Can a Team Fit to a Bell Curve Be Self-Organized?

For discussion: Challenges faced by a team evaluated using a bell curve

16 June 2014

Sugandha Mestri
Tata Consultancy Services


Many of the challenges in Agile and Scrum arise from the idea of the self-organizing team. Of course, many (perhaps most) of the benefits are also the result of self-organizing teams.

A self-organized team comprises of a group of motivated individuals who work together toward a goal, shift work among themselves based on need and best fit, have the ability and authority to make decisions, and readily adapt to changing demands.

As we all know, a bell curve system of appraisal is a forced ranking system imposed on employees by the management of an organization. It requires managers to rank their employees from best to worst on the basis of their performance. The entire workforce is segregated by the top performers, medium performers, and low performers. The percentile varies per company policy; for example, it could be 10%-80%-10%.

In many service based-companies, bell curve appraisals have been practiced for years. Some clients to whom these companies are offering services have adopted Agile. So now we are dealing with an undesirable reality: The team needs to adopt Scrum, as that is a "must" from the client, but meanwhile a bell curve is imposed on the same team because that is their organization's appraising method -- even though that is not a Scrum practice. However undesirable, this is the reality. The team has neither the power to escape from the bell curve grading system nor the choice to work without adopting Scrum.

Thus I feel that following are some serious challenges faced when converting such teams into self-organized ones:
  • Can the individuals who are ranked as low/medium performers remained motivated enough to work toward their commitments?
  • Can the low performers pull work for themselves without help or direction from leaders or top performers on their team?
  • Can the low/medium performers work independently on stories without constant help from top performers?
  • Can the top performers believe that the low performers have the ability (and even should have the authority) to contribute to the decisions made by the team?
  • Is there a possibility that the team will be disproportionately influenced by the opinions of the top performers?
  • Is everyone on the team equally capable, so that they can shift the work among themselves if such a need arises?
I thought of trying to put some suggestions around each point, but I very well understand that because these are behavioral types of issues, a perfect solution cannot be achieved for any of these challenges. But overall I would say that the ScrumMaster (SM) can play a vital role in handling this. In fact, the servant-leadership skills can come in handy for SMs who must deal with such tricky situations in daily life.
  1. Can the individuals who are ranked as low/medium performers remained motivated enough to work toward their commitments?
    The SM, along with some management personnel, needs to patiently discuss feedback with the low performers. He or she can try to empathize with their points and explain the reasoning behind the low ranking. During this discussion, the SM can try to inspire them to put in more effort and enhance their skills, and the SM can suggest some ways to secure better rankings in upcoming appraisals. In day-to-day work, the SM can try to encourage them through persuasion in every small deliverable they are working on. This might provide chances for these low/medium performers to regain their willingness to deliver, if not immediately then maybe over time.
  2. Can the low performers pull work for themselves without help or direction from leaders or top performers on their team?
    A direct answer to this question is "no." The SM or the top layer of the team can guide these folks in understanding their strengths and weaknesses. Initially, the SM can help them in pulling work based on their strength areas. Eventually, this extended help can be converted into encouragement, and we may expect some of them will begin to take care of this for themselves.
  3. Can the low/medium performers work independently on stories without constant help from top performers?
    Working independently looks difficult. But the SM and tech experts on the team can patiently try to groom them in some areas so that a need for constant help can be reduced to a need for periodic/occasional help.
  4. Can the top performers believe that the low performers have the ability (and even should have the authority) to contribute to the decisions made by the team?
    The SM needs to ensure a healthy culture in the team, so that all team members are treated equally. The SM should avoid giving special attention to the top performers in common forums, and he or she needs to encourage everyone to participate in discussions, planning, retrospectives, and demos so that all can contribute to team delivery and decision making.
  5. Is there a possibility that the team will be disproportionately influenced by the opinions of the top performers?
    Yes, definitely. But the SM can ensure that every member of the team contributes in important team discussions such as brainstorming, planning, retrospectives, and demos. Due to this, the team will not be hesitant to participate in discussions and will be used to putting their points on the table as and when they feel it valuable. Over time, some of these folks can recommend innovative ideas and improvements.
  6. Is everyone on the team equally capable, so that they can shift the work among themselves if such a need arises?
    The bell curve itself suggests that everyone on the team is not equally capable. There are high, medium, and low performers on the team who vary in their performance capability. The SM and tech experts on the team will understand the competency spread and share it with the team. Based on this understanding, the team can in fact shift work among themselves whenever required. This may lead to concentrating the core competency areas within the top layer of the team, which in turn leads to their having comparatively more assignments. But considering the perks they are getting by being ranked as top performers, this may sound reasonable.
Now that I have put forth my suggestions, I would like to request you to share your valuable input, comments, and experiences on this point. As I already mentioned above, I think we cannot have a master key to this problem, but we might need to twist and turn our way of working to un(b)lock these scenarios.


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Article Rating

Current rating: 4 (2 ratings)

Comments

Premji Gada, CSM, 6/19/2014 4:37:30 PM
Sugandha,
Very nicely presented issues and possible suggestions.

This 10-80-10 curve become a major issue in Agile, specially when high profile organization has a norm to say good buy to performer with low level 10%.

Prem Gada
Laurent GATEL, CSM, 6/23/2014 2:23:10 AM
Hi Sugandha,
This is very important and you nailed some interesting problem we face more generally. I would like to add another perspective to your point.
The fact is that member individual performance relies on skills and motivation. And, as such performance evaluations are done continuously and before considering the agile transformation, they are reflecting a past situation and not the skills and motivation one team member can have and find regarding agile. This kind of transformation can be seen as an individual opportunity to get a new work environment. In fact a badly evaluated team member can find a great opportunity in such a transformation program.
This is why, for me, in a transformation program, you need to take into account the past and those evaluation are a good point, but also the opportunities for the team and the individuals. The success depends on the way both will be taken into consideration.

Thanks,
Laurent Gatel
Tim Baffa, CSM, 6/23/2014 3:35:55 PM
Perhaps this is over-simplifying things, but as a Scrum Master I find it exceedingly wise to avoid all situations where I am asked to become a mouthpiece for executive management. This is especially true where individual performance evaluations are concerned.

I see great benefit in mentoring and encouraging individuals within a team to grow and gain needed skills to add value to their team. Any effort to single out individuals as higher-performing within a team almost always harms the team dynamic. Every effort should e made y the SM to treat the team as a whole, and credit their successes and failures as collective achievements.
Mike Cohn, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/24/2014 11:45:03 AM
I think you provide good answers to the questions you raise but I think there is an additional question of: Why would (or should) top performers spend time helping low performers in such an environment? When individual performance is favored over team performance (as it is here), the top performers are penalized for helping the low. In a 10-80-10 system, if you are near the top, helping someone may bring that person up but it may move you out of the top. People will behave the way they are incentivized to behave.
Sugandha Mestri, CSM, 6/25/2014 2:12:42 AM
Thanks Prem, Laurent, Tim & Mike for your comments!

Laurent: I agree that Agile Transformation gives a fair chance to all the team members to perform and may be to cover up on the performance lag in the previous methods. But one important thing to remember is- Agile is quick to single out individual performance issues. So if one does not have the ability, s/he will be exposed very soon :)

Tim: You are right. It is advisable for SM to stay away from appraising the team members. But that is not always possible. What I feel is even if SM has to do appraisals, s/he can use the servant leadership skills while dealing with the team. This may give him/her some chance to turn some of the low performers into working individuals if not all.

Mike: That's true. Still I have seen some of the top performers do help the team or low performers just that much so that they need not sit with all of them to resolve their issues all through the day. I agree they may feel that they are getting penalized but I am not sure if there is any other option for such a curve fitted team, but to be dependent on top performers.
Akhilesh K M, CSM, 6/29/2014 10:16:23 AM
Hi Sugandha,
This is a very thought provoking article and i have been trying to find answers for them for a long time now. Some thoughts however:

1) You know, true agile practitioners know that agile is a mindset and is a revolution..a cultural transformation. Hence, if teams have embraced agile, the other old systems also should undergo transformation. So, in this case, traditional bell curve system has to be abolished.

2) Its humanely very difficult to get the teams be self organized when working in bell curve fashion. Its kind of an oxymoron...teams could get confused and eventually start branding agile as a bad practice.

3) Alternate modes of performance evaluations need to arise.
Eg: a. 360 feedback b. Psychometric tests c. Case study/situational evaluations. d. Teams are evaluated.
e. Lastly and probably, the team themselves evaluates the their individual members.

With increasing maturity in the agile teams, i think its time to question our age old existing practices and shake the status quo and come up with newer and more effective ways of living!!

Thanks
Akhilesh
Sugandha Mestri, CSM, 7/7/2014 2:07:31 AM
Thanks for your comments, Akhilesh!
Changing performance evaluation system from bell curve to some other mode can be an option but mostly it will be considered when entire organization is facing this issue. When only part of the organization is practicing Agile then this seems kind of difficult.
Sachin Dhaygude, CSP,CSM, 7/20/2014 10:38:17 PM
Bell curve system is a reality. While all your suggestions to deal with consequences of such appraisal system are great, I have a basic question. And that is - who would (or should) rate the team and rank them in 10-80-10 fashion? Who would decide that somebody is low or moderate performer?

A SM should not be giving such ratings to team members. Neither it should be PO. And the team per say doesn't report to anyone, then who would or should give the individual rating and feedback?

After the performance review cycle there will be consequences, some individuals are going to be poorly rated etc and how to deal with it is explained nicely.
Sachin Dhaygude, CSP,CSM, 7/21/2014 2:47:55 AM
Bell curve system is a reality. While all your suggestions to deal with consequences of such appraisal system are great, I have a basic question. And that is - who would (or should) rate the team and rank them in 10-80-10 fashion? Who would decide that somebody is low or moderate performer?

A SM should not be giving such ratings to team members. Neither it should be PO. And the team per say doesn't report to anyone, then who would or should give the individual rating and feedback?

After the performance review cycle there will be consequences, some individuals are going to be poorly rated etc and how to deal with it is explained nicely.

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