Tag Archives: policies

Supporting Team-Based Work

Many of the companies I work with want the benefit of the team effect in software development. The managers in these companies recognize the enormous benefits teams provide to the company–creativity, engagement, learning.

However, in many of these companies, the HR systems focus only on individual accomplishment. Individual goals, individual bonuses and merit-pay processes cause real damage when the desired behavior is collaboration and team work. I’ve talked to managers who spend the year building up teams, only to see their work undone by the review and ranking process.

In a small company, managers have the ability to directly change the goal, bonus, and pay systems. In large companies, or in companies where the software group is only one division, changing those policy may seem impossible.

Until you persuade HR to change to more team-focused strategy, take these steps to minimize competitive focus and amplify the emphasis on shared goals.

Amplify the Importance of Team

Make the expectation for teamwork behaviors explicit. Make team performance a significant portion of each team members performance expectation.  By significant, I mean 60% or more. Anything less communicates that teamwork is “nice to have,” but not essential. When people must rely on others to achieve a useful goal, tie the success together in performance expectations.

Dampen the Race for Rankings

Minimize the competitive focus by reducing stratification. Rather than have five or more ratings, use only three categories.

The top category is for people who are truly exceptional. They may out-perform the system, make an extraordinary contribution on a project, or stand out in some other way.  In most organizations, there aren’t many of these people, and most people know who they are and agree on who they are.

The bottom category is likewise small and for people who are exceptional. This is for people who clearly are unable to perform, due to lack of skills, poor fit for the job or some other reason. Note: Before you put someone in this category, check the manager’s contribution to the problem. Most performance problems are not the sole fault of the employee. When an employee is in the wrong job, or clearly lacks the skills, that points to problem with the hiring process, not the person. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to keep someone in a job they cannot do. But let’s not blame the individual when a management process has failed.

The middle category is the big one–for the people who are doing their jobs well and performing within the bounds of the system. Many companies waste an enormous amount of managers’ time arriving at fine-grained but spurious distinctions between employees contribution. Such distinctions are meaningless in collaborative and interdependent work. Managers’ time would be better spent working to improve the system so everyone does better.

A three-tier strategy based on normal variation and exceptions reduces the unhealthy effects of ranking individuals against each other. As a bonus, it frees up a great deal of time that managers would otherwise spend on suspect differentiations.

Don’t Treat People as Fungible

Don’t waste time comparing people as part of the evaluation. Comparing people within a team or group fosters division and competition. Comparing people across teams or functions is irrelevant–except when considering promotions.

Emphasize Interdependent and Collaborative Work

Eliminate individual performance bonuses. Some companies give team bonuses to recognize a team that has solved a particularly difficult problem, saved the company a huge amount of money, or launched a successful product. Since the bonus goes to the team, in most cases, the team members divide it equally.

Even without formal team bonuses, you can use the pot of money HR allocates for individual bonuses in this way.

Aim for Policies that Focus Improving the Organization

In the long run, consider some form of profit sharing or gain sharing based on the over-all performance of the department. Couple this with a clear emphasis on improving team and system performance and meeting business goals. This reduces the likelihood that people will skew their effort towards meeting individual goals at the expense of unit wide business goals.

Take a Stand

Many managers tell me that HR forces them to act out harmful policies related to annual evaluations, ratings, and rankings. HR is there to support performance, not disrupt it. Talk to them about the detrimental effects you are seeing. Share the research. Decline to participate in the ranking mess. If HR insists, distance yourself from the mess and have an HR manager communicate the ratings/rankings.

I have talked to many managers who have opted out of the rating and ranking madness and none of them have been fired. And several of them–through their action–started the conversation and change towards policies that support rather than hinder team work.

Skills Are Only Half the Equation for Success

This article first appeared on stickminds.com.

(c) Esther Derby 2004-2010

Many years ago, psychologist Kurt Lewin reduced the mysteries of human behavior to this simple statement:

B = ƒ(P,E)

Behavior is a function of the Person and the Environment

Of course, it’s not that simple. But I still find this notation useful, because it reminds me that the skills and abilities of the person aren’t the only factors that contribute performance.

