“Could you imagine if school teachers allowed students to pick their own grades?”
This was Boss’ response to the idea that agile teams can plot their own “maturity” against an agility rubric. Boss told me that the agile coaches should go around with a clipboard, citing what each team is doing right and not right against the rubric.
My response to his response was basically, “you can go ahead and use this agile maturity exercise to rate and compare teams, but don’t ask me to do it. And, while you’re at it, I don’t suggest you do it either.”
Many years ago, I was a school teacher (high school and junior college), and I did what Boss said should never be done. At grade time, I would take each student aside and ask the two simple questions: “What grade do you think you deserve?” “Why?” Compounding the initial confusion was the condition that I hadn’t assigned any number or letter grades during the term. Everyone’s first assignment received a check (√), no matter what. I told them when handing back the assignments that this was a baseline, and that the name of the game was improvement.
After the first assignment, everyone was judged against themselves, not their peers. So,
Progressing as expected à √
Outstanding progress à √+
Blew me away à ★
Not impressive à √-
Didn’t do the assignment, or did a half-assed job à 0
The nuns at the Catholic high school didn’t like my system much more than Boss did. I wish in retrospect that I had the perspective now to explain it to them.
Here are some of the findings (n~=200 students over 2 years):
- The vast majority (80%) of students suggested a grade that I could live with, that roughly represented their progress and effort. These were easy. “OK, 85 sounds about right to me. Let’s go with that. If you continue to get better throughout the year, that grade will go up. If not, it will go down. How does that sound?”
- · Almost no students asked for a grade that was wildly too high. In response to the 1-2 times that a student who put in a lackluster effort asked for a 90+ grade, a simple “really?” from me got the conversation back on track.
- · A good chunk of students suggested a grade that was WAY too low.
In those cases, when I asked (what I thought was) a 90 student why they thought they deserved a 75 for a grade, I got an instant teachable moment. Most of those kids suffered from low self-esteem or a self-fulfilling prophecy complex.
Here’s a typical conversation:
“I’m bad at English. I always get around a 75. I’ve never gotten an 80.” one kid told me.
“Why do you think that is?”
“I’m not such a great reader or writer. And usually the material is really boring….”
“That’s very surprising to me. I’ve seen you work really hard this term, turning in all of your assignments on time. And, you’ve gotten a lot better as a writer..”
And so it goes.
This agile maturity exercise is meant to be a development activity, intended to help individuals or teams to get better. It necessarily needs to be separate from performance evaluation activities. If you, Boss, conflate development and performance, bad things happen, and you,
- Undermine empowerment. By telling the teams what they are doing right and wrong, you are telling them that they are unable to do same.
- Sow distrust. If the teams think they are being rated and compared, they will, in the interest of self-preservation, do things to undermine the system.
- Show that you don’t think much of their ability to make decisions. Let’s face it: Your people can read a rubric and map their own performance against it. If you can’t trust them to do that honestly, then that’s a big problem.
If we coaches aren’t going to rate the teams, what should we do? The overall role of the coach is to help teams perform better. We do this in different ways. Sometimes, we share our vast agile knowledge (teach). Other times, we lead individuals or teams through a process (facilitate). Occasionally we directly advise individuals and teams on how to get to the next level of performance (mentor). And often we ask questions and lead people to find answers to their own problems and dilemmas (coach).
The art of coaching is to figure out when to assume which stance at which time, keeping in mind that the performance and the outcomes belong to the team. The coach is not part of the team.
Now, no matter how empowered (or whatever) the team is, the Boss still employs them. But, we’re not talking about hiring and firing here; we’re talking about performance. And, to get the best performance out of a team the Boss needs to tell them what good performance looks like, and then get out of the way.