@mick_maguire asked me about “Differentiation” and how it could possibly fit with an Agile team.

It can’t. Not with any team.

Mick also pointed me to a blog post where the writer, a fan of Differentiation, described how he implemented the process on his team.

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.

(The writer also describes “continuous feedback” as process where team members give each other “praise and criticism.”  Feedback is information, not evaluation, not criticism, not blame.)

I’ve talked to a number of people in different organizations who went through a public process that required each person to praise and criticize other group members. They described the process as humiliating–both when receiving praise and criticism.

The blogger admitted that the process was humiliating on his team, too. He stopped it after 3 or 4 rounds.  I bet the damage outlasted the few weeks the they used this horrible process.

So what is “Differentiation”?  It’s the practice of identifying 20% of the people in the organization as stars, 10% as cull, and lumping the remaining 70% in the middle. Welch justifies “Differentiation” on his observations and recollection of how kids choose schoolyard baseball teams.

We aren’t playing baseball, we’re doing knowledge work. Surely, we can do better with adults in the work place.

I find it’s more effective to focus on building teams who produce great results and organizations that are designed to produce value and support people to do excellent work. Identifying the top 20% and bottom 10% of an organization won’t help with that.

Most people fall within a normal a range of capability, and have both strengths and weaknesses.  Put them together with other people with complimentary skills and compensating strengths and they can achieve more than a group of competing individuals.

It doesn’t bother me that I don’t know who is “best” and “worse” on a team. I care about how they work together on a team level.  I care about creating work places that work, and work systems that enable people to do their best.

Of course, there are people who outperform the system, or underperform the system.  Treat them as exceptions.  But for heaven’s sake don’t subject everyone to a ranking scheme or humiliating public criticism.