Happiness Metric

“Carnation Condensed Milk, the milk from contented cows.” — Advertising slogan, Carnation Milk Company, 1907

… you have a Community of Trust and have a common Vision. The Scrum Team is an Autonomous Team. You are holding regular Sprint Retrospectives to increase velocity and other traditional measures of value and potential to generate value.

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In reflection and other self-improvement activities, there are generally many ideas for improvement. But you often don’t know in advance which improvement activities will produce great benefits, and which will not.

The pattern One Step at a Time recommends focusing on a single improvement, so that the effects of an improvement activity are clear. But there are many opportunities for improvement, and you need a way to work on the things that are most likely to have a significant benefit.

It is natural to come up with long lists of things are supposed to help improve velocity. Because there are so many, it’s possible that you are working on the wrong thing; the improvement selected will not actually improve velocity at all, and if it does, it is likely not the biggest or most important improvement.

People often feel disconnected to these long lists. So they will not be motivated to make them work.

So you need to work on the right improvement, and the team must feel some passion about the improvement.

People derive great satisfaction from doing their job well. In addition, they are often in a good position to understand what things can make them more effective, and what things are standing in their way. Associated with this, most people have a strong sense of responsibility toward their jobs, particularly if they are in an Autonomous Team.


Find out what one improvement will increase the happiness of the team the most, and implement that improvement in the next Sprint.

Typically, the team decides what its current happiness level is and then asks each team member to express what would increase their happiness the most. As a team, decide what one improvement will produce the greatest happiness improvement for the team as a whole.

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The desired improvement may become part of the Sprint Goal. Thus in some sense, this pattern can help create the Sprint Goal.

There are various ways of measuring the team’s happiness, but teams popularly use a simple subjective five-point scale. You don’t need to be fancy. However, there must be a large caution here. We find in [1]:

Many companies are using misleading data to define how good their culture is. If they only ask their employees to rate their happiness on a scale from 1-10, they are leaving a lot of missed opportunities on the table.

So, what's really going on here? Is this really a pattern? Do people really feel happier if they feel they are moving towards the organization's goals? A couple of examples from our experience show good retention rates in firms because of a good work environment and much higher pay than in the industry norm, and the people are happy enough not to switch jobs. Yet their products are buggy and late and the business continuously interferes in development's affairs. What's important to measure, and what does happiness really indicate?

In summary, a team's happiness can lead the team to strive to make things even better, and of course a team where nothing is working can't be entirely happy. Happiness may be a measure of engagement but, more importantly, letting the team decide what will improve its happiness sends a message that the team is autonomous, and autonomy has well-established links to a state of emotional well-being. Even more important than happiness itself may be autonomy, team morale, and, above all else, passion. In practice, teams have found that it works to measure happiness, and because there is likely a two-way back and forth between happiness and improvement efforts, it may be a worthy metric. Let's look at the research bases for these perspectives.

It turns out that focusing on the happiness of the team indeed helps the team uncover issues standing in the way not only of happiness as an end in its own right, but of effectiveness as well. The Happiness Metric results in team performance improvement because people feel more personally connected to and committed to the improvement, called engagement. It is widely believed that this is because people derive great satisfaction from doing their job well. However, the research shows that in fact the opposite is more often true. As stated above: “People derive great satisfaction from doing their job well.” [6] discusses the oft-cited Gallup study that suggests a correlation between happiness and good performance, but that the causality is reversed from how we usually see it:

The effort to use happiness as a measure of a society’s productivity on a macro scale is paralleled and bolstered by research on the micro level, which shows that being happy at work actually makes individuals more productive. In a recent study done for Gallup using a longitudinal database of 2,178 business units in 10 large organizations, the researcher James Harter “found evidence supporting the causal impact of employee perceptions on bottom-line measures” like customer loyalty, employee retention, revenue, sales and profit. In a related finding, the Gallup-Healthways well-being index showed earlier this year that Americans of all ages and income levels felt less happy at work and more disengaged from what they do than ever before. Gallup found that this disengagement correlated with lower productivity and poorer health outcomes and cost companies an estimated $300 billion annually. (Emphasis ours) [6]

In an HBR article, we find that grumpiness, rather than happiness, bodes for good performance and that, again, the causality is not what might think it is: [10]

People generally think that teams that work together harmoniously are better and more productive than teams that don't. But in a study we conducted on symphonies, we actually found that grumpy orchestras played together slightly better than orchestras in which all the musicians were really quite happy.

That's because the cause-and-effect is the reverse of what people believe: When we're productive and we've done everything good together (and are recognized for it), we feel satisfied, not the other way around. In other words, the mood of the orchestra members after a performance says more about how well they did than the mood beforehand.

Happiness can be an indicator of moving towards Greatest Value, if the team is circumspect and honest with itself. But, by the reasoning of the Gallup study, happiness is more an enabler for future results than an indicator of process or product qualities of intrinsic value in the current work setting. Happiness is good for its own sake.

