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Why Common Agile Happiness Gauges Will Never Give You Nuance and Actionable Insights in Scaled Agile Environments

July 21, 2021   ·  
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Common measures to gauge people’s happiness in agile environments work well for individual teams. But in larger settings, even with just a few teams, things get harder.

The analogue tools used by individual agile teams simply don’t scale well.

When you’re in a scaled agile environment, you need different tools to get the same kind of benefits — the nuance and actionable insights — at aggregate levels that are so readily available in a single team.

Let’s see why that is, and what you can do about it, starting with some of the common ways to measure team happiness.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

8 Common Ways to Measure Happiness 

Agile favors a mindset and a way of working centered, ideally, around:

It’s why many agile coaches and agile articles promote simple, analog ways of measuring happiness.

1. Happiness Index

A very common method for evaluating a team’s happiness is to use an index or rating, generally using a 1-5 scale, where 1 is Discouraged, 2 is Unsatisfied, 3 is Acceptable, 4 is Motivated, and 5 is Enthusiastic.

How often teams do this varies. Some teams do it in their daily meetings, others start their retrospectives with it — reflecting on the past iteration.

When teams rate daily, they usually track it on a graph or chart displayed in their team space or using a spreadsheet.

2. Crisp Happiness Index

The Crisp Happiness Index is a variation of the basic happiness index used at Crisp. It’s kept in a spreadsheet and adds various columns. One is a timestamp of the last update to someone’s row. The others allow team members to enter comments on what feels best and worst to them, what would increase their happiness index, and any other comments.

At Crisp they track the average rating’s history and correlate it to specific events at the company and in the team.

3. Niko-Niko calendar

Very similar to a daily happiness index is using a Niko-Niko calendar. Team members rate their happiness with emoticons on a chart showing the days in an iteration or a full month. The choice of emoticons is usually limited to unhappy, neutral, and happy.

4. Happiness Door

A happiness door is a place to collect feedback on happiness levels in a strategic place, for example near the exit of a team space or room.

Usually the space on the door, or a flipchart next to it is divided into lanes corresponding to the happiness levels you want to track — for example the 5 points of the happiness index.

Team members can paste sticky notes with their reason for their rating into the lane that reflects their happiness index.

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5. Happiness Buckets

A simple way to measure happiness is to put a large container near the exit and fill it with enough tokens for everyone, for example with tennis balls. Next to it you place two buckets: a happy bucket and an unhappy bucket. On their way home, people pick a tennis ball from the container and drop it in the bucket that matches their happiness.

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6. Quick Surveys

Teams can run a specific happiness retrospective meeting, starting with a short and sweet survey, or use the survey at every retrospective and make it the topic for the meeting when the results warrant it.

The survey questions are:

7. Net Promoter Score

With this instrument, team member’s fill out a form with their rating for their happiness at each retrospective (i.e. every iteration) on a 1-10 point scale, just like the NPS in customer surveys. The twist is that they also fill out their reason for the score, the more specific, the better.

Only team members get all the information, managers only get the NPS score and a one-line summary of the reasons, as approved by the team.

8. Spotify Team Health Check

Spotify asks all its teams to rate their “health” in multiple areas. Teams rate each on a three point scale — green, yellow, and red — and also indicate whether things are improving, getting worse, or are stable.

For a quick overview of how multiple teams are faring, it’s easy to plot each team’s results in a table with the areas listed vertically and a column for each team, or squad in Spotify terminology.

The unique thing about the Spotify team health check is that it provides specific statements for each rating (awesome, no disasters, crappy) and illustrates what green and red look like for each area. These statements are pretty polarizing.

For example, in the area of “Learning”, green is illustrated as “We’re learning lots of interesting stuff all the time!” and red as “We never have time to learn anything.”

Photo by Freddie Marriage on Unsplash

8 Challenges Raining on Your Happiness Measuring

The analogue instruments and basic digital spreadsheets for measuring happiness work well in individual teams.

But how do they fare when it comes to multiple teams?

1. Remote and Distributed Teams

Many teams are distributed around the globe and even when the team is in a single place, it’s often remote from the location of their stakeholders.

Analog measuring isn’t up to the job for these teams. At least not without a lot of extra work or tech.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

2. Two Extremes

Take the happiness buckets. You can do that at a team level or you can do it at a more aggregate level, such as a whole development department or even a company.

Trouble is that as you scale up, you lose the nuance at the team level.

When you only have a few teams, it’s easy to cope with. You simply measure at the team level and spend a few minutes to aggregate the results.

But in a scaled agile environment you’d have to choose between granular team views and laboriously creating an overall picture, or an overall picture without the ability to drill down. There’s nothing in between — at least not without asking people to record their ratings more than once.

