Focus on the individual or the system?

I’ve been watching a discussion on the Agile Project Management yahoo group, which poses the question, “Does everyone in agile need to be above average?”

The question behind the question is, “Does agile need extremely competent people in order for it to work?”

When I read stuff like this, I wonder “What method of building software works without competent people?” It’s a puzzle.

Which brings me to this snipped from Bob Sutton (via Jason Yip):

Great systems are more important than great people. The notion that you are doomed to mediocrity if you can’t hire the very best people has little empirical support. Yes, there are big differences between the most talented people and the next level down in most occupations. But systems are more important. Toyota beats the competition as a result of a superior system; Men’s Wearhouse and McDonald’s don’t hire people that are much different from their competitors, but their systems explain their long-term dominance more than their people. As Jeff Pfeffer says, many organizations seem to have “brain vacuums” to turn people who seem to be smart into bumbling fools. Even the most brilliant person is doomed to fail in a bad system, and seemingly mediocre people can become stars in a great system.

Agile methods are a system that can help people perform better.

One agile coach I know tells a story about the first agile pilot in her organization. Someone in senior management didn’t want the pilot to succeed. So he sent her all the “poor performers” for the pilot team. But they ended up outshining expectations and did a fine job of delivering valuable working software.

Further, focus on individual talent (and focus on individual performance management) takes focus off improving the system.

(I’ll say this now, because someone always asks at this point “So you’re saying we should hire incompetent dodos?” No, I’m not saying, “hire dodos.” Hire competent individuals who are a good fit for the organization’s culture. Focus on improving the system to improve results. Focus on individual performance for career development. Give feedback to help individuals become more effective.)