Recently, at work, I was asked if I knew anything about Agile Appraisals. I had to admit that I didn’t, so I went and did some research. The first thing I found was a Wall Street Journal article called ‘Get rid of the performance review!’ from Samuel A Culbert, who is a professor at the UCLA School of Management. It’s an interesting read and sparked some ideas about what an agile review process should be.
I’ve taken some queues from the article as he talked a lot of sense, and wrapped an agile spanner around it.
The key is in the name, ‘agile’. We should turn to the holy grail; the 12 principles and four core values of the agile manifesto when thinking about how to appraise people people in our department. The four main points to take from the manifesto when thinking about appraisals, I think, are (paraphrased for context):
- People and interactions over processes and tools
- At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts it’s behaviour accordingly.
- Continuous attention to excellence enhances agility
- Simplicity is essential
So, with this in mind, we can see what an agile appraisals needs to:
- Dispense with forms and formality and concentrate on the conversations;
- Look at how the team can work better together.
Individual agile appraisals
In individual appraisals, the ‘team’ are the boss and his/her subordinate. The boss’ focus of an appraisal should switch from the traditional “How are you performing for me?” to, “How can we work better together?”. The idea is that, the appraisal is about doing things that make the relationship between the boss and subordinate better and allowing the subordinate to appraise themselves. What do they need to do to make their input more valuable and what do they need from their boss?
This could be in terms of more training, guiding, coaching, tutoring or it could also be in terms of their relationship “I need you involved more in what I’m doing.” or “Help coach me on unit testing”. The subordinate should talk about how they’re going to make the relationship better and the boss should reply with “How are you going to do these things and, more specifically, how can I help you do that?”. This also has the benefit of reinforcing the Stop, Start, Continue idea of appraising your boss.
The whole idea here is to inspect and adapt, to spend some time reflecting how things are going and suggest and then try some ideas for the next period which reinforce the idea of a ‘team’ relationship between boss and subordinate and to ensure that the subordinate improves on issues that are important to them as well as being beneficial to the greater good of making quality software.
Bare this in mind during any appraisal: “Given who I am and what I am learning about this other individual, what is the best way for us to complement each other in getting work accomplished with excellence?”
The appraisals should be regular, at least once a quarter and last no longer than one hour. An appraisal can also be arranged at a convenient time for both boss and subordinate if either feels that their working as a team is suffering for any reason or that something that was agreed isn’t working or needs a tweak. The notion of ‘annual appraisals’ is absurd in this context.
Team agile appraisals
Team appraisals can be run in the same way. These shouldn’t be confused with the sprint retrospective. The team appraisal is where the whole team gathers in one place for a time (not sure if a time box is relevant here, I think it should be no longer than half a day perhaps, but no less than two hours) and in turn, each person works on the mantra above (“Given who I am and what I am learning about this other individual, what is the best way for us to complement each other in getting work accomplished with excellence?”), says how they feel they could improve to benefit the team and then the team provides feedback on what the team member said and perhaps offer any help, or suggest ways in which the team member might meet that improvement.
This is not an opportunity to bitch and moan. This is an opportunity to inspect and adapt and reflect on how the employee works within the bounds of their team. This is like a retrospective in many ways, instead of being about the process, however, it is about themselves.
They have the option of having their manager present, but it isn’t essential and if they don’t want them, they should not be forced to have them. The team appraisal should happen BEFORE the individual appraisal, this will give the team time to reflect honestly on how they feel they need to improve without fear of reprise, and then take this to their individual appraisal, hopefully without modifying their feelings too much before they sit with their boss.
It should be made explicit that annual appraisals are nothing to do with pay reviews. Appraisals are NOT for showing off how wonderful the subordinate is, no one writes things down they’ve done all year, they just get on with their job and do the best they can. If the appraisal was about that, the boss and subordinate would be working at cross purposes: the boss wants to talk about how the subordinate can improve and the subordinate wants to talk about all the great things they’ve done. The pay review meeting (if there even IS one) should be entirely separate.
The appraisals are about improving working relationships, not about money. I can’t stress how important this is. Without this explicitly stated, it will undermine the usefulness of the appraisal.
Another issue to think about when using money as a motivator is that it will only work in a narrowly defined way. People will do EXACTLY what is asked of them in order to get the bonus, or the payrise. They will do nothing more and nothing less, just what is required to pass the test and win the prize. Mary Poppendieck had this to say:
Using money as a motivator is like playing with dynamite because money is a VERY effective motivator. Monetary rewards motivate people to do EXACTLY what is being rewarded – not necessarily what the organization intended to reward, but EXACTLY what is being measured to generate the reward. Therefore monetary motivators have a long track record of generating unintended consequences. If there is any apparent competition for the money, money motivates people to get as much as they can for themselves. Thus monetary motivators have a track record of suppressing collaboration. Finally, bonuses for performance rapidly come to be an expected part of the landscape, replacing passion and dedication as motivators . These are things you probably cannot change about using money as a motivator.
– Mary Poppendieck
Annual appraisals or performance reviews are supposed to be an objective evaluation of the employee that helps with determining payrises derived from performance and to let the employee know where they can improve. In reality, this is not a majority of peoples view; most folks see appraisals as a waste of time: they are dispiriting and foster resentment, cynicism and inherently dishonest, instead of promoting honesty and candour. Reviews are political and subjective and create a chasm in boss-employee relationships. The link between pay and performance is tenuous at best and they are in no way objective. Would two bosses give you the same review?