While happiness and engagement (which may be closely linked) are important, the notion of passion in the work place drives even deeper. A study at Deloitte concluded that increased engagement (as measured by happiness) causes single spurts of improvement rather than sustained improvement. And, again, they view happiness as a leading indicator rather than as a metric of any control variable:

The concept of worker passion, which we describe as the “passion of the Explorer,” is different from engagement. Employee engagement is typically defined by how happy workers are with their work setting, coworkers, organization-wide programs, and their overall treatment by their employer. Employee engagement is important, and improving it typically will give a firm a bump in performance. But engagement is often a one-time bump; employees move from unhappy to happy, bring a better attitude to work, and possibly take fewer sick days. However, workers who are merely engaged won’t actively seek to achieve higher performance levels, to the benefit of self and firm; passionate workers will, though. (Emphasis ours) [2]

If we look at the data often offered as supporting the measure of happiness alone, we can “Example” section, below. The chosen performance measure was Velocity. Here is a graph of velocity over time:

Happiness Sprint 140-212. Source: Scrum Inc.

The study claims an overall increase of 1200%, more than half of which owed to a single quantum jump. Alternatively, one can view the velocity as having moved from the initial plateau of about 20 (up to Sprint 89) to a second plateau of about 130 (Sprint 140 to 212) and finally to a third plateau at about 200, which showed no major improvement thereafter for about 150 Sprints. The available data seem to support the conclusions of the Deloitte study. Sutherland defines “hyperproductivity” as realizing a velocity increase of a factor of 4 or 5, and the graph evidences only one leap of that order of magnitude.

The Deloitte article quotes Roosevelt, who suggests that the path to achievement is not one of happiness:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred . . . ; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Sutherland has also used this quote, but in the emotive context of a team that was “frantic” and “nervous” with “tremendous time pressure” and “skeptical” stakeholders who expected just another in a series of failures — and “happy” is conspicuous by its absence. [9] The quote was apparently chosen to communicate this demeanor of the team. But one can sense drive, passion, and a sense of team identity in both the quote and in the example Sutherland relates.

It is likely that a team whose success is being measured by happiness feels a sense of control over its fate and a heightened sense of autonomy. Daniel Pink holds autonomy, mastery, and purpose to be the main drivers of job satisfaction [7]. Autonomy support in workplaces has consistently been related to workplace engagement, productivity, organizational citizenship, and generally a fun list of pro-social behaviors. Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan's research into self-determination theory [8] has shown this to be the case across time and cultures. So measuring (merely) happiness actually works — not because it is happiness being measured, but rather because autonomy is being exercised. Like the work of Deci and Ryan, it focuses on positive emotional and personal outcomes, rather than on quantitative measures that are often politically manipulated. Such measures are nonetheless obviously empirical.

Christiaan Verwijs offers team morale as an alternative to happiness and pointedly describes why it is better than happiness: it is team-oriented, less susceptible to mood, and not as biased as happiness. His analysis is explicitly in the context of agile teams. He draws his arguments from research in military psychology texts on team cohesion and effectiveness, which define team morale as follows:

(Team) Morale is the enthusiasm and persistence with which a member of a team engages in the prescribed activities of that group. [4]

This definition correlates closely to the reasoning from the Deloitte study. If teams are autonomous (as most modern militaries have been striving for during the past 40 years) then this approach supports the effectiveness of measuring happiness, to the degree that such measurement suggests that the team is able to navigate its own way to improvement.

Context is everything

There are subtle preconditions necessary to make the Happiness Metric work. These are difficult to quantify and even more difficult to ensure. Consider this case study contributed by John Hayes for one of his teams. Happiness was measured in terms of a spectrum that ranged from loving their job and not wanting to look elsewhere to desperately seeking alternative employment. They started doing Scrum and started moving towards a collocated team. The team was measurably unhappy with this, as their expectation when hired was that they would be able to work alone. Happiness drove to an all-time low. So in Sprint 14 people were allowed to work individually in silos. (They gap in the data comes from two Sprints that weren't measured, because the team abandoned their faith in the Happiness Metric while their impatience with collocation grew.)

Team Happiness (Likeliness to stay working at the same job)

Velocity went up for a short period, but then curiously returned about to the level it had achieved before the change. Note, however, that happiness sustained a high level and even increased slightly over time.

Team Velocity (time-smoothed average)

The conclusions seem to be:

  1. You get what you reward. Happiness was the value proposition, and the aim to improve happiness through team-chosen changes indeed increased happiness. It did not result in a sustained higher velocity. There is not necessarily any link between happiness and any business value proposition: such requires additional thought and design, and happiness cannot be the only criterion.
  2. Happiness is an indicator of enterprise value only to the degree that team members are emotionally invested in elements of enterprise value.. Employees' overall value proposition may include personal desires for 2-hour workdays, working all the time from home, or 8 months of vacation a year. Increasing any overall measure of happiness may not be an indicator of value to the enterprise. One can argue that the team should have been happy only if velocity were increasing, but the data tell that this was just not the case.
  3. Happiness causes one-time or temporary increases in performance, as suggested above. The velocity here not only stopped increasing but actually decreased. Looking at the data using time value averaging makes the trend even more clear.


