Thursday, May 13, 2010

I'm Gonna Write Me a Big Performance Review Bonus!!

My friend, Pete, works for a respected company and we talk about the travails at his company (mostly so he can vent his frustration and I can hone my emerging consulting skills and be amused simultaneously.) I like Pete - we don't see each other as much as we both might like, but we talk quite a bit (and exchange emails, texts, etc.) He visited with me about one of my favorite subjects – the performance review. His unadulterated opinion is that the performance review is one of the most despicable, morale degenerating, and hostile inventions ever concocted by that undignified management evil known as human resources (Pete holds little back when he gets fired up over something visceral to him.) His annual review had come and gone with the usual nondescript fanfare. It was typically painful for both him and his boss. Here's how our conversation unfolded:

PETE: There is absolutely no element of objectivity to any part of it! It is a charade and it politically possessed. But, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Our HR department gloats about how it fairly rewards people for their results. ( He let out a bit huff of air.) A co-worker of mine bragged about his high rating and then asked me what I got. We employees aren’t supposed to discuss these things among ourselves, but it happens fairly often. There’s always a curiosity about how someone was rated compared to you. When I told him what I received, he chuckled and told me what he received. I told him I felt we were pretty equal in skill and competency, so how was it he received a higher rating than me? Well, it turns out that he spent a month writing up his review!

ME: You mean you get to write your own review?? Everyone should get 5 stars in a system like that! This reminds me of the
Dilbert cartoon where Pointy Hair Manager says he will pay $10 to people for every bug they find and fix and Wally proclaims "I'm going to write me a new minivan!"

PETE: Well, we don’t write the actual review, we just document the results we achieved during the year. We are supposed to use bullet points, but after I read this guy's performance evaluation it seems that a person gets more in return for not using bullet points. That’s when he told me that how you write up your results and how verbose you are can make the difference between an average rating and a high rating. His review was a perfect example, I guess…and so is mine, at least the other way.

ME: So a person is actually penalized for following instructions – putting their results in a list and keeping to brevity? That seems unfair.

PETE: Of course it is. But, this isn’t about fairness.

ME: It’s not? I thought that is what performance management systems were all about – being fair and applying an equitable process.

PETE: You've got to be kidding. For that to happen, they would need to apply actual objective criteria and have a credible scoring system. They would also need to eliminate human involvement because any human analysis and opinion injects bias and politics into the equation. It is as much about who they like as it is about results.

ME: Pete, how do you know that favoritism and cronyism are at work? It seems that your peers and others with whom you work provide feedback that is incorporated.

PETE: You bet they do. In fact, I suspect there is quite a bit of quid pro quo that goes on among people. Heck, even I do that. We ask each other to do feedback all the time with the implicit understanding that both people will give good marks to the other. Of course, it is supposedly anonymous, but we can usually figure out who said negative things. Of course, my supervisor really doesn’t know what I do and has never seen me actually work at my job, so she relies on this information.

ME: Your boss has never seen you work? That’s crazy. What does she do? Doesn’t she have influence over your career and work?

PETE: Well, she mostly goes to meetings of one sort or another. She has never actually coded software, so she doesn’t know what I do or how well I do it except from what she hears from others. She definitely has a say in my career and promotion options. I have to basically kiss her rear end and tell her how good she is and anything else she wants to hear. Heaven forbid if I said anything negative or critical of our company or her or just about anything else.

ME: Gee, Pete, I never realized your company was so draconian. Do you really want to stay there? It sounds like you are unhappy.

PETE: All in all, it is not a bad place to work. It has good benefits and pays reasonably well. I just think it could be much better. I read in Crucial Conversations that the authors found many highly performing companies that had no formal performance management system in place. Their primary rewards were team-based. Of course, we aren’t that progressive, I guess. I just think it can be better.

