Four Tips for Managing Performance in Agile Teams

I've been talking with clients recently about their managers' and HR's transition to agile. I hear this common question: “How do we manage performance of the people on our agile teams?”

  1. Reframe “manage performance” to “career development.” People on agile teams don't need a manager to manage their performance. If they are retrospecting at reasonable intervals, they will inspect-and-adapt to work better together. Well, they will if managers don't interfere with their work by creating experts or moving people off project teams.
  2. The manager creates a trusting relationship with each person on the team. That means having a one-on-one weekly or bi-weekly with each person. At the one-on-one, the manager provides tips for feedback and offers coaching.  (If the person needs it or wants it from the manager.) The person might want to know where else he or she can receive coaching. The manager removes obstacles if the person has them. They discuss career development.
  3. When managers discuss career development, each person needs to see an accurate view of the value they bring to the organization. That means each person has to know how to give and receive feedback. They each have to know how to ask for and accept coaching. The manager provides meta-feedback and meta-coaching.
  4. If you, as a manager, meet with each person at least once every two weeks, no problem is a problem for too long. The people in the team have another person to discuss issues with. The manager sees the system and can change it to help the people on the team.

Now, what does this mean for raises?

I like to separate the raise from the feedback. People need feedback all the time, not just once a year. That's why I like weekly or biweekly one-on-ones. Feedback isn't just from the manager to the employee; it's two-way feedback. If people have trouble working in the current environment, the managers might have a better chance to change it than an employee who is not a manager.

What about merit raises? This is tricky. So many managers and HR people continue to think one person is a star. No, on well-functioning agile teams, the team is the star—not individuals. You have options:

  • Make sure you pay each person at parity. This might not be trivial. You need expertise criteria for each job level.
  • When it comes to merit raises, provide a pot of money for the team and ask them to distribute it.
  • Distribute the merit money to each person equally. Explain that you are doing this, so people provide feedback to each other.
  • Here's something radical: When people think they are ready for a raise or another level, have a discussion with the team. Let the team vote on it.

Managers have to not get in the way when it comes to “performance management.” The people on the team are adult humans. They somehow muddle through the rest of their lives, successfully providing and receiving feedback. They know the worth of things outside work. It's just inside work that we keep salary secret.

It might not fit for you to have open-book salaries. On the other hand, how much do your managers and HR do that interferes with a team? You have to be careful about this.

If you reward individuals and ask people to work together as a team, how long do you think they will work together as a team? I don't know the answer to that question.

Long ago, my managers asked me to be a “team player.”  One guy got a huge raise—and I didn't, although I had saved his tush several times—I stopped working as a “team” member. I got my big raise the following year. (Year!) This incongruent approach is why people leave organizations—when the stated way “we work here” is not congruent with the stated goals: agile and self-organizing teams.

What do you want? Managers and HR to manage people? Or, to lead people using servant leadership, and let the teams solve their problems and manage their own performance?

If teams don't know how to improve, that's one thing. But, I bet your teams do know how to improve. You don't have to manage their performance. You need to create an environment in which people can do their best work—that's the manager's job and the secret to “managing performance.”

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7 Replies to “Four Tips for Managing Performance in Agile Teams”

  1. You write: Long ago, my managers asked me to a “team player.”
    Missing a word? I’m not sure the paragraph reads as well as it could.

    I also wonder if traditional ‘career’ development (promotions/levels/roles) is out of line with many Software Developer’s goals – i.e. Doing cool stuff, creating things, using new tech, mastery is career development. Not promotions, titles, coaching others or being in more meetings. And a manager in this situation needs to understand what that phrase means to each person.

    1. HI Giles, thanks, I put in the “be” before a team player.

      In my experience, you are correct. Each of us wants unique things out of our career. It’s more important for a manager to understand what each person wants and help them to achieve it.

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  3. As always, thoughtful advice and an open door to a new way of thinking. Creating a raise process and using an empirical approach via inspect and adapt seems like the only way to figure out what works. It is such a complex system!

    My fear with trying something radical is that when it comes to money, processes impact all kinds of team dynamics. Some of the options on bonus distribution sound almost like a political system – “from each according to their ability and to each according to their need”.

    I guess we shouldn’t be driven by fear and have to try something.

    1. Chuck, anytime we touch how we pay people, it’s a challenge (for everyone). We think that we have a “fair” system now. But it’s not. The more people are judged by one person on their abilities/output, the less fair it is. I recommend asking people what they think would be fair. Addressing compensation is not an easy thing to do.

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