In my experience, I’ve found traditional approaches to individuals’ performance reviews to be one of the causes of unhealthy competition in work teams. There are alternatives to traditional performance reviews, and by leveraging the alternatives leaders can prevent unhealthy in-team competition, which brings the organization closer to Agility.

A wise leader, and dynamic CTO, Mark DuVall once said, “Making working software is one of the most social activities in which humans engage.”  I couldn’t agree with him more.


Scrum is a Team Sport

The most popular way of achieving agility is through Scrum. The simplicity of each of the 3 Scrum roles serves to level the playing field by placing everyone on equal footing, sets clear boundaries for decision making authority, and brings the Scrum team members together to collaborate.  I infer from The Scrum Guide that all the Scrum meetings and activities are carefully designed to bring the Development team together in collaboration.  The artifacts of Scrum are created, refined, evolved and converted into customer value early and often through the collective efforts and collaboration of the entire Scrum team because that is the best way to make value happen when complexity and uncertainty is involved.

Someone who has not yet worked as a member of a Scrum team may not fully appreciate at first how literal I am being about collaboration, aka ‘teamwork.’ I’m talking about 2 or more people on the agile team working on the exact same item of work at exactly the same time.  Scrum teams perform at their best when they intentionally dog-pile on a work item until everyone on the team is in the act of solving the same problem at the same time together.  That is the plan of attack in Scrum.  It is the polar opposite of a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, which we avoid because pulling the pieces together at the end of a project seldom goes well with complex, adaptive challenges like building working software systems.  Hence, the earlier quote.

The whole Scrum team comes together often in retrospection to find new ways to work better together, which reinforces the learning that we are stronger together than we are working separately. Anything that does not bring us together in our thinking, to living the credo “All for 1, and 1 for all.” is often unwittingly pulling us apart, making us weaker.


Double Binds Lead To Learned Helplessness

In his book, Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values, Fred Kofman makes some excellent points about the psychological suffering that managers place on their direct reports by giving them mutually incompatible directives.   The double-bind they are trapped in teaches them how helpless they are to do the right thing and escape any economic and/or social punishment.

“The manager gives a contradictory order (or two different managers give contradictory orders).
The manager makes his order undiscussable.
The manager makes the undiscussability of his order undiscussable.

For instance, a supervisor tells a worker that whenever he detects a defect, he must immediately stop the production line and report it. The following day, another supervisor tells the worker that when there is a rush, he should report any defects but shouldn’t stop the line. If there is no clear standard of when “there is a rush,” the worker is trapped: If he stops the line, he will get in trouble, if he doesn’t stop the line, he will also get in trouble. If he tries to get his supervisors to resolve the contradiction, he will also get in trouble.”

Kauffman pgs. 118 – 119, Conscious Business


Performance Reviews As Double Binds

An example related directly to Agile Transformation would be a member of the top team of an organization, a CIO who I’ll name ‘Karen,’ sets or receives an objective such as “We will be an Agile organization by this time next year.”  As Karen’s objective morphs into an imperative for Karen’s direct reports, she hand picks a small task force to flesh out a rough plan to achieve her objective, which they are responsible for, and as the months go by, they ask for explicit success criteria.  “80% of the people in the IT organization will belong to an Agile Team” is how she defines the conditions for fulfillment. 

Not wanting to be dismissed for insubordination, all of Karen’s managers pass the imperative down to their direct reports, who have no choice but to comply immediately.  The individual contributors (aka. ‘team members’) did not previously have positional authority to determine which team they belong to, it’s size, the work given them, the technical practices or process they use, work pace, or how to interact or not with people outside their team.  None of the managers of the team members, nor the HR Department, is immediately forthcoming with any communication or revised job description which enumerates new positional authority to any team members individually or to the team unit collectively.

Under these circumstances, the team members lack the autonomy, or self-organizing authority, described in the Agile Manifesto but have no recourse to voice the logical conflict which arises in trying to maintain the pre-existing power structure and governance model while adopting a new one which is presumably ‘Agile.’  Violating the tenets of either paradigm is not allowed and discussing the paradox of enacting both concurrently is socially unacceptable for fear of being scape-goated as a dissenter and source of all the problems. 

