On productivity metrics and management consultants

published on 2023/09/04

As Lee Clarke describes in his book Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, technical reports written by experts have rhetorical, symbolic power, even if the empirical foundations of the reports are weak. Clarke’s book focuses on the unverified nature of disaster recovery documents, but the same holds true for reports based on software productivity metrics.

If you want to institute a change to a software development organization, and you don’t have the political capital to support it, then building a metrics program that will justify your project is a pretty good strategy if you can pull that off: if you can define metrics that will support the outcome that you want, and you can get the metrics program in place, then you can use it as ammunition for the new plan. (“We’re spending too much time on toil, we should build out a system to automate X”).

Of course, this sounds extremely cynical. You’re creating a metrics program where you know in advance what the metrics are going to show, with the purpose of justifying a new program you’ve already thought of? You’re claiming that you want to study a problem when you already have a proposed solution in the wings! But this is just how organizations work.

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