Agility is Team Sport

The end of the year is the time of appraisal inter­views. Usu­al­ly the per­for­mance of the indi­vid­ual is eval­u­at­ed. How­ev­er, the cre­ation of val­ue in orga­ni­za­tions and espe­cial­ly in agile teams is actu­al­ly always the result of team­work. This focus on indi­vid­ual per­for­mance leads to loose groups of mediocre soloists instead of excel­lent team performance.

Every sin­gle year … the per­for­mance eval­u­a­tion comes down to the employ­ees. Most orga­ni­za­tions know and appre­ci­ate — as the school sys­tem does — only indi­vid­ual per­for­mance. But agili­ty is a team sport. What counts is the per­for­mance of the team. How can indi­vid­ual per­for­mance be assessed then? And should one do so at all?

The Team is Everything

Those who mea­sure indi­vid­ual per­for­mance con­tri­bu­tions and dis­trib­ute vary­ing rewards depend­ing on them, not only receive demon­stra­bly poor­er results for any non-triv­ial task, but also dis­rupt the team struc­ture in par­tic­u­lar. Each team mem­ber is then pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with his or her own area of respon­si­bil­i­ty. This loose group of mediocre soloists does how­ev­er not make a good orchestra.

Yes, but …

What about “low per­form­ers”? And what about key play­ers? How can the for­mer be pun­ished and the lat­ter reward­ed? The only cor­rect answer to this ques­tion was giv­en a long time ago by Dou­glas McGre­gor: Not at all or at least not for the pur­pose of motivation.

The answer to the ques­tion man­agers so often ask of behav­ioral sci­en­tists „How do you moti­vate peo­ple?“ is, „You don’t.“

Dou­glas McGre­gor, 1966. Lead­er­ship and moti­va­tion: essays

Of course there will be dif­fer­ences in the team. Alone the skills and incli­na­tions of the mem­bers will dif­fer in an agile team. This inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ty is an essen­tial prin­ci­ple of agili­ty. In a good team, every­one is impor­tant and every­one makes an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion, but it can­not be com­pared to the con­tri­bu­tions of the others.

Yes, but what if the team does­n’t work so well? Sure: Not all mem­bers will always be able to deliv­er their best per­for­mance. We are all just human beings and have life cir­cum­stances that could inspire or bur­den us. Our day-to-day per­for­mance varies. How­ev­er, if it becomes appar­ent over a longer peri­od of time that peo­ple do not feel com­fort­able in a team and are unable to devel­op their poten­tial, the first thing to do is to find out why. Sim­ply diag­nos­ing and pun­ish­ing “under­per­for­mance” is about as use­ful as shout­ing at the stunt­ed toma­to in the gar­den and cut­ting back on the fertilizer.

Why do you hire dead wood? Or why do you hire live wood and kill it?

Peter Scholtes (1997). The Leader’s Hand­book (S. 331)

Gen­er­al­ly, the prin­ci­ple of self-orga­ni­za­tion of the team also applies in these cas­es. The team rec­og­nizes the inter­fer­ence of the per­for­mance itself best and can address this in an envi­ron­ment of psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty, such as in the con­text of a ret­ro­spec­tive and joint­ly search for solu­tions. How­ev­er, to ensure this psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty and to enable a con­struc­tive han­dling of the chal­lenge beyond blame, requires an expe­ri­enced Scrum Mas­ter as coach.

As long as you need heroes or cul­prits to explain a sit­u­a­tion con­vinc­ing­ly, you haven’t under­stood it yet.

Ger­hard Wohland

Yes, but the out­stand­ing key play­ers should be reward­ed! In a healthy orga­ni­za­tion, they have hope­ful­ly per­formed well out of joy of achieve­ment and suc­cess of the team and the orga­ni­za­tion. In a healthy cul­ture, they hope­ful­ly received envy-free recog­ni­tion from col­leagues and supe­ri­ors. If, on the oth­er hand, it seems nec­es­sary to reward key play­ers for their per­for­mance, this only masks deep­er-seat­ed prob­lems in the orga­ni­za­tion and its culture.

Yet the Team Is Not Everything

Most orga­ni­za­tions con­sist of more than one team. And the out­put of the orga­ni­za­tion is the result of the suc­cess­ful coop­er­a­tion of the teams. Replac­ing an indi­vid­ual assess­ment with an assess­ment of team per­for­mance alone is there­fore not suf­fi­cient. A team is only a top team if it also takes respon­si­bil­i­ty for the big­ger pic­ture by help­ing oth­er teams and con­tribut­ing to the devel­op­ment of cross-cut­ting con­cerns (e.g. secu­ri­ty, process­es, archi­tec­ture) in com­mu­ni­ties of practice.

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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