Thus, the individuals in the teams are trapped in this double-bind, helpless to extricate themselves, and for purposes of self-preservation, are complicit with only nominal change, fully aware that no substantive change has occurred, and more convinced than ever before that the entire organization is incapable of it.

I’d like to point out that even in nations with democracy and rule of law, conflicts of law occur and legal experts contend with them. Neither Kofman nor I presume malicious intent by any of the agents in the system.  When we acknowledge and sustain the pre-existing agreements of society, and organizations, such as laws and policies, respectively, we are both complicit with and accept the consequences of those agreements, even when they are internally conflicted or impede the achievement of shared, stated goals. The only constructive alternatives to doing such are to advocate revisions to the agreements or leave the group.  Complaining about agreements, and begrudgingly complying with them, is only a failed attempt to abdicate one’s personal agency and grasp for victimhood or martyrdom, which are both a hollow victory.

Learned helplessness is the realization that whichever way I choose to act, I will be punished, and my good intentions towards the customer and my colleagues will never be fully expressed nor known.  I may mentally project some probability of eventually losing my employment as a result, despite my best efforts.  The internal reasoning frequently follows this pattern:

My family counts on me and my livelihood, and so for their sakes, I must act in my individual best interest at work. I didn’t make the rules. I just play by them.  It serves the greater good if I just play to win.

The flawed zero-sum competitive game starts this way and serves as jet fuel for polishing apples, clamoring for exclusive credit for wins, the casting of blame away from self, and forgetting to have empathy for the customer, which then precludes introspection, learning, and growth in competence and capacity. In short, it’s a race to the bottom. This is the polar opposite to servant leadership, which a Scrum Master models for his or her Scrum Team.


What I Saw In The Field

I’d like to now bring into consideration a potentially complicating yet commonplace practice of managers owning the process of conducting written, semi-annual performance reviews (WSPR).  More often than not, employees are recruited, interviewed, hired, and dismissed on an individual basis.  Employees are legally accountable for all of their actions and inactions and have the freedom to leave the organization.  This aspect of individual freedom and accountability is not a thing I would like to change, nor do I believe it works at counter-purposes to value creation in Scrum teams.

In my career as a Scrum Master with a Manager whom I reported to, she said that I have no choice but to give an account, in writing, for my individual achievements that directly create customer value and that my indirect influence, or partial contributions, which do not lend themselves easily to discrete identification in writing, must not be considered in my performance evaluation.  

Every 6 months, my boss would be the judge, jury and executioner in an evaluation of my individual performance, wherein I can make my case for a bonus, promotion or not, and my boss would weigh the evidence she deemed relevant to corroborate or refute my story, and render her final verdict. Electronic surveys from coworkers I selected, inside or outside my team, may be involved at her sole discretion.  My manager explicitly stated to me that she felt such an approach does work in direct opposition to the kind of mindset conducive to agility; however, these were the rules by which we must operate, in addition (and in conflict) to the principles of the Agile Manifesto.

It’s ironic that in-team competition is so quickly rationalized by proponents of the status quo (WSPR), when there are so many publicly available sources which reveal that:

  1. The costs are excessively high to achieve the stated goals with WSPR; (namely, to maximize profits, growth, and market capitalization while minimizing all forms of risk.)
  2. The goals WSPR were meant to achieve are actually thwarted by WSPR.
  3. Replacing and mitigating the downside of WSPR has historically proven relatively simple, easy, low-risk, and inexpensive.

Previously, I worked with a CIO who took an ingenious approach to starting the ball rolling in the direction of in-team collaboration in the face of a company-wide policy that states “no employee will receive salary or wages without a WSPR signed by a Manager or higher corporate officer.”  His approach was to comply at the boundary of his organization’s standing policy.