3. Rating Trends

Analog measuring tends to give you snapshots of moments in time. It doesn’t lend itself very well to charting history and spotting trends.

True, it’s not rocket science to collect results in a spreadsheet and plot them in a graph, but it still takes work that few find satisfying.

And if you want to correlate happiness levels with events in a team, the company, or the world in which they operate, you have even more work to do.

And yes, the Spotify Team Health Check tries to address this with trend arrows, but a teams’ self-assessment on this is not an actual trend.

4. Lack of Nuance

Most analogue measures are coarse grained, using a 5 point or even just a 3 point scale.

The danger with that is that you end up with a lot of neutrals or 4s. And that simply doesn’t tell you very much.

Scales with few points are unable to pick up on the nuances that exist in everyday life and work. Even a 10 point scale is susceptible to this.

Happiness Lab started with a 10 point scale and found that most people put themselves at a 7 most of the time. It was only when they changed to a 100 point scale that nuance in ratings showed up.

Also, with a limited set of points, you need average ratings with a couple of decimals to spot gradual changes. And that means that you can only see trends when you aggregate and average enough individuals.

Using a 100 point scale has enabled Happiness Lab to spot slow drops for small teams and even for individuals.

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5. Skewed Ratings

Most analogue measures are used infrequently. Yes, I know, measuring happiness at every retrospective seems often enough, but actually it isn’t.

People know how they feel “in the moment”. They have a much harder time recollecting how they felt even after just a couple of days, let alone the length of an iteration. And their assessment of whether their happiness is improving or declining doesn’t fare much better.

This means that unless you’re measuring at least daily, everyone’s ratings get skewed through the recency bias and current mood bias that we’re all afflicted with.

6. Peer Pressure

Analog measures more often than not ask people to stand up in front of their peers and declare publicly how they feel or felt.

That’s hard enough as it is. When someone’s rating would be different from that of those before them, it becomes even harder.

As long as people are willing to ignore obvious signs that they should leave a room, such as smoke coming in around the door, just because the other people present (actors) pretend nothing is happening, you can rest assured that publicly rating how you felt is fraught with pressure to confirm.

No amount of stating wanting people to own their opinions is going to change that.

7. Psychological (Un)Safety

If happiness measuring tools are set up to collect the why behind someone’s rating, they often, if not always, require them to do so publicly.

For example, by entering their rating and comments in a row with their name on it. Or, even more publicly, by getting them to stand up in front of their peers and posting their comments on a sticky somewhere. Even if someone manages to do that without being seen, their handwriting usually reveals them.

Sharing your why, your feelings, is even harder than sharing your rating publicly. We’ve after all been brought up to hide our feelings — certainly at work. Mustering the courage to speak your mind is easier said than done, especially when your why is less than glowingly positive.

It’s why there’s a lot of emphasis on creating psychological safety in teams and organizations. The thing is though that the trust that’s needed to feel psychologically safe is in constant eb and flow, changing with every interaction you have or witness. 

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8. History of Why

If you want to know the ‘why’ behind ratings, you need to do more than get people to rate their happiness. You need to give them the means to state why they rated as they did.

Several of the happiness measuring instruments discussed above, allow for this. However, they don’t often collect any history. A happiness door gets cleared regularly and even the Crisp Happiness Index only keeps the most recent comments.

This means you’re unable to see changes in what influences people’s ratings over time. You can be at a stable 4, and have no indication whether actions you took had no effect, or the reasons for the 4 have changed.

What if You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

So, as you can see, analog happiness measures and their spreadsheet supported incarnations have challenges. In and of themselves and even more so when you want to benefit from the in scaled agile organizations. You either lose nuance or have a hard time collecting and aggregating the data across many teams.

But what if there’s another way?

One that lets you have your cake and eat it too.

A way that:

Just imagine what you could do with all that!

How you could stem the tide of gradual decline, augment a gradual rise, and learn about changes in what influences people’s happiness and wellbeing when things are stable.

Go Digital for Agile Happiness Measuring

Analog measurements of happiness are easy to use and have a lot of charm — after all, who doesn’t like emoticons and weather analogies for team mood and personal happiness gauges.

But as you’ve read, going digital has even more advantages, especially scaled agile environments and organizations spread around the globe.

So, go digital and reap those benefits.

If you hadn’t guessed already, Happiness Lab gives you everything I talked about in the previous section and more. So be sure to check it out by giving it a spin in the open community or getting a demonstration.

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Marjan Venema
Marjan Venema

Certified Content Marketing Expert, Connect with Marjan on LinkedIn

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