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Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part III): People

by eyepopslikeamosquito (Bishop)
on Nov 07, 2010 at 11:01 UTC ( #869894=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

Performance Appraisals

David Brent: Under strengths, you've just put Accounts.

Keith: Yeah.

David Brent: That's your job though...

Keith: Mmm.

David Brent: No, Keith, I was sorta looking for the skills within your job, so was there anything else you could've put there?

Keith: (Shakes head)

David Brent: Ok, um, under weaknesses, you've put eczema.

Keith: (Nods)

David Brent: Right. You've left this section completely blank Keith. You haven't done the Q & A.

Keith: I thought that you filled that out.

David Brent: No, no, no, no, this is aimed at you... To what extent do you believe that you have the skills and knowledge to perform your job effectively? And then you just tick one of the boxes: Not at all, To some extent, Very much so, Don't know. What would you tick?

Keith: Don't know ... Keith continues answering "Don't know" to every question.

David Brent: If "Don't Know" wasn't there, what would you put?

Keith: What were the options again?

David Brent: Not at all, To some extent, Very much so, ...

Keith: Very much so.

David Brent: Do you remember what the question was?

Keith: No.

-- David Brent appraises Accountant Keith (from The Office UK, Series 2, Episode 2)

Performance appraisals are an instrument for social control. They are annual discussions, avoided more often than held, in which one adult identifies for another adult three improvement areas to work on over the next twelve months. You can soften them all you want, call them development discussions, have them on a regular basis, have the subordinate identify the improvement areas instead of the boss, and discuss values. None of this changes the basic transaction... If the intent of the appraisal is learning, it is not going to happen when the context of the dialogue is evaluation and judgment.

-- Peter Block in the Foreword to "Abolishing Performance Appraisals, why they backfire and what to do instead" by Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins

Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership. Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.

-- W. Edwards Deming

Having been on both sides of many performance appraisals (both good and bad) for over thirty years now, I feel they do more harm than good. What do you think?

Curiously, the switch to Agile development processes did not affect the (already existing) company wide annual performance appraisal process. Our HR department seemed unaware that switching to Agile processes might warrant a review of how Performance Appraisals are performed.

Agile Performance Appraisals

As Sue's team instinctively realized, ranking people for merit raises pits individual employees against each other and strongly discourages collaboration, a cornerstone of Agile practices. Sometimes ranking systems are used as a basis for dismissing the lowest performers, making the practice even more threatening. When team members are in competition with each other for their livelihood, teamwork quickly evaporates.

Tomorrow, they would have to start working together on the next release. How could something that was supposed to boost performance do such a thorough job of crushing the team's spirit?

The whole idea of ranking made no sense for a team effort, especially in an Agile environment.

-- Mary Poppendieck

In Compensation and Appraisals, Mary Poppendieck lists five reasons why individual performance appraisals are incompatible with Agile methods:

  • Competition between individuals harms teamwork.
  • A system that is perceived to be unfair de-motivates team members.
  • Setting impossible goals (backed by financial incentives) harms motivation and makes the team cynical.
  • Optimizing part of the chain sub-optimizes overall performance.
  • Working for financial gain harms instrinsic motivation.
Her article continues on to suggest some Agile-compatible alternatives to traditional performance appraisals.

Self Appraisal

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which "people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it". The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to the perverse situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people.

-- The Dunning-Kruger effect

In the late 1990s Justin Kruger and David Dunning won the Ig Nobel Prize in psychology by performing a series of studies demonstrating that the less skillful had a tendency to overrate their abilities and fail to recognize expertise in others.

This rings true with my experience. I've often been flabbergasted over the years when those I considered "top performers" were very hard on themselves during the appraisal and self-rated themselves accordingly. Conversely, I've witnessed many ordinary performers self-rate themselves ludicrously highly -- maybe they (cynically) viewed the appraisal as a game and thought that by issuing a high self-rating they'd be more likely to achieve a handsome pay rise.

