Because the agile approach to performance management originated with software development teams and how to best manage them for superior results on behalf of customers, it should come as no surprise that agile performance management (APM) for a team looks a bit different from APM as it is applied to managing the performance of an individual in their specific position. For example, whereas the jury is still out on the value of peer feedback for an individual’s performance management, multi-directional feedback is essential in an agile approach to managing teams. This article will lay out some essentials of team performance management in general as well as what the agile approach brings to the table for teamwork.
Foundational Concepts for Building, Leading, and Managing Teams
I won’t belabor the importance of getting your basics down when it comes to teams and what tends to get in the way of their performance. A good place to start is Ken Blanchard and The Ken Blanchard Companies. According to their research only around 27% of survey respondents reported their teams achieve top-level performance a majority of the time, mostly due to lack of training, planning, resources, and leadership.
Blanchard and his colleagues have done a lot of research and experimentation in building effective teams. Begin with High Performance Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Work, which is a white paper outlining the research around making teams work (you’ll need to give up some contact information to download it, but it’s worth it). After digesting that you’ll want to read The One Minute Manager Builds High Performing Teams because it contains critical foundational concepts around team dynamics and a team’s stages of development.
A couple of other important books on building effective teams include The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork: Embrace Them and Empower Your Team by John C. Maxwell and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni. With those foundational concepts in place, then you can dive into the details of how people are building high-performance teams in today’s business world.
Autonomy and Empowerment of Teams
One of the twelve principles from the Manifesto of Agile Software Development is that self-organizing teams produce the best results. This principle suggests it is important to grant autonomy to teams. In this sense, the coaching approach to performance management comes into play once again. It doesn’t mean there is a lack of leadership or direction, just that the preference is to coach the team in a way that allows the best aspects of teamwork to emerge.
Recent scholarship on autonomy with teams notes it’s not simply a matter of always granting more autonomy or the maximum autonomy possible. There’s a “just right” amount of autonomy for teams, which amounts to some but not too much. Specifically, the kind of autonomy that seems most helpful is when a team can orchestrate matches between ideas and team members by having autonomy over one of those aspects but not both. Teams with autonomy over both had no way to do the matching because there was no solid starting point. Fully autonomous teams also tend to develop overconfidence that ends up hurting performance. It’s also worth noting that teams with autonomy over ideas but not team membership performed better than teams who had autonomy over both, probably because of selection bias towards friends and people who look like each other. In the final analysis, the question isn’t whether to grant teams autonomy (you should) but what kind of autonomy and how much autonomy will get the best results. You can read about this in the Harvard Business Review article, When Autonomy Helps Team Performance — and When It Doesn’t.
Diversity, Trust, Collaboration, Friction, and Team Performance
One of the themes that comes out strongly in the foundational resources mentioned above is the need for trust on teams. Without it, having a diverse team can work against its performance. On a homogenous team, everyone has the same fully shared knowledge. In a diverse team, there may only be a small amount of shared knowledge, which will hinder the team’s performance. With trust, however, the team can move from being merely diverse to being inclusive so that a diverse store of knowledge is fully shared throughout the team.
It’s also worth mentioning there is more to diversity on teams than just the usual things people think of (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, etc.). One of the most useful types of diversity to have on a team is diversity in working style. See more on this in Differing Work Styles Can Help Team Performance. Once again, leveraging this kind of diversity into a high-performing team takes a coaching approach that plays to each team member’s strengths. Another excellent article about how diversity can hurt team performance when it is not tempered with explicit strategies to foster collaboration is Lessons on Team Diversity.
While collaboration is a critical goal on any team, this doesn’t mean it lacks friction or is always harmonious or completely free of competitive rivalry. Abraham Lincoln was famous for putting people on his team who he knew would bring opposing viewpoints because he wanted to be sure he thoroughly considered all viewpoints before making important policy decisions (this was captured beautifully in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals). For more on how this plays out on workplace teams, see Can Harmony Hurt Team Performance? The point is that a certain amount of creative friction can end up producing better results.
There is also a cautionary note to be explored when it comes to putting one or more star performers on a team. It seems like a good idea, but when one team member stands out from the rest of the team as a high performer, it can create resentment and even lead to other team members undermining or sabotaging the high performer. This can quickly devolve into a stressful hot mess. In part, however, some of this may be due to the team manager or leader giving too much preferential treatment or recognition to the star performer and not giving enough positive reinforcement to other team members. Managers must ensure everyone understands high performance is not to be undermined and should emphasize how everyone wins with high performers on a team. And the high performers may need some coaching on being humble as well. See more on this topic in When One Person’s High Performance Creates Resentment in Your Team.
If you have an opportunity to assemble an all-star team of high performers, don’t hesitate to do it! As Steve Jobs said, “A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” Why? Because there’s a multiplier effect that happens when you get A+ players together, as noted in How to Manage a Team of All-Stars. And having an excellent team coach adds another multiplier effect on top of the all-star-team multiplier effect.
Team Reflection and Feedback to Improve Performance
Another principle from the Agile manifesto is regular team reflection on how to become more effective and adjust accordingly. This can and should include team performance reviews, goal setting, and feedback, just like it does when managing the performance of an individual. Team feedback in the agile approach, however, can and should be multi-directional. It isn’t meant to be only a two-way street. Instead, it might look like a messy, complicated, multi-street intersection, though technology should be leveraged to manage it and keep track of it all. Upward feedback is as welcome and necessary as a manager or supervisor providing downward feedback to any team they directly oversee. Peer reviews become essential when evaluating team performance. A decent starting point for team feedback is How to Give Your Team Feedback, but the important addition is a team discussion called a retrospective.
In agile teams, there should be short meetings at regular intervals during a project and again after its conclusion. These are often referred to as “agile retrospectives” or a “sprint retrospective” or a “scrum retrospective.” These should occur with the full team assembled and participating. It needs to be engaged with trust, openness, and honesty to clear the air, address tensions, and to recognize and celebrate successes. The agile retrospective is often based on posing and discussing several essential questions: 1) What’s working? 2) What’s not working? 3) What can be improved? 4) What can be added to the process? and 5) What can be removed from the process? For more information on different ways to run an agile retrospective, see 3 Popular Ways to Run a Productive Retrospective, How To Run An Effective Agile Retrospective Meeting, and The Ultimate Guide to Agile Retrospectives.
Twenty-First Century Tools for Agile Team Performance Management
If your business has begun to or is interested in shifting to an agile approach to performance management, there are two essential tools that will facilitate making the shift. One is a user-friendly yet powerful learning management system (LMS) you can use for training and learning programs your employees will need to gain essential knowledge about what agile means and how to apply it in the workplace. Another is a performance management system (PMS) that not only integrates seamlessly with your LMS but is also designed to facilitate agile performance management. I invite you to explore the eLeaP LMS for the first tool and to stay tuned for the launch of an agile performance management platform to go with it.