Monday, February 08, 2010

Rating as a Team

(My reviewer says I shouldn't xb this one. It seems harmless, but I think I'm going to listen to the advice and give it an xb so I can find it in conjunction with similar posts, but not actually cross-blog it. I pushed enough buttons this week that I should take a breather. So here's a story about annual reviews. Not necessarily about my company, but about something I've seen at big companies, having worked at a few).

If you're reading this for some Agile insight, I have to ask you to bear with me until nearer the end. It's a very roundabout dig into how I feel about a topic that's at odds with Agile based on some recent experiences. But it's a good dig, the kind that, if you work for a big company, they're not always comfortable with you addressing. So it needs to be addressed, because you have to work all the harder at a large company with significant inertia to change behaviors.

Every year or, more accurately, twice a year, we do reviews at my corporation. I've had direct reports on and off for several years now, which necessitates doing reviews, and I've always been asked to do plenty of non-direct report reviews because I have a reputation for putting some thought into them. Fortunately, I'm running a little lower than my heyday of twenty plus, but with a bevy of direct reports (up 700%), I'm sure to have more this year. What I try to get into a review is not just my impressions from the year, but a reevaluation of my own impressions, trying to ensure a.) I haven't told myself a story about someone that's coloring my perception. I try to give everyone a clean slate in the sense that I throw away the narrative I tell myself about them and let them recast their narrative for the next year. Part of each review is identifying the story that was built up over the year and what was concrete and what was interpolation. In some respects, I try to build a counter story for the next year, so they have to work at dispelling a positive impression I've put together, actively working to dissuade me of their innate need to succeed. And b.) that I haven't internalized someone else's story for the same reason. I find that to be even more important, as stories about employees are rife in a company with 5000+ individuals at a site, and they tend to stick for longer than you'd suspect. One of the most important things in working toward being a manager was to identify the stories being bandied about in regards to me and actively work to offset the negative ones. If you haven't picked up enough of my personality in previous blog posts, the bigs ones were 1.) not promoting myself enough because I wasn't interested in getting ahead (make noise, even if you're not interested in a job or an opportunity, you have to explain your perception of why it's not the right move), 2.) not being an advocate of "up or out" (I'm still not, but it's mandatory I have a story to explain my own version of up or out and how it fits into the corporate strategy), 3.) not looking like I feel entitled to promotion (this fits in with, I know better how to manage my career than those who are trying to manage it for's an incredibly fine line, and there was a lot of misperception initially, much of it my own doing - see #1).

That would seem to be a post in its own right. But it's just the opening.

This year, I heard one of these stories being shopped around. A recursive review story if you like, because the story is "X is an easy rater." I'm instantly suspicious whenever I hear the same story coming from multiple managers, unless I've been the one to put the story out there in the first place. If someone is regurgitating my story, I see it as an opportunity to refine my message. If it's a story I'm unfamiliar with, I suspect someone else of pushing an agenda. To the best of my knowledge, there's no fact or statistics behind this particular story. It's just being adopted as gospel because it's convenient. I've argued the flip side in manager meetings with a variety of "tools", as my last manager referred to that set of skills. A bit of displacement: our rating system seems to be tougher overall this year. Manager A used to rate most of his team particularly high. If he had still been here, we'd have been 10% higher overall. We're lower than we should have expected. This leads to discussion and some humor, with full knowledge that it was statistically accurate that up to 60% of Manager A's team(s) used to get in the top 20-30% of ratings.

Wait a while, then add the confusion tool when meeting with other leads and managers, using it to extend the narrative and reinforce it beyond the initial review meeting. "But perhaps Manager A used to rate his team(s) so high because they were together so much and really brought each other up as a team." The inevitable follows, "But we still need to evaluate the individual against the whole. Is Q1 really more qualified than Q2? Did they produce the same amount of work? Did they make the most of their individual opportunities? Why are they where they're at after all this time?"

It's at that point that I drag in the whole ethos of the department, "Didn't we change our organization so that we'd take the focus off the individual and put it on the team? Isn't our new direction centered on verticals and Agile? Shouldn't we be rewarding teams that exemplify what we're organizing toward?"

Loop it back to the initial discussion. The initial story. "That reminds me of X's team. They were criticized earlier in the year for their lack of ownership Not as individuals, but as a team."

There's a bit of dissembling from the whomever I'm talking to, which I'm counting on. I immediately move to offset with, "It was my director who called them on it. We had a lot of discussions around ownership and that team and how to remedy the problem. I was in the followup and review meetings to discuss what was done well and what was not. Individuals were mentioned, but the concern was with the whole team and how to change the communal attitude."

I'm not saying Director R would be easy on ratings. I know better. But Director R would be looking at whether ownership improved with that team this year and how that was servicing the wider department. That improvement might be credited to the lead. But the team improvement would be the crux of any investigation. Director R wouldn't be as concerned with the ratings. They were secondary to Director R's goal of better teams, better ownership, and better communication. So I ask myself, is their ownership better? Is their team better?And the answer is, almost to a person. They've changed one of their internal stories and followed through on living it at work. It's almost too bad we carved them up with the reorg, as they seem indicative of what we're trying to capture going forward. Ownership. Team focus. Reinforcing each other. Living or dying as a team. There are exceptions. But our own rating system works against really calling out the poorest players, pushing everyone toward a central bell that is more than a standard deviation wide on each side. 75-80+% fall into the middle. Reviews don't recognize the individual. And they don't recognize the team. If our reorg was truly focused on Agile, it should strengthen, should reinforce, those internal connections that are hinted at by teams with elevated ratings, that indicate Agile teams where there's a desire not to let down your coworkers, even if the individual review process weakens what we're trying to create.

Can you mentally scrap our review system? Instead, picture what teams you would reward for working well together, despite the restrictions and roadblocks that are there, that we're attempting to eliminate. Are they the same teams the highest rated individuals are on this year, or are there teams that produced without star players? Maybe X's team, even if you don't know them well enough, falls into that paradigm. Maybe X believes that of them.

And here we get to a big slice of the issue. Malcolm Gladwell says in Blink that we adjust to our explanations. We adjust to our stories. And if our stories are about rating the individual, and not rating the team, then that's where we put our focus. And the biggest issue is that our vocabulary, how we cast and perceive how we talk about something, is limited to a shared vision. In this case, the individual, not the team. Gladwell talks about "jam idiots". People who know that something is wrong, but can't talk about it, because they don't have the vocabulary to explain why it is wrong. In the case of reviewing jam, you don't know to talk about taste, texture, berriness. In the case of reviews, you don't know that "team" is a possible category. Experts have a vocabulary. If your'e not an Agile expert, team is not necessarily an intrinsic part of your vocabulary.

We file patents as a team. We produce as a team. We work as teams. We review as individuals. If our goal, our drive, is to create high-quality teams of craftspeople who work well together, then the vocabulary has to change. The review process has to change. And the courage to address that process has to change. It can't be something that even higher level leaders are afraid to address in print. There has to be a better way. And there has to be a better story. About the team. Not about the individual.

No comments: