Sunday, February 10, 2013

What is in common between performance review and planning poker?

My team of coaches meets once a week for a very special ceremony we created called CPI, which as you know, stands for Continuous Process Improvement. It is our opportunity to talk to each other about our findings, things that work, parking lot items that we would never prioritize for other meetings, and just to spend time with like-minded people. We agree, sometimes disagree, but it always feels good like the time worth spending and the inspiration for new exciting thoughts, approaches, techniques, and just the energy you get when you talk to people who have similar values to yours.

But this posting is not at all about our CPI time. The reason why I wanted to mention this atmosphere of mutual respect and complete trust is that I and my colleagues were talking about maintaining relationships with Agile practitioners as an organization, and I spoke about cultural differences. I mentioned that when I came to US as a student and someone would ask me "How are you doing", I would start telling them how things were and thinking that they asked about they are genuinely interested in knowing the details - otherwise, why would they ask? (I did not mention it to my colleagues, but interestingly - and I think it describes very well the atmosphere of Stanford University in mid-90's - it took a few months before someone explained to me that this is not what was expected. During the first two months or so everyone listened to me and nothing challenged the impression that people genuinely cared. And maybe they did, just considered me weird, but still cared - hard to figure out now.

Two things happened to me recently that revealed interesting similarities. One - I have been conducting annual performance review meetings with the scrum masters who report to me as their functional manager (we have a matrixed reporting structure, and my role as a functional manager is to develop scrum masters from Agile best practices standpoint and in terms of their career growth, support them, and through them support our Agile teams). I collected light form of 360 feedback - from teams, business stakeholders, Agile community, and shared my summary with each of the scrum masters. Scrum Masters felt these conversations were helpful. They were helpful for me, too.

However, a popular perception is that if we have trust (which I hope we do) and provide open feedback to each other on an ongoing basis (which I know we do as well), then annual performance review are not needed. At some point, I thought the same way. And then, my attitude changed. Each of these conversations triggered a really great discussion - discussion about goals in life, difficulties that they overcame, achievements they are proud of, dreams for the future and for their teams. Each of the conversations was rewarding and energizing. A simple topic related to teamwork would reveal challenges and victories, and we would talk about how the team is gelling together and what we can do to help the team achieve higher productivity and joy in their work. It is like answering with your biography to the question "How are you doing?", and this biography is so meaningful and relevant that you do not want this person to stop, even though it is not what you expected.

This morning, I read December blog posting by Dan Mezick in his blog. He was talking about estimating as a team learning experience, and he spoke about Planning Poker. He said that the Planning Poker is not meaningful by itself, but as a ritual and a team-learning effort. I agree with Dan: planning poker's value is in that it promotes conversations about complexity, unforeseen pre-requisite, configuration changes no one anticipated, and other relevant tasks. Similarly, annual performance review. Even if the information presented in it is not new to the participants,  there is a  value of having it, because

---- and this is what there is in common between both -----

both are powerful triggers. Annual performance review triggers important conversations between employee and his/her manager, it makes us think of what has been achieved during the year and how to become better in what we do. The secret is: don't try to use this ceremony (isn't it a ceremony in scrum understanding?) to assess individual performance. Similarly, the planning poker triggers story discussion for the team, where new and unforeseen things may be discovered that will add complexity to the story, but don't expect the estimation to be accurate. Both may serve a different that their stated purpose (which is for performance review to assess performance and for the planning poker to estimate), but both are very helpful and important. Same goes for answering the "how are you doing?" question - now I get it :-)


  1. Hi Mariya,

    In my experience, it's just the name Annual Performance Review or Annual 360 review that has negative connotations because of the way they have been experienced by people in the past.

    In one company where I was VP of Engineering, we just called them annual retrostpectives. This was a more appropriate name for them because there really were no surprises. The culture I had worked on instilling in the development group was one of openness and valuing feedback. IOW feedback was given when there was something that occurred that warranted it, either positive or constructive (if you have to 'negative').

    What would cause a member of my team to get negative feedback from me was when they weren't providing feedback to others and they let small issues escalate to more significant issues, especially with relationships with other team members or customers.

    The annual retrospective was used to reflect on broader patterns of behavior, progress on career and life goals and other topics. I also used this ceremony to gather from folks what they believed they would need from the company and me to support their goals. I conveniently aligned these meetings with the company's budget cycle.

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