ME: Of course, all companies can strive to be better. And, I have read articles like
Get Rid of the Performance Review that was in the written by Samuel Culbert in the Wall Street Journal back in 2008. There is even a book by the same name and author. Many respected people acknowledge that performance management systems are detrimental to morale and highly unfair, but companies seem to be at a loss to substitute anything else. I don’t disagree with the contentions Culbert has made about the PR:

  1. Performance reviews focus on finding faults and placing blame.
  2. Performance reviews focus on deviations from some ideal as weaknesses.
  3. Performance reviews are about comparing employees.
  4. Performance reviews create a competition between boss and subordinate.
  5. Performance reviews are one-side-accountable and boss-dominated monologues.
  6. Performance reviews are thunderbolt from on high, with the boss speaking for the company.
  7. Performance reviews mean that if the subordinate screws up, then the subordinate suffers.
  8. Performance reviews allow the big boss to go on autopilot.
  9. The performance review is a scheduled event.
  10. Performance reviews give HR people too much power.
  11. Performance reviews don't lead to anything of substance.
  12. Performance reviews are hated, and managers and subordinates avoid doing them until they have to.

I just wonder what replacement or substitute companies might have in place of it? Perhaps they would ascribe to Deming’s thoughts about it.

PETE: You have good questions, Tom. I’m not sure what I will do, but I do know that something so unfair cannot sustain without having long-term impacts to morale here. And there seems to be mounting criticisms surrounding inequities of such a systems.

ME: Well, keep me informed and I wish you well, Pete. You have quite a Quixotic challenge ahead of you.

Helping Pigs Fly

I think an appropriate first entry in Helping Pigs Fly is some type of explanation (rationalization??) of the title. To get to that, let's explore a bit about the blog owner (me.) I've been living on the earth for a bit over 50 years now. In dog years, that's a lot, but in human years, it's not so much anymore (depending, of course, where on the earth a person lives.) I teach, coach and live agile as in agile software development. I admittedly do not have much (any??) technical development experience. I came to the IT world from the business world about 10 years ago as a business analyst. I enjoyed the business world - but I tired of some aspects of it.

So, at the invitation of a friend, I ventured over to the software side initially in staffing. What a change! The vernacular, the styles and types of work (i.e. projects) and the people were much different (refreshingly so) than the business world. However, the bust of 2001 put an end to any ambitions I had to continue in IT staffing (not to mention my rather fervent dislike of the intensity and frequent frustration of having to continuously "source for talent' - aka head hunt.)

Another friend suggested that I actually give IT work a try, and though I had no technical background I did have a strong business background that made me a reasonably strong business analyst candidate. I was hired and moved to a rather small, sleepy Midwest city from the bustle of Seattle to work in a large IT shop. Within 18 months (in March 2003), I found myself ordained as a project manager (I had functioned or perhaps malfunctioned as a business manager for several years, so I think the people reasonably thought I could manage IT projects.)

Within a few months of experiencing the nuances and peculiarities of project management, I realized that much about it was rather illogical and assuming. I learned from an older, grizzled PM about the “PM bag of tricks” that provided remedies to the project maladies that every PM seemed to constantly endure – budget overruns, schedule delays, unreliable estimates provided by supposedly expert “resources,” poor quality product, etc. For example, I learned the trick of keeping 2 schedules (similar to keeping 2 sets of books) – the one that was viewable publicly and was always on time and on budget and the “real one” that reflected the actual state of the project – often running late and over budget. When I asked how a PM might bring the public schedule and real schedule to coincide near the end of the project, I learned of the death march and schedule crashing and many other evil PM tricks.

Thankfully, I soon tired of the charade, but rather than quit as a PM (something that is done more than I realized), I began to explore for alternatives to the “traditional” approach that depended upon being able to predict a project schedule from beginning to end. It was December 2003 when I stumbled upon an article in a software development magazine that described an agile process called, mysteriously, Scrum. The more I read, the more I realized that this approach made much more sense than anything I was doing at the time. Thus began my journey to Agile Oz on the Scrum Yellow Brick Road. What a trip it has been! (More about that in future posts.)

So, Helping Pigs Fly refers to my campaign to help people in organizations do work in a better way. That doesn’t mean simply adopting Scrum and agile, but thinking about things in a most different way and understanding how little control we actually have in this self-organizing world in which we live and work. I still see many pigs who could fly if they wanted and I see pigs who fly with the grace and elegance of the eagle and the determination of the migrating goose. So, this blog will be full of all kinds of stories, vignettes, and experiences with lessons gained or not. I hope people find the content enjoyable, entertaining and even worthwhile.