What to do Instead

From the book Abolishing Performance Appraisals, why they backfire and what to do instead:

  • Coach Employees.
  • Provide Effective Feedback.
  • Change Pay Practices.
  • Change Promotion Practices.
  • Use a broad-based team to design alternatives based on healthy assumptions.
  • Create a work climate that trusts and respects people as responsible adults.
  • Encourage everyone to take responsibility to get the coaching assistance that will best serve their individual needs and the particular situation.
  • Foster a work culture where feedback is integrated into the day-to-day work.
  • Adopt profit or gain-sharing practices that equitably benefit everyone when the overall organization is successful.
  • Conduct just-in-time reference checks and use state-of-the-art interview techniques to fairly and accurately assess each candidate's potential for the position sought.
  • Encourage and train people to be responsible for their own development and professional growth.
  • Educate all supervisors on the origins of poor performance, the importance of good fit, and ways to work with people in need of special help.
  • Establish formal counseling and corrective action systems for poor performance.


The team assigns itself the task of setting and upholding a standard of prideful workmanship ... now imagine dropping a $150 framed poster to advise people that "Quality is Job One". Oh, Gee, we never would have thought that. No sir, we sort of assumed -- until this wonderful poster came along -- that Quality was Job Twenty-Nine ... But now we know. Thanks.

These motivational accessories are a triumph of form over substance. They seem to extol the importance of Quality, Leadership, Creativity, Teamwork, Loyalty, and a host of other organizational virtues. But they do so in such simplistic terms as to send an entirely different message: Management here believes that these virtues can be improved with posters rather than by hard work and managerial talent.

That important matters like these should be the subject of motivational posters is already an insult. But the implementation makes it even worse ... Motivational accessories are phony enough to make most people's skin crawl. They do harm in healthy organizations.

-- Peopleware (p.178)

Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

-- W. Edwards Deming

Getting the Best out of People

Here's a list of random tips I've collected over the years to get the best out of people:

  • Focus on strengths not weaknesses. Provide opportunity to use and develop strengths. Ensure each employee has interesting and challenging work tailored to their strengths.
  • Drive out fear and build trust. Provide a nurturing work environment: respect, trust, integrity, support, openness, value learning. Encourage risk taking. Support learning from failure. Satisfy a desire to grow and create. Long term focus. Encourage individuality. Reduce stress. Make it fun.
  • Listen.
  • Empathize. See things from the perspective of others.
  • Set realistic deadlines.
  • Provide ways to achieve personal goals inside organisational goals.
  • Remove blockages and unnecessary administration and bureaucracy.
  • Provide excellent working conditions. Good quality chairs, computers, well-stocked kitchen, ...
  • Allow and encourage staff to customize their workspace to suit them.
  • Notice when people do good work.
  • Build effective teams.

Other Articles in This Series


References Added Later

Updated 12-nov: Added new Perl Monks reference (thanks Jenda).

  • Comment on Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part III): People

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Re: Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part III): People
by mr_mischief (Monsignor) on Nov 08, 2010 at 09:23 UTC

    The most important things I've learned about performance appraisals over the years is that they're usually inaccurate, and that the inaccuracy is usually because they are too infrequent. People like to tie one annual performance review to one annual raise cycle, and the reviewer usually works on the review from recent memory. A year ago isn't recent, and six months ago is only slightly more in the "recent" category.

    I put the bulk of my node in a readmore tag for the tl;dr crowd.

    Paper, document storage, and document retrieval are no longer an excuse for impropriety on the part of employers. Put it on disk. Make sure it's indexed, cross referenced, fully searchable, and safely backed up. It's not that much work to gather the data when it's done little by little on a regular basis. It is nearly nothing to maintain compared to other data your company keeps. Protecting your workers (and their productivity) from lazy, incompetent, or vindictive supervisors and protecting management from poorly performing and litigious employees is worth the hassle.

