What is Progress?
Defining progress will help you to better understand the difference between being busy and productive. Unfortunately, I often see very intelligent and productive people falling into the trap of doing busywork instead of making progress. In order to effectively combat this problem, it helps to define progress much in the same way we define a vision: envision the end state. Attempt to describe in detail the properties and aspects of the ideal end state for your current task or project. For example, if I was trying to build an office chair, I may describe the end state as follows: “I can sit comfortably in the chair for several hours,” “The chair is elevated from the floor,” or “I can rotate the seat of the chair easily.” Each of these properties can be easily measured, whether objectively or not, and represent true progress toward completing my goal.
Tasks do not represent progress.
Continuing with my example from earlier, there may be many things that I need to do in order to build a great office chair. Perhaps I need to buy materials such as wood, steel, and fabric. Maybe I need to sketch designs, cut out upholstery, and assemble arm rests. All of these things represent actions that I can and probably should do in order to reach my end goal of having a lovely new office chair, but none of these things represent true progress.
Tasks act as hypotheses to be tested, not the results of an experiment.
For each task you decide to act on, you make an implicit statement: “If I complete this task, then I will be closer to achieving my goal.” Experience probably tells you that even the most successful and accomplished people regularly learn otherwise. At the end of each completed task, and often before, we learn about new tasks that must be completed. For example, before you can buy wood you need to find a store that sells the wood. Perhaps the store is closed and you now need to find another store or different wood, let’s say you chose to change to a different kind of wood. Now, the store that sells the new wood is open, but when you get there, they have run out and recommend another store. You don’t have enough gas to get to the other store, so you start off toward the gas station. We now have a situation where in order to make progress on my chair, I must go to the gas station. If I measure productivity by the tasks completed I may find that I am immensely productive, checking off task after task after task. However, without any measurable and tangible progress being made on the chair itself, I am failing to achieve my goal.
How you measure progress directly impacts whether you feel most productive doing busywork or accomplishing your goals.
Measure Real Progress
The real challenge with choosing a measure of progress is recognizing incremental steps toward a goal that represent true progress and not the busywork of tasks that may or may not contribute to the goal. This can sometimes be more art than science, but focusing on realized benefits as a measure of progress will almost always deliver results. Since user stories are the primary measure of progress on most Agile projects, it is important that they represent realizable benefits as opposed to tasks. Using our existing example to tie everything together here, the following benefits would be great measures of progress on our office chair.
- The chair has a designated seat.
- The seat is elevated from the floor.
- The elevated seat can hold up to 300 lbs without signs of damage or stress.
- The seat is comfortable enough to use for several hours.
- The chair provides proper back support.
As you can see in these examples, they describe tangible benefits that could conceivably be built incrementally toward the goal of having a working chair. Hopefully, this provides you with a better understanding why to think more carefully about measuring progress. If you use this idea, or struggle to apply it, let us know in comments below.