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.


  1. very very hard for the lower 10%. I honestly don't think people will do it in public. Give then a private ballot and have someone designated as the "messenger of doom" and people will give their honest opinion then,

  2. I'm sifting this against both Deming and my Zan Buddhist practices. I can easily see this becoming an exercise in bargaining alignment to avoid that bottom slot, combined with management-pleasing "safety" choices for those top ones. I'm not being especially cynical here, that's human nature to align for protection.

    My problem of course being that when other people name your destiny, where is the payback for anything but supporting the safe decisions of the most popular team members. Potential here for this to stifle growth, unless introduced or espoused by the clique.

    I know you are careful in hiring. Even then, this practice has the potential to become clique building of the deepest kind, and potentially VERY rough on the inclusion of new people who've not had a chance to build backers.

  3. Ah, but don't get me wrong. Feedback is good, but the best kind of feedback is the kind given at the time of incident. This is not always practical, but if you are going to be honest and have the team address the issues, better to have it happen right then -- whilst working.

    If a behaviour is causing a problem - SPEAK NOW.

    Tell your pair they are dragging you both, slowing you down, being deadweight, and then ask what you can do NOW to resolve the issue. If they feel there is none -- call in arbitration an that point -- some other team members, not all. And ask what can be done to facilitate change.

    Yes, there are parking lot cases, and there are gross chair warmers, but there are also people who are confused by how to move forward, or who are fighting issues perhaps they've been afraid to share with the whole team.

    At least this way it's dealt with where you can point out the specifics -- get off the damn phone, don't look at your GF's blog all day, why are you not working with me?

    And the person has not been placed in the worst parody of firing squad ever. Back against the wall. I have trouble seeing this as not being divisive -- even if it's all saints in your lower 80%.

  4. @ashkelon - I did this as an experiment a few years ago on a team and recently found this article and decided to post it. Some interesting observations from that team:

    * This team had a very high level of safety within a passive aggressive culture. Feedback was given from the standpoint of personal continuous improvement and not as an indicator of performance. Feedback was not shared outside the team.

    * A couple non-confrontational team members praised the weakest team member so the team member wouldn't "feel bad".

    * While receiving feedback most individuals knew their weaknesses, but didn't have the capacity or ambition to improve their weaknesses.

    This experiment only lasted for 3-4 iterations. It was very painful to give feedback and very difficult when the same team member was picked each iteration.

    The responsibility for correcting behavior should be between individuals (with moderation, if necessary). Should there be a "Team Intervention" before calling in an external entity (Manager or HR)?

    I agree that we should give feedback on a behavior when the behavior occurs. What do we do when the behavior reappears after addressing it? Ignoring the behavior eventually leads to acceptance and impacts the overall performance of the team.

  5. When the behaviour reappears continuously, it's obvious the person is a bad fit, lazy, or a parking lot case, sometimes all you can do is show them the door.

    The bad fits sometimes can benefit the organization in another capacity, testers, tech writers, BA's, admins. If they can't be repurposed (or you just don't have the luxury of it in the organization), there's really only the door, but possibly with good recommendations assured.

    Sometimes the person simply needs a different pair, but that person is not part of your organization. Those are tough. As are the good person mourning the loss of a superb pairing. I will give those time, when I can afford it.

    Those keeping a chair warm, and the chronically lazy or those who cherish a bad attitude need a hard shakedown. No one, including management, should be allowed to rest on laurels, impending retirement or surliness. If it's chronic, perhaps management needs to step in and spare the team the pain. You should know who these are, and hell, you want the team coding, not as ad hoc counselors full time. Some will need a nudge occasionally to keep to the right. Those are a judgement call -- are they producing enough to make the attendance and annoyance of the team worth it. Maybe so, maybe not.

    These also need to know that the good behaviour MUST continue. Some, like addicts, respond with death (or unemployment) impending, but if they relapse -- walk them our, and no love on the recommendation front.

    I've been in the position of riding out 5 rounds of layoffs, whilst being the 3rd highest paid non-management person in the company. You can be an angel of god and not survive that. LMAO

    I definitely support the team handling the intervention, with the understanding they call in management if there is no improvement. They should also, of course, be appraising management what's going on and of progress. It's hard for some managers to "stay out" of the process and only enter as needed.

    Manager needs to be sensitive to not letting the team dogpile on people, and I've seen this happen when the manager was absent and the team aggressive.

    I've seen the opposite too, where the team was
    passive-aggressive and the manager absent-stealthy and that just boiled up like a zit. Happened often in my last team. Nothing was done for months, no feedback, and the suddenly someone (often the wrong one) would disappear. Did nothing for the fear x mistrust cycle.

    You have to keep in mind, and I saw this in my old shop -- any firing, even the most justified, stresses the remaining team, especially the passive and really introspective ones. The reasoning (so far as possible) needs to be open to avert rumors, and rounds of the "you're next" game.

  6. I talked to some people who went through a similar "feedback" process. Whether they were at the top, bottom, or middle, they described the process as humiliating.

    Welch justifies "Differentiation" on his observations/ recollection of how kids choose schoolyard baseball teams.

    Surely we can do better with adults in the work place.

  7. Esther - I agree the feedback process was humiliating and was short lived for this team. I also agree there is a better way, but I haven't see much work in this area.

    Scrum provided a simple step-by-step (prescriptive) process to introduce teams to agile project management. I'd like to see a prescriptive method to help teams become 'meritocracies'...if that is even possible.

  8. Peer-to-peer feedback can help teams be (respectfully) honest with each other, and offer information to improve working relationships and work results. Lots about feedback on my blog (

    For me, the aim is to help a group of people gel as a team--and realize the benefit of the team effect.

    It doesn't bother me that I can't identify who is "best" and who is "worst." Most people fall into a range and are strong in one area, weaker in another. Of course, there are exceptions--real standouts--who out perform the system or underperform the system. But for the vast majority of teams, it's pretty meaningless to rank them (but it is destructive).

    Bottom line, it's the results produced by the team members combined skills, talents (and quirks) that matter.