Concerns From People Managers

First, only within the IT Department, the input of more people than a single manager and the employee under review was incorporated into the WSPR.  Also, the final evaluation of each individual’s performance review would derive from multiple people in the organization, and not be reserved as the exclusive purview of only 1 manager assigned to them.  The people managers in IT were stymied about how this could work.  

The managers did not reject the new approach, head-on.  Rather, they voiced grave concerns about having more than 1 person involved in the process of growing and serving “their people.”  For example, some managers worried about the handling of private, sensitive issues individuals were trusting them with.  Having more than a single manager aware of and conversing with an employee about their personal health issues, family matters, life events, work attendance, work avoidance, or work errors would be excessively emotionally traumatizing they said.

So, such matters require expert skills and strong working relationships that took a long time for the managers to develop with their direct reports.  Handing that duty off to others seemed reckless to some managers. Separating that litany of duties into categories, with a subset pool of managers specialized in dealing with a particular category, was not a proposal arising from the managers at that time.  The managers made no counter-proposals, just voicing their concerns.

I doubt anyone involved wanted to disrupt or dilute the relationship of trust and empathy that had already been established between workers and their managers. I also don’t believe this concern is inextricably linked to the topic of managers needing unilateral control of performance reviews or being indispensable to their positional authority.

I still don’t see how any of those topics necessitated centralizing the authority to conduct performance evaluations into the hands of managers assigned to an individual contributor long-term. Neither do I see why the individual contributor in question should be disallowed from freely selecting their own manager, ad hoc for a particular category of administerial service, such as those mentioned above.

I don’t remember the managers mentioning explicitly that they cannot create value without exclusive, positional authority over a particular person long-term, but many individual contributors (ie. team members) inferred that was the Managers’ view.


Alternative Approach Takes Form

The CIO established new policies, as viable alternatives to status quo:

  1. Multiple career paths of both individual contributors and managers, which would not affect in any way their level of income or benefits.  
  2. People would have continuous freedom of choice about whether they would be on a team directly involved in creating working software systems or if they would take a supporting role to the teams doing that as a manager of their choosing. 
  3. The CIO authorized recurring events where team members and managers were allowed to freely choose which cross-functional teams they would work in and which manager would serve their requests.
  4. Team consensus driven performance reviews (CDPR).

The next step was to authorize the teams to manage their learning, budgets, team size, risk, and productivity using Scrum or any other form of agility they could agree to as a whole team. Surprisingly, some managers began forming Scrum teams to improve policies, remove structural impediments to value creation, and fulfill the ad hoc requests from the software development Scrum teams.  The earlier concerns of the managers became self-resolving or were completely unfounded and unrelated from the start.  In fact, when misconduct of an employee did occur and the disciplinary action required by the by-laws of the organization were enacted, all of the stakeholders and members of the team which the offending employee belonged to were privy to the details related to the matter anyway.


In Conclusion

When in-team competition and cross-team competition goes away, so does the fear.  Hyper-performance grows in place of the fear. From the outside, the rest of the enterprise involved with paying salaries sees WSPR papers signed by a manager.  Maybe the names of those managers have changed, or maybe they are all signed by the very same manager, but all the same people get paid, and some of them a little more than before.  But, they are all the more productive, resilient, responsive to change, reliable, happy and engaged!

As we talk more than ever before about Business Agility in the world and how other line-functions or departments in the enterprise outside of IT, engineering, or Digital Transformation can emulate aspects of Business Agility, I see an opportunity for other departments to actively support, or at least be complicit with, policy upgrades which are conducive to in-team collaboration.  

A complete overhaul or replacement of WSPR strikes me as the prime candidate to begin building anything from a single Scrum team to company-wide Agility today with support from the Human Resources Department leadership team or the Salary Committee and the Learning and Development Department.  Regardless of whoever initiated or sustained WSPR as a matter of policy, we would be making the greatest possible contribution toward realizing Agility in the form of a Scrum team’s internal collaboration today by opening up a dialog about the alternatives to traditional approaches to WSPR. I welcome commentary from people who explore this possibility.