The boomerang maneuver to avoid cultural resistance to metrics in Engineering
Introducing metrics in engineering often faces resistance. The Boomerang Maneuver is a strategy that focuses on collaboration and understanding, tapping into starting with why and the power of storytelling.

Ideally, the process should be straightforward: Identify a metric that mirrors the sought-after improvement. Get the team on board and rally them to bolster it. Observe the progress.

But it's seldom this simple. While some teams might be well-versed in metrics or have unwavering trust in their managers, the reality is that productivity metrics like lead time or story points often stir feelings of unease. McKinsey's article, "Yes, you can measure software developer productivity", was a prime industry example. It stirred the pot, with numerous experts challenging its views including myself. Why the resistance? Often, it's rooted in past experiences or historical reasons. For instance, I recall a time when I was pushed to measure my team's effort using story points, to later on compare teams against each other. With experiences like these, it's no surprise that many are sceptical the next time metrics come up.

This is where the Boomerang Maneuver comes into play. It's a strategy to circumvent the usual resistance. Let's see a breakdown of the steps:

  1. Start with Why: Ask yourself "What does the company need most from your team right now?". Identify what you're truly aiming for. That's your end goal.
  2. Push a challenge: Now turn to your team and ask them "What are painful problems they're facing that is affecting the end goal the most?" Engineers are problem solvers always looking for opportunities of optimisation. Get their gears turning, ask them to look at past, and encourage and open mind. Sometimes they'll take ways of working for granted as some sort of learned helplessness. But this is what the company needs the most from them.

    Once you have that, you can say "Alright, make a plan to fix that". This will likely involve all the team, which will increase buy-in. And keep in mind that depending on the scope, the solution might require your support.
  3. Pull the metrics: Now that a plan to solve a painful problem is on the spotlight, you can ask: "What would be an indicator of progress for that plan?". Ideally something they can use on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to understand if they are moving in the right direction and keep them focused and motivated. That's their metric, the leading indicator. This is their opportunity to step up and become more data-driven. But with a greater goal in mind.

    And finally you can now agree on a lagging indicator of success. A measure of the outcomes: "If we were to succeed at our plan, what metric connected to business value would confirm that?".

In essence, this is storytelling where the team plays the starring role. They're set up to conquer the challenge, using metrics as their toolkit.

For clarity, consider this scenario: Imagine the main concern is the lag from conceptualizing a feature to release. Although lead time from LEAN principles would be an apt measure, pushing it might meet resistance. Instead, ask the team about their most significant roadblocks in reducing the time-to-market for features. They might cite juggling numerous epics, which divides their focus. To track this, monitor the number of epics in progress. Over time, as the team addresses this issue, the feature's lead time will likely decrease.

This isn't a hypothetical scenario. Once, teams were asked to cut down feature lead time by 20%, which was received with skepticism. Some felt pressured, while others recalled past negative experiences with such metrics. But by turning the lens on their challenges, a startling discovery emerged: teams were spread thin across multiple epics. Shifting the narrative to make the team the protagonist and spotlighting the primary objective garnered the necessary motivation.

However, it's important to understand what the Boomerang Maneuver is and isn't. It's not a detached strategy. It necessitates meaningful dialogues, mutual understanding, and building a consensus with teams. Leaders seeking an immediate metric system to enhance efficiency might be looking in the wrong place. Metrics should provide insights, not bypass intricate team dynamics.

The Boomerang Maneuver pivots from thrusting metrics onto teams to working together to recognize issues and create solutions. This collaborative spirit is the key to counteracting the usual resistance to a data-driven approach. So, the next time you fear of facing such resistance, remember that you can follow the steps below:

  1. Start with Why:
    "What does the company need most from your team right now?".
  2. Push a challenge:
    "What are painful problems they're facing that is affecting the end goal the most?"
    "Make a plan to fix that."
  3. Pull the metrics:
    "What would be an indicator of progress for that plan?"
    ‍"What metric connected to business value would confirm success?"
Manuel Morales headshot.

About me

I'm a fractional CTO that enjoys working with AI-related technologies. I have dedicated more than 15 years to serving SaaS companies. I  worked with small startups and international scale-ups in Europe, UK and USA, including renowned companies like Typeform.

I now work helping startups achieving high growth and performance through best practices and Generative AI.

l x i m