Performance reviews in an Agile environment

At KRS, our first attempt at redefining our appraisal process (after our Agile Adoption a few years ago) had us focusing solely on the Agile values and principles, with the objective of nurturing the transformation to agile mindsets within our company. We created our first round of questions and thought our work was done. Two years later, the questions felt stale. Once again, I started working with the leadership and development teams to figure out what is more pertinent for us. My maturity in understanding Agile Practices has made me realise that performance reviews, just like any other process, need inspection and adaption. They need to meet the company’s needs now.

There isn’t a cast in stone review system that will work forever. Reviews need to be revised and adapted at least every two years, according to the level of maturity in teams, processes and practices. While a simple question like “does this person update their Scrum Board regularly?” could be a question on a team who has just adopted the Scrum Methodology, it might not be as relevant to a more mature team. A question that could be more relevant to a mature team who has adopted agile could be, “Are those columns and the structure of the board reflective of the work or process the team follows?” or even “Should we be using Kanban instead?”

So where to now? We looked at our culture. Is it reflective of who we wanted to be? Are we proud of it? What behaviour do we want to change? At KRS, it is really important for us to actively engage in and promote a culture of candid feedback. Without this, review forms are meaningless and filled out with polite pats on the back. Ed Catmull best describes a culture we try to emulate at KRS: “We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.” Feedback that is real, means a chance to move forward a chance to fix something that needs attention. A culture of candid feedback means that you create a safe space. That people are able to give constructive criticism on how we can do better without repercussions.

Introspection is critical for our growth and starts at the top. Introspection and its byproduct, self-awareness, are central to any leadership, no matter what level or position. It is the essence of decision-making, behavioral efforts, action, focused energy and prioritisation. When people feel safe and see identifying a problem as a chance for the organization to take a step forward they feel confident to stand up and suggest change and improvements. Introspection at the team level should take place at retrospectives, teams need to feel secure enough to take a hard look at themselves and see where they can improve.

Our performance reviews take the form of a 360 appraisal approach which we do bi-annually per individual. Staff are able to choose who they want to lead their reviews and are also required to fill out an introspection form. In this way, individuals get to discuss what they want to improve and where they want to grow. Real agility is about establishing a cadence for self-evaluation.  Our criteria for our 360 review is currently based on a variety of areas, including people skills, communication and process. But as a Software development house, they are mostly driven by the desire to provide business value to our clients and good quality, clean code.

However, it’s not all blue skies and butterflies. Performance reviews need supplementation. We rely on our Scrum Masters to be enablers, to keep a finger on the pulse of their teams, to build relationships and have 1:1 informal session with their teams. Our Scrum Masters support each other and meet monthly to engage and debate topics they bring to the table. Our leadership team does the Gemba walk. They are embedded in the teams they serve so that they have on the ground experience and know the pain of their teams. This didn’t happen overnight – it has been a journey of discovery as we matured and grew in our understanding of Agiility and the culture we want at KRS.

I do not believe you’ll ever be able to eradicate subjectivity from reviews. I propose that you embrace the subjectivity. Instead of trying to come up with specific criteria for each job and the perfect review questionnaire, strive to provide your employees with a positive work environment, where they are trusted and provided with autonomy, the ability to gain mastery and purpose to understand the long term goals and the part they play in achieving them. After all, performance reviews are just a small part of a much bigger picture. The Agile values and principles remain a guiding light for us.