you right now? What measures can help provide insight into those questions? It depends on the situation that you face, there are no hard and fast rules. For a better understanding of complexity factors faced by teams, see The Software Development Context Framework.
- The measures should be difficult to game. Once again, traditional falls down here. ROI estimates are notoriously flakey because they require people to make guesses about costs, revenues, time frames, and other issues. The measurements coming out of your instrumented applications are very difficult to game because they’re being generated as the result of doing your day-to-day business.
- The strategy must be compatible with your organization. Once again, this is a “it depends” type of situation. Can you imagine trying to convince an agile team to adopt the traditional strategy, or vice versa? Yes, you can choose to improve over time.
Not surprisingly, I put a lot more faith in the agile/lean approach to measuring value. Having said that, I do respect the traditional strategy as there are some situations where it may in fact work. Just not as many as traditional protagonists may believe.