Much of the time, organizations focus on the Person part of the equation. That’s important, because our work requires intelligent people with a wide range of functional skills, technical and domain knowledge, and appropriate interpersonal skills. Most managers work hard to hire the right people. Managers also provide coaching and feedback to help people hone their skills and develop their capabilities.

But that’s only half the equation.

Organizational factors, corporate culture, policies, and the direct work environment influence performance, too. The good news is that you can influence the environment for your group in ways that increase performance.

Are You Creating an Environment for Success?

Let’s assume that you’ve hired bright, capable people who have the appropriate skills and qualities for the job. They have the technical skills the job demands, they know the domain, and they’re familiar with the product. Yet the work isn’t going as well as you think it should. Maybe it’s the environment, not the person. Look at these areas to see if you can improve the environment for success.

People need to know what the priorities are. Managers don’t (and can’t) make all the decisions about how work is done. Managers need to establish clear priorities so that the people closest to the work can make good decisions. Communicate a clear mission and ensure that each person understands his top-three priorities. People perform better when they understand the mission of the group and what’s most important.

People can’t do their best without the right tools for the job. But hardware and tools, of course, aren’t the only resources people need. They need time, access to expertise, and training. No one I know can manufacture time, but setting clear priorities and keeping the workload reasonable reduce the sense of overwhelming demands. When budgets are tight, find inexpensive ways to feed the need for training and expertise. Offer to buy books for a lunchtime study group and support access to content websites and other free sources of information.

People desire respect. Every once in a while I hear a manager assert that people work best when they’re a little afraid. I don’t buy that. Show respect by keeping promises, communicating openly, and listening to other people’s ideas. Don’t take phone calls and pages or check email during meetings, especially one-on-one meetings.

People want challenging work. Make work assignments based on interests, or better yet, work with your team to have them self-organize. That way, people will have a chance to choose work that appeals to them. Now, every group has some scut work. Rather than assign that to one unfortunate person, rotate responsibility for the work no one really enjoys, but everyone recognizes is necessary.

People want recognition and appreciation. I’m not talking rewards here, monetary or otherwise. Humans crave genuine acknowledgement for their contributions at work—both concrete accomplishments and the intangible ways they contribute to the spirit and success of the group. Let people know that you notice and appreciate them every week. I don’t think saying “thank you” or “good job” is good enough. I like to address the person directly, like this: “Don, I appreciate you for shipping that data update on time. It makes a big difference to our clients.”

Are There Environmental Roadblocks Stifling Performance?

Suppose you’ve done all of these things (and more) to establish an environment for success. Your work is not done.

Corporate culture and norms are part of the environment and so are policies, procedures, measures, and reward systems. Examine the organizational environment to see if there are other obstacles that keep people from doing their best.

Are there factors that actually punish people for doing a good job? I once worked with a support group that was having a crisis in customer satisfaction. Support agents were expected to meet certain targets for the length of calls.That worked fine with simple problems, but when a tough problem that took more than a minute or two to fix came along, it was a problem. The measure actually punished people who went the extra mile for the customer and stayed on the phone long past the allotted time. These folks had the knowledge and skills to perform, but an environmental factor (a poorly designed measure) was in the way.

Sometimes policies and procedures are the culprit in stifling performance. One organization I know of requires bi-weekly budget reporting and forecasting. It can take up to seven working days to assemble all the bits of information needed to create a report. The procedure is difficult and frustrating, and the time people spend every month on budgets means they aren’t doing other valuable work. In another group, each team member is required to provide written feedback to every other team member every quarter. It wasn’t so bad when there were five team members, but now that there are twenty people in the group… well, you can do the math.

Pile on enough environmental roadblocks and people become frustrated and cynical. And frustrated, cynical people are less likely to do a good job.

Individual managers can’t always change measurement systems, policies, and procedures. Insulate your group where you can and put the rest in context.

Remember that an individual’s skills and abilities aren’t the only factors in performance. Managers need to attend to both the person and the environment when assessing performance. Don’t wait until the next performance evaluation season rolls around. Evaluate the work environment now. Does the management infrastructure enable high performance? Are you working to remove or reduce the obstacles that are hampering performance? What else can you do to create an environment for success?