Sunday, October 31, 2010

Continuous Feedback

The Agile Manifesto states that we value “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”; however we rarely discuss methods to improve the individuals on the team or their inter-personal soft skills. We need more practices that help develop the people on the team to increase the performance of the team. Improve the people and the process will take care if itself. For this reason, I want to introduce a practice I named “Continuous Feedback”.

Continuous Feedback is a practice where the team provides praise and criticisms to other team members to allow them to understand how their performance or behavior is being perceived by other members of the team.

The idea is based on Jack Welch’s concept of “Differentiation”. His concept is to split the organization into 3 segments: the top 20%, the middle 70% and the bottom 10%.

The top 20% of the workforce are the stars of your organization. Lavish them with rewards and bonuses. They are smart, they get things done and they are your leaders. Reward, challenge and develop them or else someone else will!

The middle 70% will require the most attention. Do not diminish the importance of the middle 70%. They are the heart and soul of your organization. The top performers in this segment will need to be developed to move into the top 20%. The people on the lower end of the 70% will need to know where they stand. People react differently when challenged. Some will “step up” others will “step down”. Either way, it is each person’s responsibility to make those decisions based on honest feedback and by knowing exactly where they stand.

Finally, cut the bottom 10% out. By cutting out, I’m not talking about firing people unexpectedly. Let these people know where they stand. By knowing they are in the bottom 10% they may leave on there own. Nobody like to be were they are not wanted. Inversely, they might know where they stand and by understanding exactly where they stand they may be able to move into the 70% or higher!

I know the idea of eliminating the bottom 10% sounds harsh, but most companies/teams never purge the weakest performers and this builds resentment within the other team members.

We all know who these people are and we never provide feedback to let them know where they stand. It’s easier to avoid the situation than to confront them. Nobody wants to be “mean”. However, when layoffs happen they are surprised to find out they are first to be let go. Isn’t it fairer to let the weak performers know exactly where they stand? If you didn’t provide that feedback, aren’t you part of reason they were let go?

Over time, cutting the bottom 10% becomes extremely difficult. Think about it. You can probably think of a few people on your team or in your department you wouldn’t mind if they were “released”. Now image if you had to go through a couple more rounds of cuts. The bottom 10% quickly becomes very qualified people! Your middle 70% doesn’t consist of people “hiding out” in the organization, waiting to collect a pension, those people are long gone. Your organization’s middle 70% are the best people in the industry!

The Game
At the end of every iteration we hold a Retrospective meeting we, as a team, we discuss what went well, what we could improve on and how we could make the process better. As a part of this meeting, each member of the team must select the people who they believe to be in the bottom 10%. On our team 10% is one person. We do not publicly discuss why they were chosen. But they are encouraged to meet with the person to get feedback during the next iteration. After the exchange of the bottom 10%, each person must select the top 20% and during the meeting explain why they picked them as a top performer.

We publicly select the top 20% and the bottom 10%, and publicly state why top performers are in the top 20%. We allow each member to privately receive feedback from members so they can improve and know where they stand within the team. Giving and receiving constructive criticism are important soft skills that now get practiced regularly.