The Happiness Metric can help prevent burnout. Burnout occurs when people work long hours or spend much mental energy over an extended period without any respite. They just get tired of the pace. Burnout can kill productivity through less work later (“Every hour of overtime is offset by an hour of undertime” — Tom DeMarco) or by people leaving to find a saner environment. If burnout is threatening, someone will likely request as their Happiness Metric to “stop the insane work hours.”

Some people (such as old-time managers) may fear that the team could “game” the system; deciding that their happiness could best be improved by taking every Friday off, for example. Of course this is possible. Like all aspects of team autonomy, one must trust the team to follow The Spirit of the Game. (And if you don’t trust the team, or if the team violates The Spirit of the Game, you have much bigger problems on your hands!)

Note that with all improvements, Happiness Metric improvements must be measurable (Testable Improvements) — you need to be able to tell whether the improvement is actually being done.


A team uses the Happiness Metric as a way to identify and prioritize process improvements. On a scale of 1-5 they ask (1) how do they feel about their role in the company and (2) how do they feel about the company. Then they share what would make them feel better and the team uses planning poker to estimate the value of things that would make team members feel better. The team estimated the value (as opposed to effort) of backlog items as well. The entire product backlog was estimated at 50 points of value.

“Better user stories” was the top priority improvement for the team. Removing this impediment was estimated at over 60 points of value. The Chief Product Owner wondered if removing that impediment might double velocity as the impediment value was higher than the entire product backlog value for the Sprint.

“Improve User Stories” was put into the Product Backlog and pulled into the next Sprint with a Definition of Done. This Definition of Done was implemented as acceptance tests that had metrics that were calculated at the next Sprint Review. They included:

  1. How many stories got into the Sprint that did not meet the INVEST criteria (immediately actionable, negotiable, valuable, estimable, sized to fit, and testable)? — should be 0
  2. How many times did developers have to go back to the product owner to clarify a story during a Sprint?
  3. How many times did dependencies force a story into a hold state during a Sprint?
  4. How many stories had process efficiency of over 50%? (process efficiency = actual work time/calendar time)
  5. How many stories were not clear to developers? Measure by number of team members that complained about a story.
  6. How many stories implied technical implementation rather than clarifying desired user experience?
  7. For how many stories did developers understand the linkage between the story, the theme that produced the story, the epic that generated the theme, and the business need that generated the epic? Measured by number of team members complaining that they did not understand why they were doing a story.

While improving the quality of user stories is never ending, the Sprint Review demonstrated significant improvement on this backlog item as measured by the acceptance tests. Significant improvement resulted in an increase in velocity after several Sprints. After velocity had doubled this impediment fell off the top of the impediment list and another impediment took its place.

The first graph below is team happiness data for weekly Sprint 140-212 where the dark green line is happiness about the individual's work and the light green is happiness about the company. The second graph shows the velocity of the team. In Sprint 86 the team was doubled in size. By Sprint 89, “Improve User Stories” was put in the backlog of each Sprint. Within three Sprints velocity more than doubled. By Sprint 211 the team had tripled in size with output up 1200%, the first documented and sustainable non-software hyperproductive team. The low points on the velocity graph are where the company was on holiday. (See also the above graph in the pattern discussion.)

Source: Scrum Inc.

[1] Jacob Shriar, “Why Measuring Employee Happiness Is A Huge Mistake.” 2 August, 2015, https://www.officevibe.com/blog/measuring-employee-happiness-huge-mistake#fn-5054781-1, accessed 17 February 2017.

[2] John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Alok Ranjan, and Daniel Byler. “Passion at work: Cultivating worker passion as a cornerstone of talent development.” Deloitte University Press, 7 October, 2014, https://dupress.deloitte.com/dup-us-en/topics/talent/worker-passion-employee-behavior.html.

[3] Theodore Roosevelt, excerpt from “Citizenship in a republic” (speech delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris, France, April 23, 1910.

[4] Christiaan Verwijs, “Agile Teams: Don't use happiness metrics, measure Team Morale.” http://blog.agilistic.nl/agile-teams-dont-use-happiness-metrics-measure-team-morale/.

[5] Manning, F. J. Morale, Cohesion, and Esprit de Corps. In Gal, R. & Mangelsdorff, A. D. (Eds.), Handbook of Military Psychology (pp. 453-470). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1991.

[6] Korn Ferry Institute, “The Happiness Metric.” Briefings Magazine, 11 May 2012, http://www.kornferry.com/institute/423-the-happiness-metric, accessed 17 February 2017.

[7] Daniel Pink, Drive: The amazing truth about what motivates us, Riverhead Books, 2011.

[8] Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. Self-determination Theory: A Macrotheory Of Human Motivation, Development, And Health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(3), 2008, 182-185.

[9] Jeff Sutherland, Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in half the time. New York: Crown Business, 2014 , pp. 17-18.

[10] Diane Coutu, Why Teams Don't Work. Harvard Business Review, May 2009, https://hbr.org/2009/05/why-teams-dont-work.

Picture from: Divs Sejpal, May 26 2007, Flickr.