This is a guest post from Jonathan Alexander. Jonathan is VP Engineering at Vocalocity. He is the author of Codermetrics: Analytics for Improving Software Teams published by O’Reilly in 2011.
Jonathan’s guest post is on adapting honest, self-evaluation to measure your team.
In the new book How Will You Measure Your Life? Clayton Christensen and his co-authors explain ways to measure whether we are on track for a happy and fulfilling life. Using the methodology from Professor Christensen’s Harvard business school class, the book offers a set of questions and viewpoints that each person can apply independently to assess his or her life. A key premise is that people get off track because they fail to evaluate themselves.
For those of us who work in teams, a similar problem exists. By not identifying or evaluating the factors that make teams successful, we increase the likelihood that our teams will fail.
When someone suggests measuring teams, however, people’s eyes glaze over with thoughts of bureaucratic complexity. It sounds like something we won’t like and don’t have time for. But there is an easy way to measure teams based on a simple lesson from Christensen’s book: honest self-evaluation is a powerful and accurate measurement technique. The following outlines a simple way to apply this lesson to help your team navigate towards greater success.
This exercise has three simple steps and for any small or modest-sized team can most likely be done in a one-hour meeting. It’s ideal if your meeting room has a whiteboard or a projector, but if you don’t have these then just a laptop will suffice. You’ll need a blank piece of paper for every team member, and pens or pencils.
The first step is to determine what are the key factors that can or will make your team successful. You can treat this as a brainstorming session, with an assigned scribe taking notes on the whiteboard or your laptop. For each part of the brainstorming activity, you can use the “popcorn” method to determine when the brainstorming is done: as long as the ideas are coming quickly like kernels of corn rapidly popping, keep going, but when the pace slows down noticeably then you can move on.
Start by asking team members to share ideas of what “success” means for the team. Of course this will differ based on the type of team. For example, engineering teams will have different goals than marketing teams. Encourage the team to not only think about business goals but also their own personal goals. Also, consider both short-term and longer-term goals. So the list might include tangible targets like new customers or revenues or reduced quality problems, but also intangibles like having a fun workplace or continued education and career growth.
Once you have captured a list of ideas about what team success means and listed them on the whiteboard or projector, continue the brainstorming session by asking team members to identify individual qualities that are required to achieve the kinds of success listed. The scribe can write these down in a separate area, maybe next to or below the previous list. The new list might include a wide variety of qualities like effort, accuracy, communication, teamwork, mentoring, or poise under pressure.
The final part of the brainstorming is to determine which are the most important qualities among those listed. To do this, ask team members to vote by a show of hands for their top three or four qualities, and tally the results. Use the results to narrow down the list to those receiving the most votes. As a general guideline the “top list” should include at least three qualities, but for this exercise it is probably good if it includes at least five and maybe even more based on the voting and your judgement.
At the end of step one you will have a team-identified top list of individual qualities that drive team success. Now you are ready to move to the second step.
Ask every team member to take a piece of paper and write down the top list of qualities that you as a group have agreed upon. Then ask each person to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being “poor” and 5 being “excellent”) for each of those qualities. Names should not be written down; the ratings are anonymous in order to encourage everyone to provide an honest self-evaluation with no fear of judgement or repercussions.
After everyone has rated themselves for each quality, ask them to identify the quality which is their strongest and the quality which is their weakest. This may be difficult, since many people will see themselves as equal in various qualities, but ask everyone to choose. They can identify these on the paper with plus and minus signs next to their strongest and weakest qualities.
You might wonder whether this self-rating system is “valid” and “fair” since you don’t know that people rate themselves with equal severity. But the usefulness of these ratings isn’t the exact numbers, but the relative differences they reveal. For example, if one person rates herself 5-4-3 for three qualities and another rates herself 4-3-2, it’s not important whether the first person is actually “better” in any of the qualities than the second. What’s important is that they both rated themselves stronger for the first quality and weaker for the last. As long as people’s rating scales are “consistent” for themselves, which we can reasonably assume will be the case, then the self-rating technique is useful.
The third and final step of the team meeting is to collect the individual papers and calculate the results. Using the whiteboard or a simple spreadsheet, you can calculate two numbers for each of the key qualities that your team identified as important to team success:
When complete, for every quality you will have a Team Average and a Plus-Minus. The qualities with higher numbers are the team’s self-identified strengths, and the qualities with the lower numbers are the team’s self-identified weaknesses. The actual numbers themselves aren’t really important or meaningful, but the relative differences are, especially if there are big differences for one or more qualities.
How is this useful? First of all, the process and results may spur useful conversation and self-reflection among team members. Thinking about what success means, what it takes, and how each person is contributing may cause team members to think more about how they can improve. You might, for example, finish the meeting by discussing what the team can do to strengthen areas that you identified as weakest.
Team managers might also reflect on this information afterwards to find ways to strengthen the team. For example, if the team identified communication as one of its weaker qualities, you could think about improving opportunities for interaction (such as team lunches or other informal gatherings). The balance of strengths and weaknesses might also influence the type of mentoring or training you pursue, or the type of people that you seek to add to the team.
If you already have an annual performance review process, you may already be capturing self-rating data similar to this, and you might get similar benefits from cumulative analysis of those results. But if you don’t already have such a process, or even as an extra exercise to facilitate team-building, a session of honest self-evaluation can be as worthwhile and healthy for any team as it can be for every individual.
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