A very nice benefit of interacting with many people in the broader agile community is the opportunity to make friends, share experiences and try to help others. People from across the world are part of this community. We don’t always talk just about agile philosophy and frameworks; we share the trials and tribulations we encounter in our work and our organizations. And it is in that vein that I mention my friend, Bubba. Bubba is not his real name, of course, but a colloquialism that fits the inner innocence of his persona like a favorite sweater.
Bubba is a kindred spirit to me and I suspect that we may be alike in many ways. It seems, like me, he can find himself in some pickles at his work as a result of brashness and impudence. He seems to survive in a fairly steady work environment and until fairly recently was doing very much what he wanted to do in his work – training, coaching and helping people in their endeavor to work better and with more satisfaction, mostly through the use of Scrum and similar frameworks. But, in a conversation with me a while back, he described a vicissitude that rattled him to the very core of his soul. It originated as the result of a rather obscure platitude that by virtue of an innocent event became the stage for the travails he described to me.
This story really begins many years ago when, like me, Bubba introduced Scrum into his company. His company is steeped in conservative culture and tradition. Its industry has been around for dozens of decades and the company is over 50 years old. Bubba has been a bit of an enigma – he told me he was once described as highly regarded by the production workers in his IT shop, but a bit detested by a fair number of his manager peers. He attributed this to his advocacy of self-organization / self-direction among teams and minimization of management oversight and intervention. He strongly promoted the adoption and use of agile-based software development principles and practices and this was also viewed with suspicion by some of his management peers. He trained, coached, and helped many teams and while some managers doubted his intentions and motivations, his cause was seemingly supported by the senior management of his IT department.
Then, there seemed to be a change in the heart of the executive leadership at his company and they backed off of support of the adoption of agile practices (at least by that name.) His influence began to wane as he was removed from influential participation with the department’s coaching group. His direct management was also starting to exert pressure on him to take a less aggressive posture in his encouragement of use and adoption of the practices. He had heard that a monthly agile newsletter distributed widely to the department was to be discontinued. He didn’t like what he heard and suggested to the person who had published the newsletter that he would seek to take it over and perhaps even publish it in some covert way. In a very Dilbertesque event, the person who had been publishing the newsletter inadvertently sent Bubba’s email to the newsletter’s broad internal agile community distribution list. This list included several senior management people. The poor editor could only respond to Bubba with an “Oh Shit!!!” in an email. But, the damage was done, though Bubba had no idea how ludicrously malevolent that reaction would be.
The first indication was a response from an IT VP who admonished both Bubba and the newsletter editor for their insolence in sending such an email to the entire agile community mailing list. Bubba responded to the VP that the editor had sent the email by mistake and that the intention of communication between Bubba and the editor was to find a practical way to keep information about agile practices coming to the community. Bubba thought that should likely be the end of it, but was he mistaken! A day later, Bubba’s manager summoned him to the manager’s office. Bubba was in grave trouble according to the manager, possibly in danger of being removed from his position. To Bubba, this seemed the ultimate over-reaction, but there was little doubt about the gravity of the situation from the solemnness of his manager.
A few days later, the manager delivered a letter to Bubba detailing among several items, a “lack of confidence in your ability as a leader in our department and reflects your allegiance to agile principles and disregard of department direction…Current consequences consist of our performance discussion and the associated impact your midterm performance evaluation, which is now set at unsatisfactory. We expect immediate, visible, and consistent display of actions and behaviors that align with company and department expectations.” The letter included a list of 14 activities which Bubba was “restricted” from participating in, which included several facets of agile engagement – training, coaching, mentoring, etc.
“Wow. That is pretty harsh!” was all I could initially muster in what had to appear to be the ultimate understatement to Bubba. “They really have marginalized you. What is most appalling to me is that they have applied the company performance rating system in an arguably inequitable and egregious manner that might actually be dishonest. Do you have any recourse?”
“Well. You might be better off leaving.”
At that point he explained that he is only one, maybe two years from retirement at his firm. They are one of the few companies left in America (it seems) that still has a full pension plan available to vested employees that can be commenced upon retirement from the company as early as age 55. So, Bubba feels trapped and it is not an enviable position. Ironically, the use of the performance rating system as a stick in this case, rather than a carrot, demonstrates reasonably well the fallacies and despicabilities of these systems as described by W. Edwards Deming in his seminal book Out of the Crisis. Deming writes Traditional appraisal systems increase the variability of performance of people. The trouble lies in the implied preciseness of rating schemes. What happens is this. Somebody is rated below average, takes a look at people that are rated above average; naturally wonders why the difference exists. He tries to emulate people above average. The result is impairment of performance.
That isn’t the only result. The fear factor naturally sets in and pretty soon horizontal violence becomes evident. The disparate power structure also has other hideous and incestuous behaviors that can further demoralize workers. These and other reasons are why Deming listed performance appraisal systems as #3 of his 7 deadly diseases and obstacles that stand in the way of company transformations for the better. Performance management systems create an environment for game playing and they inhibit the ability of people to have “crucial conversations” where issues can be discussed in a healthy way. Bubba told me that trust no longer exists between him and his manager, and he does not see a way to rebuild it. There could be a way, but this rather bizarre reaction to a non-event has solidified the unequal power structure that surrounded the relationship. I asked Bubba if there were other issues identified in the letter and he described a few others. None of them seemed to rise to a level where such remedial action would be deemed necessary.
This event took place several months back and I asked Bubba what awaits him at the end of the review cycle, which is approaching. He isn’t sure and he seems resigned to whatever comes about, satisfactory or not. What is apparent to me is that Bubba, a 20 year employee of the company, has been reduced to simply sustaining for some remaining period of time. He is not a broken person, but simply derailed. I know of his capabilities and contributions to the agile community at large, and it saddens me to see this happen especially since it did not need to happen at all. I hold out hope for him, that he will find a way to survive this. If anyone can, it is likely my friend, Bubba.