    Don't objectify your workers, but do objectify their performance. Put adjectives and adverbs to it, and possibly put numbers to it. They get numbers in response to an evaluation: retained or not, some percentage of a pay raise or cut, or some bonus or amount of probationary period (even if all of the listed turn out to be zero). That number seems a lot less arbitrary and capricious if there are good data to back it up. More importantly, it really is less arbitrary and capricious. In case you haven't guessed, making arbitrary and capricious decisions which directly impact employee's pride and paychecks is not so good for morale.

Re: Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part III): People
by sundialsvc4 (Abbot) on Nov 08, 2010 at 14:34 UTC

    As usual, one important consideration in this equation makes n-o rational sense at all, but is nevertheless very real:   lawsuits.

    Someone “out of the blue” is pissed-off at you or at your company and decides to make a big, multi-gazillion dollar stink.   The only defense that you have is to show that you had some process, and that you followed it with every employee, and that the employee had some part in it ... as evidenced by something writ in his or her own hand, and signed.   It matters much less what the paper actually says, than it does that you can produce it, and show that it bears original handwriting by someone other than the manager.   The financial consequences of an adverse judgment, or even of a settlement, can be devastating.

Re: Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part III): People
by steve (Deacon) on Nov 08, 2010 at 17:42 UTC

    Another excellent post. Thank you for the thought you put into this, and for sharing it.

    I have had few worthwhile performance evaluations in my career, though some have been better than others.

    One thing I find for certain is that having a set requirement of identifying a certain number of things an employee does well and conversely not so well is terribly counterproductive. If there is a weakness that is visible to a manger it makes more sense to identify and deal with the issue immediately, rather than wait until an annual (or other time interval) review. Waiting to share such weaknesses seems to send a message that the weakness is not all that important and/or give a reason for pay-related incentive decisions. Strengths that need to be used by an employer should likewise not go unnoticed until the regularly scheduled performance evaluation.

    In fact I would agree with your Deming quote that something needs to be done to "Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship." Rather than having a management critical of employees, management should be actively identifying and removing barriers to the accomplishment of goals, projects, and/or tasks for every employee managed. Management that champions the cause of those who are managed in removing any barriers to success and allows those managed to take pride in their accomplishments will foster an environment of success, and even cooperation.

    I would add to the "What to do instead" list the idea of recognizing and identifying the strengths of employees vocally. This removes the self-assessment obstacle. An employee whose manager identifies a particular strength can rejoice in the possession of said strength and will be more confident in the expression of such.

    Slogan distaste has grown into a market in and of itself with Demotivators ® and others. A good employee gives their best, and asking them to focus on core values or slogans that the employer/management officially endorses infers that such is not the case. Implying that employees are not doing so is never a good practice.

    Getting the best out of people is also covered somewhat differently in Good to Great in principles such as "First who, then what" in that getting the right people to start out with is the basis for success. Respecting and rewarding the right people is a great motivator. The right people also respond to being given responsibility. Getting the most out of people is recognizing strengths and giving responsibilities with the chance to excel.

Re: Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part III): People
by raybies (Chaplain) on Nov 09, 2010 at 15:20 UTC

    great article, and lots to read. I've been on the receiving end of bad appraisals and good ones. I've been laid off as a "poor performer" and kept on as one of the last six in a startup company that once had over 200 employees. in every case, however, what affected my appraisal MORE THAN THE WORK was my relationship with my supervisor--and his ability/willingness to fight for me. Liekwise I've been rehired by the same people multiple times, even when the company's funds were entirely exhausted, because of the good word of the bosses.

    IMO, NOTHING ELSE MATTERS. IT doesn't matter if you think the other employees are sucking up to "the man", or if they're going golfing with him and somehow they manage to get all the opportunities. Use the tools the boss wants you to use. Find ways to make your boss's life better. Heck, have a barbeque at your house to show your boss that you're a human being with a family and kids--if you must. The truth is that the boss trusts those he can communicate with and feels he can rely upon. You do what the boss wants when he wants it, in a timely fashion. That's what sticks with the boss. YOU MUST MANAGE THAT RELATIONSHIP.

