Feedback Challenges in Self-Organizing Teams
Self-organizing agile teams can present a number of challenges when you want to provide individual recognition and feedback. While everyone can see the results of what the team accomplished, the contribution of individuals is less apparent.
In some sense, this is OK. We work in teams because it takes a variety of skills to build useful systems. Besides, too much reliance on external recognition can drive people toward short-term goals rather than mastery of skills.
But people both deserve and benefit from acknowedgement when something they do helps a team succeed. An article by Kate Matsudaira got me thinking about the complexities of recognition for people who work on and manage self-organizing teams.
One challenge of self-organizing teams is that it's really difficult to come up with good ways to evaluate a particular person's contribution. Matsudaira explains that the things that are easy to measure are often ambiguous at best, and counterproductive at worst.
Measuring hours is both difficult, when you consider remote workers, and unreliable, when you realize that not all hours are equally productive. Lines of code and bugs created and fixed can reward the wrong things (such as retaining duplication) and penalize those who take the initiative to work on more complex problems.
Things closer to "value" are harder to measure. Code maintainabity may not be apparent until well after any sensible evaluation period. And while people who help the team—such as a Catalyst, as described by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister in their classic book Peopleware—are useful, especially for self-organizing teams, it may take awhile to see their effect on the team's success.
Matsudaira provides some advice on how to give and receive feedback when you’re part of a team like this. As a team member, be trustworthy, own your part of the project, and prove to your manager that you have earned the privilege of working autonomously. Communicate what you’ve done and what's going on with the rest of your team and the project, but don’t spend all your time tooting your own horn instead of being productive.
As a manager, try to be informed about your team’s progress so you can give praise and recognition when it’s deserved, but don’t accomplish this by micromanaging or getting in the team’s way. It's also important to be as clear as you can about goals and defining value; otherwise, the people on your team will work toward the values they see you embrace rather than what you say has value.
Feedback and recognition can be motivating and helpful, but not so much when it’s done wrong. Self-organizing teams and their managers should communicate proactively, deliver consistently, and foster a relationship of mutual trust. That way, everyone should know what went into each project and when acknowledgment is called for.