Measuring Velocity: A Survey of Microsurveys

Here at Parsable, we want to build an amazing culture and work environment. Transparency is king around here, so standups, retrospectives, all-hands meetings, and OKRs are integral to how we operate.

One common topic of discussion is our velocity: How can we move fast and not break things. Our velocity is the result of a lightweight process that reduces blockers and promotes awareness.

And, we always want to move even faster, so as a team we iterate on the process itself. To see whether we are improving, we need to be able to measure that velocity. There are two lenses through which we assess this:

  • Are we achieving our business goals? Let’s set aggressive goals in pursuit of the business’ plans, and then outperform on them. This is the external means of assessing velocity. A portion of our team are former Googlers, and so we have been utilizing the Google OKR approach to goal setting.
  • Do we feel like we are moving as fast as possible? Do each of us feel successful and unblocked and frustration-free and turbocharged? This is the internal way of assessing velocity.

We didn’t have a good means of measuring this second lens, and so we set out to find a way to define this metric.

Measuring Ourselves

As we discussed how to internally measure velocity, we decided we would utilize a recurring survey to assess how we feel. We quickly came up with a shortlist of things we would need:

  • Frequent — Any opinion survey can suffer from recency bias, so we want to make sure we are collecting data frequently to minimize that bias. Weekly seems like the right cadence.
  • Simple — Too many questions ⇒ survey fatigue. We came up with a single simple question to cut to the chase: “As an engineering team, how high-performing are we?” The multiple choice responses range from 1–9, but each has a descriptive sentence so that one person’s “6” corresponds to another person’s “6”. On the 1 end of the scale we have “Awful! We are a mess, and I have no reason to believe this is going to improve. I am looking elsewhere”, and on the 9 end we have “Not only are we killing it, but everyone is doing everything we can to get better week over week, and it’s working. Wow.” However, at the same time, there may be the occasional ad hoc 2nd question we would want to ask — so some flexibility here is beneficial.
  • Streamlined UI — Whatever form the survey takes, it should be lightning-quick to interact with: minimal button presses, no context-switching, no login required.
  • Anonymous — We wrestled with this one. Our culture promotes radical transparency, but we faced a Heisenbergian situation wherein pure transparency might not get the honest results we seek.
  • Additional feedback — If there are further learnings to be had, we want them — but again, it must still be simple and quick.

Pulse Options

There are a number of companies in the culture or microfeedback or team pulse survey spaces. So, we did an exhaustive analysis of options, and present to you our findings.

  • TINYpulse — A solid microsurvey offering. They formulate a weekly question to the team, and then consolidate the results. The surveys are always a single question, with an additional opportunity to give cheers to your peers. As the survey moderator, you can also replace a weekly question with a custom question. However, you can’t repeat the same custom question every week.
  • Culture Amp — A broader, org-wide investment. They handle a variety of surveys (annual engagement surveys, perf surveys, and pulse surveys) with a huge variety of features. Our particular needs fall into the pulse survey category. We weren’t able to get a clear picture of the functionality, as their online demo doesn’t focus on this part of their system. Further, the buy-in cost seems a bit high for what we need.
  • OfficeVibe — Designed for one-off custom polls for a team, OfficeVibe offers good analytics of the results. You can have various answer types (text, opinion scale, multiple choice) and can target subsets of your org. This platform is great for specific surveys (“Where do you want to go to lunch today?”) but not ideal for the recurring pulse taking like we seek. Also, users have to create accounts at OfficeVibe, which also reduces the efficacy of the poll.
  • 15five — Another one-off custom poll tool, but designed to spark conversation between managers and their team. Custom questions with text-only responses create threads to engage workers and close the distance between team member and boss. The lack of anonymity and lack of multiple choice answers with analytics made it not the perfect tool for our needs.
  • 6Q — This one came close to meeting our needs. Designed to be a weekly pulse poll (you can’t change the timing of when the poll is sent out), and allows custom questions. All surveys are 6 questions long, as the name suggests. However, all questions must fit into a sliding opinion scale methodology. This wasn’t ideal for our usage.
  • PeopleSpark — They shut down a few weeks ago.
  • Presto Now— Aside from the awkward name, they have a pretty good UI. However, they show every respondent the current results of the poll, which seems a little weird for the first few responders. And, there is no recurrence for the surveys, so seems more tuned towards planning a lunch than a significant cultural survey.
  • Hppy — Short for “happy”, not “hippy”, this software looks great for in-depth engagement polls, but not pulse surveys.
  • Waggl — We weren’t initially considering waggling anything, but this software seems to work pretty well. However, the lack of a multiple choice options for answers, and the lack of recurrence made it not an ideal choice for our needs.
  • Niko Niko — Looks like a solid pulse survey platform, but only supports free-text questions. Also, team members have to create accounts, which gives them access to the team’s full dashboard ⇒ too complex for quick response.
  • Know Your Company — More of a culture consultancy than a platform for team visibility.
  • Google Forms — Easy to use, since we use Google apps here. Not tuned to a survey use case, but fully customizable. No recurrence possible.

Where Do We Go From Here

We were surprised to find that none of the team-culture-oriented survey companies were compatible with the parameters of what we are seeking.

We explored the more general survey companies — SurveyMonkey, Survey Gizmo, etc. They too lacked key features: recurrence, simplicity, etc.

For now we are going with Google Forms: we know we can send the results to a place we can process them (Google Sheets), and people are already logged in so completing the survey is a low-cost endeavor. There are a lot of drawbacks to this approach, though: we need to clone the form every week, followed by some manual work to get the responses to go to the same spreadsheet.

Would love to hear if others have faced the same challenge, and how they solved it!

UPDATE 2016.04.05: we built our own microsurvey Slackbot.