    Employees sometimes get the impression that management should inherently know them--or trust them--or love them--or whatever. While this would be nice, imagine how many relationships succeed when you have high expectations and do nothing to manage that relationship.

    btw, Perl has been extremely useful in this regard, due to its ability to get the job done, regardless of how pretty the code or interface. You betchya it's been a factor in allowing me to keep my job.

    regarding performance evaluations, I honestly can't get behind them. I find the inherent nature of a team to be in constant strife with anything that encourages competition of one's livelihood to be counterproductive. I find that those who might share their expertise won't do it, if they think that this expertise is their only advantage to being in the job. Especially in companies that "hire the best" you're ranking the best against the best, and the factors that distinguish the best become extremely arbitrary and subjective the more similar the technical merits of the prospective team. So in a team of engineers, where they're all technically competent (or could become so, if given a chance) arbitrary ranking forces a self-destructive grade upon everyone and engineers get rewarded according to the luck of the draw, on his visibility and the "sexiness" of whatever the issue of the day might be--rather than on merit.

    I once told my wife, "If I'm actively engaged at work then I'd rather not know about performance evaluations, positive or negative. If they're bad and I've given it my best shot, then I am depressed and think 'why even try?' while if they're really good then I think, 'awesome! I have been working too hard, and really need to take a break.'"

    Poor rankings do have the added benefit of placing the boss into constant communication with the wayward employee. It can actually turn into a good thing, if the employee/boss are willing to see it as a way to improve communication. Sadly, that's not how it is used in companies.

      You make some good points. Managing the relationship and having managers use personal connections to judge who to keep, though, are some of the things that will really kill productivity if taken too far. If everyone spends time managing the relationship with their superior rather than getting work done, that's time not spent on getting the work done. It's called politics, and it's exactly the sort of thing a good evaluation system can be used to factor out. The communication that really matters is what helps the team get the work done the smoothest.

      That said, the problem with employee evaluations is that most of them aren't very good. In fact, most of them range from short-sighted to downright stupid and counterproductive. Some evaluations force the evaluator to pick two or three "good" areas and two or three "needs improvement" areas for every employee out of predefined areas that may not even be that relevant to the particular job. Others rank people on a curve rather than allowing for something other than a 10%, 80%, 10% grouping. You might find, if you rate every employee on his or her own work, that you have 30% great employees, 67% good enough employees, 2% employees who need some improvement but are still assets to the company, and 1% who do absolutely nothing of value. This sort of ratio shouldn't be suspect for not fitting the curve. It should be an honor for your recruitment and training staff and process to know you beat the curve. You might find that you have 40% adequate employees, 25% that need improvement, and 35% that do more harm than good. That calls not for removing people and using the same recruitment strategy, but for changing how management finds and chooses candidates.

      In any case, just assigning employees to a rank is silly. Noting for the good or the bad their communication, technical knowledge, organization skills, insightful ideas, attitude, ease of working with the team, and any random factor you notice as positive or negative at the time is more useful. Correct problems as they arise. Keep the data to spot trends and correct negative trends and reward positive ones. Then, when raises, bonuses, layoffs, or whatever decision needs to be made, use the data collected.

      The hardest part of evaluating people individually and not ranking is you're probably not going to have an unlimited budget for raises and bonuses. That means each person has to get some share of what's available. This is why I really like the idea of project bonuses when they make sense in the particular workplace. Everyone on the team gets an even share of a bonus for the particular project. The projects that make more difference to the company get bigger bonuses. There is a drawback, though, in that people will try to transfer out of a team that gets projects assigned with less impact on a regular basis than some other team. OTOH, a lower base pay and more bonuses tied to the success of the project can be a great motivator and a great way to ease cash-flow restrictions on the business.

Re: Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part III): People
by Jenda (Abbot) on Nov 11, 2010 at 11:36 UTC

      Therefore, put a large mine underneath your chair, and in all of the cubes surrounding yours, put a very large red number 8.

