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Esther Derby helps create great work places where people can do their best work and make products their customers value. Not so very long ago, she made her living writing code. She's co-author of Behind Closed Doors Secrets of Great Management and Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. You can read more of her thoughts on management, organization, teams, and agile methods at www.estherderby.com Esther is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 73 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Agile Managers Don't Need to Establish Pecking Orders

11.21.2011
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A participant in one of my workshops of my workshops declared that in every team there is pecking order….and every one knows what the order is from one to n.  Since this is the case, he reasoned, it follows that ranking people in organizations is a reasonable management practice.

This is not the first time I have heard this assertion.

It often comes up when I talk about performance reviews, annual evaluations, and the harm done by stack ranking.

This assertion rests on tired analogies from sports or the animal kingdom.

I’m not buying it.

Software development teams are not “just like” sports teams. Software development teams aren’t packs, pods, herds, clowders, flocks or clutches.  Groups of people developing software are people in goal oriented social units–often in teams.

Sometimes, on some teams, it appears that there is one person who is obviously the star. Maybe.

In some companies, smart talk substitutes for action. So is the smartest talker the best on a team?

Some times there is a self-proclaimed genius who writes code that is so brilliantly complex that other people struggle to understand it. How does that make him the star? He is making it harder for everyone else to do work.

Then there are the people whose manager declare are top performers (though the basis of their assessment isn’t clear)–even though colleagues and peers  view them no more than average,  brown-nosers or a hindrance.

I observed a team where one person was viewed as the star by many managers.  To those managers, Joan (not her real name) looked like the one who generated ideas and figured out problems. From inside the team, Joan, suppressed contributions from other people through aggressive interruption, belittling others’ ideas, and arguing  until people caved in because it wasn’t worth the fight.

Rarely, there are people who are real standouts.  But not on every team.

What about the people at the bottom? What is the basis of the assessment?  Does the assessment include all of the dimensions of performance? In most cases it does not– it might include one dimension, perhaps coding. But in collaborative work, that is not the only thing that matters. Some times a person with relatively weaker coding skills contributes in other important ways. He or she may excel at  synthesizing information, seeing the software from a customer’s perspective, creating an environment where every one on the team can be more effective.

And the people in the middle? People who ascribe to the pecking order view believe that all of the members of a team could be lined up in rank order. But what is the earthly good of that? What is the basis of the comparison? Does it included the breadth of contribution or just one aspect of performance?

What if people are measurably different on some dimension?  Software is a collaborative endeavor. What matters is how well the team is doing.  Spending time teasing out relative contribution or trying to discern the pecking order does not aid in team performance, and can cause real harm.

As a manager, don’t waste your time trying to figure out the pecking order.  Do everything you can to help the team, as a goal oriented social unit, perform to its full capability.  Treat the true stand outs as exceptions. Promote them, or find other ways to reward them (don’t limit your thinking about rewards to money).  Treat the people whose performance is obviously below par as exceptions, too.  Either get them them help so they can contribute, or get them to a place where they can contribute (which may not be your company).  It is extremely difficult to assess relative contribution to collaborative work. The effort is not worth the benefit, and the downsides are significant. So skip it. And get on with helping the team.

Published at DZone with permission of Esther Derby , author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

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