Measuring Performance for Teams

If you’ve ever been in an organization that had performance reviews, you may have found yourself wondering whether the measurement process used to evaluate your (and your team’s) performance made sense, and if there was a better way. Even if you have goals that can be evaluated quantitatively, rather than some metric that feels arbitrary, you may feel that your personal goals may run counter to the success of the your team. For example, you may wonder whether it makes sense to help your colleague on her high priority project and risk missing a deadline for your (lower) priority one. Sometimes the problems with measurement systems are because people just don’t measure well. In other cases, it’s because it’s impossible to measure all of the things that matter.

Rob Austin’s book Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations gives you a model to understand why measurement systems become dysfunctional, and an approach to avoid dysfunction when you are measuring.

Austin addresses some core issues that agile (and other) teams face:

Austin explains why individual measures and goals may be counter-productive unless you can measure all of the aspects of a person’s work, why most people want the team to succeed, and how that desire for team success is a key motivator, and why a staple of agile project management: visible and frequent feedback on team progress can improve your chances of success. While this book was written before agile became a popular term, anyone familiar with agile methods will find the ideas in this book in tune with agile methods.

Much of what I learned from reading this book seemed obvious in retrospect, but Austin explains the problem with clarity and precision, making observations that only seemed obvious once I read them. Early in the book, for example he points out:

Employees true output (such as value to the  organization) is intangible and difficult to measure; in its place organizations choose to measure inputs (such as the amount of effort devoted to a task…)

Which seems to be such an obvious problem with many evaluation systems that you wonder why so many organizations still do it.

Reading this book won’t give you a cookbook for designing a motivation and performance evaluation system.  This is a difficult problem, especially for those working in an industry where there is a strong desire to quantify and measure. But this book will help you to understand the problem and enable to evaluate and improve your current practices.

While Austin’s book will help you understand the model behind effective performance measurement, there are also more day-to-day practices you need to help your team be successful. For these  consider reading Johanna Rothman and Esther Derby’s book Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management, which is an excellent guide to the day to day process of people management.

Managing people can be intuitive, but it is also more difficult than many people realize. A desire to measure is useful, but it can be counter productive when you measure without understanding. Software development is a collaborative, human activity, and as such we need to understand that management and measurement and difficult, and doing either without without an understanding of the challenges can lead to unexpected results.