      Yes, they can be terrible. I think the problem again in your example is in implementation and not the concept of having some sort of review. Overzealous HR staff that don't understand the work the department actually does shouldn't be designing some one-size-fits-all form. They should be looking for the requirements of the team being met, and nothing besides. HR is there to serve the needs of the company. The company does not exist to bend over to (or for) HR.
Re: Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part III): People
by Anonymous Monk on Nov 09, 2010 at 05:31 UTC
    For a RL glimpse into the devastating effect that a performance appraisal system using the Vitality Curve concept can have on a workforce, see the comments at the Mini-Microsoft blog.

      It should be noted upon mentioning curve-grading employees against one another that there's a big difference between being in the bottom 10% of a group and an employee being actively destructive to productivity and morale. Planning from the start to get rid of 10% of the workforce doesn't seem very smart. Aspiring to hire 100% good to great workers makes more sense. Getting rid of people with tendencies actually harmful to the group is good, but getting rid of a productive employee who happens to be 5% less productive than someone else is just silly.

      While what I wrote above promotes evaluations for the most part, I wouldn't promote intentionally hiring 10% of a workforce for them to fail and be fired. I'd want the documentation available to support firing people who actually, for example, cause productive members of the team to want to leave or who introduce more work for others than they accomplish themselves. That's hopefully a rare person who doesn't slip past the recruiting phase very often, though.

      Mostly evaluations should be about two positive outcomes. The first is finding the problems otherwise productive employees are having that management can address. The second is about rewarding the great employees who stand out from the good and maximizing their contributions.

        Stories of incompetent managers (and/or accountants) who take out their frustrations on their work-force are, of course, the stuff of legend.   (Which has little to do with the process of “performance appraisals.”)   If a company believes that it has hired 10% too many people to do the job, it is probably wiser to fire the one damned fool person who is saying that.   However, if that person appears to be attracting a sincere audience, it simply means that the company has cash-flow problems ... which are almost always endemic.   The bloodstream of a business is cash, and “congestive heart failure” is always fatal to it.

        “Substantial layoffs” are, pure and simple, a sign that there are icebergs in these waters, and that the company has recently hit one of them.   (It is very easy to <!>-up a company, even when management didn’t mean to.)   The company doesn’t have enough cash to pay its bills, and probably has tapped-out its lines of credit or is well on its way to doing so.   It is deciding whether to cut off its arm or which one of its legs.   If a major company makes substantial hits to its data processing operation, in particular, then that is a company that is “going down,” no matter how long it actually takes to hit the ground.   (If cash is the bloodstream, then the digital computer is the heart and hands and feet.)

        You might not have the privy data with which to make a decision, but you can always see the signs.   Don’t sit there in your comfy seat, waiting until you actually smell smoke.   If you are reasonably alert and attentive and educate yourself as to what to look for, you can usually spot the warning signs months or years ahead of time, while management is still (publicly, at least) in denial.  If the words on that wall aren’t graffiti, don’t let the door hit you in the butt.   Don’t spread secrets or spill (or buy stock or puts/calls based on) what you may know; just carry your own box of personal belongings out to your car.

        All that you can do – all that you have to do (unless you are an officer of the place, you unlucky SOB...) – is to get out of the way.   There will always be very strong demand for people who can make a digital computer sing and dance:   if not “here,” then “there.”     This is the way that business actually works.   Don’t take it personally, and try not to get caught by it more often than you inevitably will.   You are a very well-paid employee; therefore, you are very costly.   It is merely a contract; no one owes any allegiance to anyone.   It’s par for this course.   Plan wisely.

Re: Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part III): People
by DrHyde (Prior) on Nov 11, 2010 at 11:14 UTC
    Having been on both sides of many performance appraisals (both good and bad) for over thirty years now, I feel they do more harm than good. What do you think?

    As in just about everything involving management, it depends on your manager. I found my most recent one to be quite useful - he raised a coupla small concerns, which he was right to do, and which I've tried to fix. I also had some concerns, which the whole team is slowly fixing. I got some realistic goals for the next year, some of which have since become unrealistic, others I've already hit, and a couple which I've not yet done.

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