My team and I are already going as fast as we can. I can’t see how we have the capacity to increase velocity. Can you help?
I’m head of engineering at a small and fast-moving startup. We’ve recently had layoffs, and the team has shrunk significantly. We restarted our business with an entirely new product for which we keep churning out new features while we’re exploring product-market fit. My CEO and the leadership team keep pushing us to ship faster. We’re already doing everything we can to ship features in a way that ensures good quality and that our features are built to the spec. All this is achieved within our two-week sprints, so velocity is looking good. What else can I do to go even faster?
What your CEO thinks velocity means
First off, Omari, the situation you’re describing is a very common problem in times of scarce resources, where pressure is put on increasing revenue and profitability. Your CEO is likely feeling that pressure just as much as you are, in particular from the board, investors, and by looking at bank accounts and burn rate. They’re handing some of that off to you and everyone else. But that doesn’t mean both of you have the same understanding of speed.
For you, increased velocity may mean increasing how much you get done in a single sprint, a month, or a quarter. Or even, how much time you need to put into ensuring quality, performance, and security while juggling the always-ballooning scope of things that creep into every single week.
But your CEO might only care about how fast they can tip the scale towards increasing revenue and profitability. That works best when new features get out the door continuously and promptly, helping sales close new deals while retaining existing customers. Your CEO may not care as much about security, performance, or quality as you do.
But, unless you’re told exactly, you may not fully come to understand how your CEO, company leadership, and the board assess speed. They may say that things are moving too slowly, but that’s coming from a perspective removed from the reality of planning, building, and shipping. Based on what you’re hearing from above, you could just guess what speed means to everyone else and act accordingly. But guessing isn’t anywhere as good as knowing.
In order to get the most information possible on the matter, set aside a week or two to interview your peers and managers on the topic of what velocity means to them. Here are a few suggestions:
- Ask your CEO how they, leadership, or the board perceive speed and what indicators they look at. Maybe this is related to features shipped, maybe it’s all about cash, or something completely different.
- It may not be a feasible option to speak directly to them if you’re too far removed on the org chart. Instead, talk to your immediate bosses and ask them the same question.
- Open up the conversation with your peers – other managers at your level or even above – inside and outside your department. Try to understand the components they believe influence speed.
- Talk to your direct reports and everyone closely involved in the development process and understand how they perceive speed.
Keep the process tight and focused. Better to have a few well-pointed conversations with the folks who may benefit the most from adjusting your approach to building and shipping than with everyone. Take note of what you hear in these conversations.
This first step is all about removing the guesswork and accessing more concrete data to work with. You may not get a specific number or metric out of this. But you should be getting a feel for people’s perceptions of speed.
Perceptions matter more than a metrics dashboard. Your dashboard may display high velocity, but the data may not take into account how what's being built and shipped benefits the business or what your peers and bosses care about. These perceptions aren’t necessarily rational and may simply boil down to what they wish would happen, i.e., adding a feature to a product. If, then, people feel like things are moving too slowly, you’ll need to find ways to change their perception.
How can you adjust engineering velocity?
Depending on what you’ve heard in these interviews with your coworkers, here are a few suggestions you could try to adjust your team’s process and change people’s perceptions of how fast you’re working.
- Prioritize the things that have a higher likelihood of increasing revenue or achieving the goals identified in the interview process. That may mean holding off on some engineering work that you have been hoping to tackle. It’s all about tradeoffs at this stage.
- Build in smaller increments rather than large feature chunks. Experiment and gather customer feedback quickly. Try narrowing your sprint timeframes, or reduce planning and increase experimentation based on fast customer feedback. It’s worth asking this question constantly: “How can we get this done faster?”
- Make sure there’s a tight feedback loop from the customer to your teams. If they don’t have access to customers directly, talk to your customer success team to identify a few key consumers who’d be open to giving prompt feedback.
- Talk to your engineers regularly (e.g., in your retrospectives) about their sense of speed, current priorities, and how you could get features in front of customers faster. Note: none of this is about getting everyone to work longer hours. It’s about increasing efficiency wherever possible and shifting priorities to what’s most important for the business right now.
- Make sure progress is visible, both internally and externally. Some perceptions can be changed simply by increasing visibility of what’s getting shipped. Based on your conversations with folks around you, identify the people who may benefit the most from staying up to date and keep them in the loop along the way.
- Be ready to hold off on some non-urgent/non-important work; it’s all about the benefit-cost ratio right now, so if something on the list of priorities takes too much effort with too little payoff, consider whether it needs to be done now or done at all.
- Gather feedback regularly from the people you talked to on whether their perception is changing. You can use simple surveys for this or establish a regular 1:1 cadence with these folks, which is a great idea in any case.
- Rinse and repeat. This isn’t a one-time process, as your team and priorities change, it’s worth considering these steps every couple of months to keep your team efficient and effective.
Getting your team on board and involved will be key with all of this. If you are asked to increase the speed at which a project is moving, be transparent with your team about why things are changing, what the goal is, your review cadence, and gather feedback from them constantly. Remember, the ultimate goal is to increase your business’s chances of success, not to burn out everyone along the way.