Capability growth · Leading change

How can you manage people on projects these days?

Life used to be easy for managers. We had good people who delivered lots of stuff and bad people who stuffed up lots of deliverables. It was easy to tell who the good guys and the bad guys were. 

But then something significant happened. We discovered that work was not just about performing a set of predictable tasks. We started to realise that:

  • Work was about adding value rather than destroying value rather than just delivering stuff; and
  • We started to see value as something delivered through the interaction of entire teams and not through individual achievement.

Yet you will still find performance agreements in almost any company that are based on individual achievement, sometimes even ranking people against their peers to see who is the best and worst in the team.

Doesn’t it seem a little inconsistent to say that teamwork is the main ingredient for success and then assess people on individual delivery?

But assessing teams instead of individuals is a huge mind-shift and it is a mind-shift that I have not been able to make. Try as I have done to embrace the agile (and modern management) concept that it is the team that delivers value and not the individual, I still think there are people who contribute more than others and I can’t shake the feeling that these are the people I want to attract, retain and reward, even if I have to do so at the expense of others.

Perhaps I am still evolving as a manager and still learning what I know is true::

  • Intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic rewards – ie motivation comes from within;
  • It is the diversity of the team and the mix of skills and styles that leads to success – you need different types of people in the team, not clones of some alleged paragon of excellence; and
  • Teams are increasingly virtual (temporary) and distributed (spread around the globe) so most managers are now managing people they don’t actually work with directly anymore.

Unfortunately that leaves me with an inherent contradiction – I want the best people and I want to reward and motivate them … but the best people is actually the best MIX of people, and it is the people in the team who will motivate themselves and each other.

One solution is to wimp out (ie avoid the problem). This works well if you are not too passionate about leadership. You can either defer all performance discussions indefinitely or you can use the old fashioned performance agreements and apologise (while adding that it is not your fault – the company inflicts this on everyone). But I don’t find those approaches very motivating.

One surprisingly easy and accurate approach is the “net promoter score” that is used in ITIL and other methodologies to evaluate the performance of an overall team or set of services.

Essentially you just ask you stakeholders one question – Would you recommend us to others? But rather than getting a yes/no answer you ask for a score out of 10. And rather than seeing 5 out of 10 as a pass mark you take anything under 8 as bad and 8 or above as good enough.

So to rate myself as a manager, I could ask my team (if they can be honest) to answer the following question:

If you were talking to your friends, would you recommend to them that they work for me if they get a chance? Please give me a rating out of 10.

In a similar way, if I was managing a group of testers who worked on projects, I could ask the project manager, the developers they were working with and the other testers on the project:

IF a friend of yours was going to work in a project, would you recommend that they have X in their team as a tester? Can you please give me a rating out of 10, where 1 means “no way” and 10 means “Absolutely- every time, even if they had to cancel something else in the project to find the extra budget”.

I think you would probably get a fairly consistent rating from different people in the team and that you will actually get a pretty good assessment of the performance of the tester.

So, with this simple question in hand, could we simply abolish the traditional performance agreement and appraisal process?  Sadly, I don’t think we can.

It would be great if we could allocate a standard score to all our team members and then we could buy and sell them on a “tester commodity exchange”. If I needed adequate testers, I could pay less and get some 5.5er’s. But if I needed some really challenging testing done I could pay more than my competitors and buy in some 9.5’ers.

Giving people a score out of 10 (or ranking them against their peers) should never have been the real purpose of the performance agreement.

The real purpose of performance management discussions is just that – to have a discussion about current performance, possible improvement areas and possible growth for the future.

The real discussion is therefore about where and how the team member is adding (or destroying) value in the organisation. It is about how their work suits them at the moment and where they should head from here – to continue (or start) to find work that is challenging, motivating and valuable to the team member and also valuable to the wider team and organisation. In fact in some cases it might even be a discussion about how someone who is adding great value but has outgrown their role can find a more fulfilling role somewhere else.

So I think we need to improve the performance discussion we have. The problem is – how can we do that?  How can we measure the value of someone who provides intangible value (such as quality that a tester helps build into the system) and how can we talk about growth and development in a world that changes so fast my new mobile phone is old before I finish my first phone call?

It would be great if you could let me know where to find some of the answers that others have come up with. In the meantime I am going to work though my own ideas and publish some of them here. So let me know what you think as I go, and I would really appreciate any suggestions or ideas that you think might help.


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