Thursday, July 07, 2011

I learned about Medium Maximization behavior the other day and thought about how Scrum works. It's an interesting lens.

When people engage in medium maximization, they maximize a proxy for a real goal, rather than maximizing progress towards the real goal. The proxy or medium could be points on an exam as a proxy for understanding a topic, or air miles as a proxy for plane tickets. People do odd things for air miles that they wouldn't do for an equivalent direct reward. More details at - there are quite a few interesting side effects involved.

Applying to scrum

Scrum assigns story points to small accomplishable goals intended to eventually combine to reach a finished project. Since story points are not the same as the goal, story points are a medium, and we should expect participants to put more weight on accomplishing story points than on finishing the project, changing their behavior compared to when story points are not used.

I fully believe this behavior works as much for the managers and stakeholders in Scrum as for the engineers. In fact it might be more so: the only thing managers can measure is story points, not actual useful code, so managers are probably more satisfied by story point burndown than engineers are. Engineers have more visibility into what's being achieved towards a completed project, so that can have more influence on their choices, but I'm quite sure engineers are influenced too.


A hypothesis like this can be tested by making predictions that can be tested and measured. I don't propose to actually study this myself, but making predictions and finding things that can be measured is fun.

In the studies done by Christopher Hsee and co-authors, participants had to accomplish tasks to get rewards. In the control set, the participants contemplated doing more or less work for different rewards. When a medium was introduced, and more points were disproportionally offered for more work, participants did much more work on average, even though the rewards that the points could be exchanged for were the same. Applying this to scrum, we should find that scrum participants do more work to burn down more story points, especially if the scale is non-linear. Imagine that management could somehow set the story points such that doing 40 hours of work accomplished 40 story points, but 50 hours of work accomplished 75 story points. Participants would likely work more, and this can probably be measured.

Another prediction comes from the studies that show that the behavior of maximizing the proxy points continues even if the primary reinforcer is removed. In software development, a team might continue working on story points even if the product plan had been cancelled, unless they were told to stop. This sounds unlikely and wrong, but imagine instead a project is rumoured to be canceled soon due to a possible merger. A manager might prefer their team make solid progress on story points even with that rumour flying around. If development teams show less loss of morale and effort when such rumours are flying around when using scrum, than not, this would be good evidence that the teams were maximizing story point burndown rather than project release progress.

The last prediction is based on the results of applying a linear medium -- for each chunk of work you get the same number of points -- to a non-linear reward. In one study, participants had a reward with decreasing rates of return offered. When a linear medium was offered, but the exchange rate for points to reward had the same decreasing rate of return, participants did much more work. In software engineering it's commonly observed that the last 20% of the work takes the last 80% of the time, so software projects are arguably non-linear in the same way the rewards in this study were. If story points offer a linear medium with respect to effort -- which in classic scrum they do -- we should see engineers happy to do more work even as the project gets into its depressing cleanup and bugfix phase. (See note below)

Joking Suggestions

(I'm only playing with this lens, not suggesting real changes to scrum processes. Much of the focus on Medium Maximization is on figuring out how to get the most effort out of participants. If the goal of scrum is to get more effort out of people then Medium Maximization is very relevant, but if the goal is agility, job satisfaction, schedule predictability, or product quality, it might be less relevant. )

If the goal of scrum is to maximize engineering effort, then Medium Maximization studies do suggest that scrum teams should *earn* story points rather than burning them down. Scrum tracking tools should award points to the whole team (working for the team is definitely stronger than working individual) and display the current point total prominently. The tools might display both the overall point accumulation, and the current scrum/sprint or rolling total of last X days.

Calibrating the way story points scale is very important. The allocation of story points should definitely not show a decreasing margin of return. Very large tasks should never have insufficient story points, else work stops earlier. If we assume that story points are still assigned by engineering estimates, we can still use processes to influence this:

  1. Since we know people underestimate large chunks of work worse than they estimate small chunks of work, we should avoid having large chunks of work. Scrum often does this already by having a ceiling on story points. Some scrum practitioners assign no more than 5 story points: anything greater requires them to break down the story. That might not always have the intended effect -- in a meeting that's already taking too much time from too many people, the team might estimate the story at the maximum value rather than immediately have to reconsider the whole definition and breakdown of the story.
  2. Some types of engineering effort are often overlooked -- merging code branches, testing, deploying -- which is bad, because fewer story points are estimated for the last bit of effort than that effort truly warranted. In order to avoid that trap, we could always make those chores explicit and have estimates based on past merges rather than let engineers re-estimate too optimistically. (Yes, engineers estimate the same type of task over-optimistically, over and over and over again). Alternatively, a team might add a minimum of X story points to any story that required merging, testing or deployment, and again that X value would be based on real history.
  3. We might have the engineers give all their estimates for a story and always pick the largest estimate.

Rather than write the above sections with lots of caveats, I saved my own criticisms for this section.

  • I stated that using story points which estimate effort detaches work from the real goal of adding functionality to a software project. But I neglected to mention that part of scrum is tying story points to demos of releasable functionality. That presumably helps keep story points better moored to real progress.
  • Scrum and assigning story points helps break down big projects. Breaking down big projects into small tasks and tracking those tasks is nearly ubiquitously practiced in software engineering, probably because it's a good idea. Enforcing a good idea through well-rehearsed process is probably a good idea too.
  • Medium maximization is easier to measure if your goals and rewards are clear. In software engineering, the goals are often unclear: product designers don't know exactly how everything ought to work until they can start to see it work, and then make changes. Features get cut due to lack of time. So detaching work from shipping a "complete product" might be a *good* thing -- it stops engineers from doing work on features that might get cancelled next week, and stops them from putting effort into scalability or robustness or abstractions that might not be needed. And if you don't know your goals at all, then scrum at least keeps people from yelling at each other over an apparent lack of progress vs lack of specifications.
  • On the OTHER other hand, I imagine medium maximization is stronger in the absence of clear goals and clear relationships between the medium and the goal. If you don't know if you plan to go to Vancouver or to London next year, and if the airline can always change how many points gets you a ticket to each destination, then you can't plan exactly how many air miles you're going to need and how to get those air miles at least cost. Unclear medium/goal relationships will make people try to accumulate more of the medium than they estimate they might need, in order not to fall short. When engineers really don't know where the project is going, scrum will at least keep them resolving story points, and thus preserve the appearance of forward motion.

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