How to embrace a culture of data-driven continuous improvement

Comparative Agility
6 min readJun 1, 2022

Comparative Agility is the world’s largest agility assessment platform. At the core, we provide validated surveys that are created by domain experts. Our mission is to help you expose where the challenges are, identify where you need to get better, and help you embrace a culture of data-driven continuous improvement.

So how can Comparative Agility insights help you improve how you work?

The simple answer is: have the teams focus on concrete actions (changes in norms and behavior), rather than on the metrics themselves. The good news is that the metrics will change in a positive manner (if we ensure people can be honest) when they take tangible steps to improve in the areas the analysis indicates they need help.

Here is a simple example we can all relate to:

If we aim to lose weight, it’s very common to set a goal to the tune of: “I want to lose 5 kg in 3 weeks.”

This sounds good, right? It’s very straightforward and it’s hard to fake — after all, the scales don’t lie! But is this likely to work? As we know from experience, not really. Setting this type of target will either drive us to lose weight unhealthily (simply stopping to eat so we reach the goal) or have us try to fake it (maybe weigh ourselves at 4:00 AM or change the scales).

Instead, a much more healthy and sustainable approach would be to focus on concrete actions that lead to weight loss. So instead of focusing on reaching a certain weight or losing a certain amount of kilos, better metrics would be items like:

  • Do at least three 20-minute walks each week
  • Be cognizant of portion size and eat smaller dinners by using smaller plates
  • Drop sugar in my tea in the mornings

Now, these are all very concrete actions — they are tangible, measurable, and will all definitely help us lose weight. It’s also a lot more healthy and sustainable; we can also choose to change these along the way as we make progress and we don’t feel like “faking” it to the goal.

In essence, the ultimate goal (losing weight) is a consequence of our actions, and not a target in itself.

So how does this apply to organizational improvement? If the goal of this effort is to improve how we work overall, let’s focus on having everyone — teams, programs, the organization overall — focus on taking concrete steps to improve where it matters, rather than focusing on reaching certain metrics and locations on graphs.

This is where Comparative Agility is incredibly helpful —it will help us identify where we want to focus our efforts and prioritize accordingly. Turns out this is a very difficult problem to solve without trusted data, so recognizing where we have an issue is the first step toward solving it. It is not helpful, however, as a pure “performance tool” to be used to reach a certain metric by a given date.

Here is another example:

Let’s say a team answered the survey in CA and found that they are having issues with automated testing. In fact, the analysis shows that not only is the team performing relatively poorly compared to the world overall, but there are also disconnects inside the team regarding this hot topic. What do we do? Ask them to improve this particular metric by 34% by end of the year?

No, we learned just now that this is not a good idea. Instead, we view this insight — that we are performing poorly on this particular aspect of our work as a gift. This gives us an incredible opportunity to be a better team and perform better — how awesome is that? A true gift!

So first, we take this insight and talk it over with the team to learn more. We get a better understanding of why we’re not automating our tests, we get to dig into the impediments in our way and we make sure we know more about the insight we just learned. We also talk to the team about possible ways to make this situation better. In fact, as a group, we decided on a few concrete actions that we (and our coach) think can help to automate more tests:

  • We commit to trying out an automation test framework
  • We decide to try TDD to create the tests before we write the code
  • We request assistance by getting a technical coach on our team for a few months to help us implement new ways of working

This is now a very tangible, concrete set of actions that our Coach can help implement with us — and where management can invest in us by providing internal coaching assistance or external funding, if necessary. In addition to this, we also take note of a few objective measures like “defects in production” and start tracking how this is changing over time now that we are starting to change how we work.

Let’s recap: the team decided to take concrete steps and focus on actions aimed at removing the impediment the tool identified — rather than focusing on a given numerical metric. The great news is that the metrics will indeed improve over time if teams answer the survey honestly when they do these activities. In other words, the metrics will change as a consequence of the actions we take — and not because we made our metrics the target in themselves.

How will this change how you communicate with the teams and coaches?

I would recommend you ensure this message comes through and instead of asking them to reach a certain metric, ask them to commit to making 1–3 meaningful, concrete changes based on the insights generated by the analysis. What the concrete improvement items are is not as important — the important thing is that they are making an effort to change how they work and improve in the process. (You will see the impact on the metrics over time — objectively and subjectively — if they indeed do change how they work.)

To go back to the weight loss example: are the three items I identify as the “right” improvement actions to lose weight? It may not be — there are many others — but the point is that I am actually taking concrete steps to lose weight (the goal) and that we can change the improvement items over time. Next time, depending on the progress I’m seeing, I might choose to run instead of walking. I might even experiment with Yoga or meditation as I have heard that can be helpful. This is all good — we want to encourage experimentation and creativity — the point is that you are taking meaningful actions to improve where it matters!

The same applies in the case of your teams: if you can get your teams to meaningfully analyze their data and agree on 1–3 concrete actions that are aimed at improving where it matters (at all levels of the organization), that is incredibly important. This means you have to not pressure them to reach a certain goal and it means you have to support them when they are looking for help — and that’s the whole objective, to create a culture of data-driven continuous improvement. (Where the data informs how you work — and is not the target in itself.)

Agile is not something you become — it’s something you become more of. Having meaningful data from which to inform your continuous improvement journey — and to learn along the way — is at the very essence of becoming a more agile organization.

Start your data-driven continuous improvement journey with CA: