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The Self-Appraising Team

05/18/2012 by Uday Shete

However exhaustive and meticulous your current employee appraisal process is, chances are you aren't pleased with the outcome. The primary objective of a performance appraisal is performance improvement, starting with the individual and rolling up to the organizational level. But an individual who doesn't fare well in an appraisal feels demotivated, defeating the purpose of the exercise.

Looking deeply at the challenges of the current common appraisal system, a few points stand out:

  • Appraisals are subjective, even if key result areas are well defined with clear measuring criteria.
  • Subjectivity is especially tough to eliminate when it comes to employee behavioral (as opposed to results).
  • Feedback happens only once or twice in the year and is seldom incremental.
  • Organizational goals are usually not revisited as frequently as they should be, either by team members or by the appraiser, and hence the appraisal may drift away from project or organizational goals.
  • The appraiser may be biased by recent events rather than able to look at overall, year-long performance.
  • There is often a failure to deliver a win-win solution to any problem or to motivate team members to take on higher goals.
  • The "halo effect" can bias an appraiser, when the influence of certain good traits override others.

When an organization follows Agile processes, more challenges arise. Agile methodology focuses on team performance more than on the individual. The objectives of the team aren't easily broken down by individual; one cannot appraise the individual on the basis of team performance.

Although this is not an attempt to propose a solution for all of the above issues, I do believe there is a workable solution for appraising Scrum team members, one that addresses problems raised while remaining within the Agile framework and philosophy. If a team is self-organizing, per the Agile framework, we can empower that team to raise itself to a "self-appraising team."


The self-appraising team

We can leverage the spirit of Agile to empower the team to appraise its own team members. The sprint retrospective is done continuously, and it helps evolve and improve team productivity and efficiency. The team determines what was good, bad, and ugly, and it determines what it needs to do to improve. Ideal sprint retrospective meetings are conducted within a candid, honest, and constructive environment. What better platform to appraise individual performance as well? Wouldn't every team member appreciate such an environment for his or her appraisal? Since the sprint retrospective is a time-boxed meeting, my proposal is to use 15 minutes out of this meeting for the purpose of individual team member appraisals.

Now we have the right platform, with the right people. The team believes it is the owner of the appraisal process and is empowered to carry it out. The question that remains is how?


How and what can be achieved in 15 minutes?

During the sprint retrospective, play a game of nominating the best performer within the team, as voted by each team member. On a blank card, each team member writes the name of the best performer. (Important rule: No one is allowed to nominate him- or herself.) The ScrumMaster collects the cards but does not disclose who received the most votes. Instead, each team member first takes two minutes to explain why the person he or she has nominated was the best performer during the sprint.

Next the ScrumMaster scores each nominated individual on the basis of number of votes and announces the top three performers of the sprint. Note that we may have seven members in the team (give or take a few), and we've already ranked three of them within first sprint.

The most important part of this exercise is getting honest and constructive feedback about the work that's been executed. Each team member who is nominated understands what he or she did that brought on that vote. Other team members can set their own goals about what to do to achieve the same feat in the next sprint. The feedback is delivered by the team, so it is clear, crisp, and close to reality because it is offered by a group of people who work closely with each other on a day-to-day basis.

This feedback also removes a great deal of subjectivity, especially around the behavioral aspect, because team members make nominations based on the person's overall performance. Coworkers may choose not to nominate a high performer if he or she demonstrates other undesirable attitudes, such as a failure to support fellow team members.

Such ongoing team appraisals of individuals maintain transparency and also help each team member, on a regular basis, understand their performance. For example, if a one-year project runs sprints every two weeks, team members will experience 24 appraisals by the end of the year. This helps avoid disappointments at the final appraisal when raises and promotions may be decided.


Benefits of the self-appraising team

In summary, the benefits of a team self-appraisal are as follows:

  • Its inherent transparency eliminates personal bias.
  • Everyone experiences regular and honest feedback from the team. (This is called 360-degree feedback.) One has the opportunity to receive feedback at the end of two weeks and to improve performance immediately in the next sprint.
  • The goal is clear, and everyone receives continuous feedback about what's expected from high performers.
  • The scoring system eliminates subjectivity.
  • The team does the appraisal itself and thus trusts the outcome of the exercise.
  • It provides a simple way to align individual objectives to project objectives, thus rolling up to organizational objectives.
  • The 15 minutes allowed for this within each sprint eliminates the mammoth efforts currently put in for annual or biannual appraisals.


Alignment with the Agile framework

  • Feedback is crystal clear and focused on individuals rather than the process.
  • The method focuses on measurable performance, not excessive documentation of an individual's performance.
  • It eliminates negotiation and propagates transparency in the system.
  • It offers quick and frequent feedback, with frequent opportunities to take corrective action.
  • It offers an environment of trust and honesty, which supports the development of the team.