Engineering Productivity
Engineering Metrics
High-performing Teams

How To Cultivate Continuous Improvement for High-Performing Teams

Paul Bleicher
Paul Bleicher
February 17, 2023
5 min read

It’s the question no one can seem to answer: How do engineering teams actually become high-performing?

We’ve talked with hundreds of different engineering organizations in last couple of years, and when it comes to high performance, the conversation often mentions DORA metrics. DORA metrics can be a starting point and tell us how many times an “elite” engineering team is releasing per day. But how do teams actually become high-performing? 

As César Lugo, who leads Engineering Intelligence at Typeform, put it

“I think the industry’s slowly coming to realize that’s not enough to guide an engineering organization, because they tell us about common characteristics of a high-performing organization but not how they made their journey to get there. So we need to provide teams with more leading indicators on how you can get there. Otherwise, you’re just telling them, ‘Be better.’” - Developing Leadership Podcast

We’ve seen high-perfoming organizations enable their teams to do three things repeatedly: uncover insights, drive improvement, and demonstrate their impact. 

In this article, we will dig deeper into the how of becoming “better” by exploring what goes into each of these elements, and what you should watch out for as you navigate the process. 

Uncover insights 

1. Understand your status quo

The first thing you want to do is to understand where you stand in terms of velocity. But knowing your daily release frequency is not enough. You need to understand the leading indicators. 

PR Cycle Time (the time it takes your team to complete a Pull Request from initial commit to deployment) is typically a great way to start,

 but you need to be able to break it down into all the different steps of your software delivery cycle. We recommend looking at your:

  • WIP Time or Coding Time
  • Review Time
  • Merge Time
  • Release Time
  • And Deploy Time
Quickly understand how you perform at every stage of the software delivery pipeline. Get 12 months of historical data. Source: Athenian

2. Identify bottlenecks and potential improvements

Once you know where you stand and can see historical data, you can start to identify trends over time and identify bottlenecks in your software delivery. Did your Release Time increase over the last couple of months? Are Pull Requests taking longer to review on a specific repository? Is your Release Frequency increasing for just a specific team?

Explore leading indicators to identify the root cause of your bottlenecks. In this case, you can see that the high code review time seems to be localised on a specific repository. Source: Athenian

Continue exploring your data to identify more improvement opportunities. In this example, we can see that high code review times are associated with large PRs. Source: Athenian

Get continuous Slack notifications when a new insight or bottleneck is identified. Source: Athenian

Drive improvement

3. Set goals

Once you understood what your areas of improvement are, the journey doesn’t stop there. 

You won’t improve if you don’t set a specific goal. When setting goals, it is important to set SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. 

Focus on the 2-3 things that you want to improve and set goals on leading indicators that you and the team can actually impact.  

Set a goal for your team. In this example, we’re setting a goal for our Engineering team to have 90% of all PRs be below 50 lines of code. This should fasten our code review process and therefore impact our PR Cycle Time. Source: Athenian

4. Track progress

Work with your team to define concrete measures to improve the goal and track your progress over time. Athenian customers typically track their progress on a weekly basis. 

Track the progress of your goal during your weekly team meeting and identify underlying blockers. Here you can quickly identify the PRs that took more than 24h to review or are still open. Source: Athenian

With Athenian, Engineering Managers or Team Leads can create a custom Dashboard for their teams highlighting the key metrics the team should be looking at. Source: Athenian

Demonstrate impact

5. Report on your impact

Report on the impact your team or organization has had on your business goals. Measure org-wide impact of your initiatives on team performance. 

As a VP of Engineering or CTO, I can share an organization-wide Dashboard of my teams and highlight the progress of my organization. Source: Athenian. Source: Athenian

6. Align engineering with business priorities

“The goal is to get stuff into customer’s hands, and our goal is to get it into customer’s hands as quickly as possible, as safely as possible with as little bugs, as high quality as possible. That’s actually what we’re trying to do” - Jason Warner on the Developing Leadership Podcast 

Align your engineering initiatives with business goals and track how you’re allocating resources. 

Highlight the business impact of your teams. Source: Athenian

A couple of key things to remember about this continuous improvement process:

  • Your role as an engineering leader is to empower all your teams to adopt this continuous improvement process autonomously
  • Context matters. It’s not because DORA says that a high-performing team releases 10x a day that this is applicable to your org or to every team. Again, enable your Team Leads and Engineering Managers to improve based on their own context

Ready to cultivate continuous improvement for your engineering teams? Let's get started! 

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