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Continuous Improvement: Everyone Gets a Trophy

I don’t understand, invite or relish anything, ever, that suggests everyone gets a trophy. It's not how I was raised. I am not sure when exactly this philosophy came to be, but I think it was right around the Twins winning their last World Series when the world stopped making sense.

Continuous Improvement: Everyone Gets a Trophy

If there is no “winning”,  I become an overtly contemptuous, apathetic, nay-sayer. Yawn, roll my eyes and check out. I don’t care if it’s four-year-olds playing T-ball! What are we teaching them about life and their likelihood of making the majors, if we don’t get real about their skill level and abilities?

It’s a pretty big leap from overachiever, check-stuff-off-a-list, get the blue ribbon, to “It’s a journey, not a destination”. Asking leaders in organizations who are driven by bottom lines and success stories to willingly consume this cliche is like asking Tiger Woods if beating me at mini golf is something he could settle for.

An Agile team is only as effective as the sum of its parts 

When I was still an infant Agilist, I had a terrific mentor who recognized in me that I needed to achieve. I would work late, (well beyond my indicated capacity) and eat up user stories like Pac Woman to ensure that our burndown looked super sweet each retrospective. I did it. I became the weakest link of the "I" in team. My motives were good, I truly did want the team to look good and deliver. What I didn’t recognize is superstars do not make a sustainable team.

Over or underperformers should never have enough impact to make velocity untrue 

This terrific, soft-spoken guy went all the way to Human Resources to plead his case: Folks like me, and many others, no matter where they fell on the spectrum of “performance”,  would harm the team when the possibility of anyone outperforming anyone else on a team exists. He successfully argued that if we were to adopt Agile as an organization, we needed to practice what we preached. Not only are people more important than processes, but teams are more important than individuals. Human Resources agreed to change the model to team-driven performance reviews rather than individual.

Enlist achievers in the solution

On a sunny spring day, I learned that my way was not the high way.

With much grace and delicate kindness, he sat me down and explained. He knew my intentions were good, but I would make the whole thing crash and burn (not in a good way) if I kept it up. However, knowing that I really did care about delivery,  he also enlisted me to help determine ways that the team could measure continuous team improvement, rather than individual goals.

How to satisfy metrics-driven people without creating false, unsustainable practices

Start where you are. Without utilizing previous burndowns as a source of truth, (because they were not), we took the next three sprint burndowns and retrospective inputs to determine an honest, average team velocity. This became our starting metric.

With the support of Human Resources, we rolled out performance measured incrementally, each quarter, as well as annually. Reviews would be conducted against teams' continuous improvement goals, rather than by individual.

Let the team decide how they want to improve

Several brainstorming sessions and anonymous surveys later, the team arrived at annual improvement goals, broken down by quarter and monthly sprints. In keeping with the transparency tenet, we also kept our goals visible as a source of encouragement to all team members to put team before self. This was a satisfying shift in my achiever mind because I was able to move focus to supporting the team in measurable ways.

This is not about faster time to delivery or better quality products. It’s purely an exercise in putting the practice of Agile to work for you within the team dynamic. How well is the team performing as a whole? What’s the trust like? Do folks feel safe saying that don’t know how? Is there anyone hogging the spotlight of awesomeness to the detriment of the team?

Nirvana - Smells like Team Spirit

There is no doubt some of you are thinking or maybe even saying out loud, “um...yeah, but my organization is NOT going to change their individual performance review model. That would be heaven!”

In an ideal world, which most of us do not live in, an entire company has adopted Agile principles. (I would be out of a job, but hey, the world would be ideal). Most organizations' transformation to Agile is a process.  So...

What can you do in the meantime?

Engage team members in continuous improvement goal-setting. Use retrospectives at a sprint cadence specific to these goals to measure improvement and change gears if needed. Encourage individual contribution to the team mindset. Reward “poor” performers seeking help in developing skills or delivering. Recognize overachievers when they allow the team to fail. Seems like a crazy notion, but for achievers, letting the lessons learned become real, is an accomplishment and serves the team.

Everyone gets a trophy

I am Minneapolis-born and bred, but I love the Cubbies! Imagine my elation when they finally won the Series last year! A significant thing I noticed about this team during the regular season, as well as every single at bat during the series was, these guys encouraged each other. Cheering when a pro ball player gets to first base seemed funny to me at first, but guess what? It worked. To a man when interviewed post game, they credited team spirit and encouragement to their success.

Perhaps their youth reflects the true idea of team, so they went out and got everyone a trophy.

A broader definition is that of the Institute of Quality Assurance who defines continuous improvement as "a gradual never-ending change which is: ‘...focused on increasing the effectiveness and/or efficiency of an organisation to fulfill its policy and objectives. It is not limited to quality initiatives. Improvement in business strategy, business results, customer, employee and supplier relationships can be subject to continual improvement. Put simply, it means ‘getting better all the time’."

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