Annual Performance Review: Emperor Palpatine & Darth Vadar

Darth Who?The value of Annual Reviews is a contentious subject, just ask Microsoft. In my view, so long as they are kept separate from pay reviews and form just a small part of the overall act of providing continuous feedback, I can see some value in them as a means to discuss long term progression.

A few years ago my company re-wrote our review template – I was concerned that my team might not take a great deal of interest in the new form, and heaven forbid, might not even read it before the reviews came about.

I felt that everyone would get more from the process if they had some idea of what to expect and how to use the template, so I filled in the form detailing the annual review that no doubt occurred between Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vadar in the aftermath of the original Stars Wars.

I share it here simply because I wish there was more HR material in the world based on Darth Vadar and Emperor Palpatine.

For those of you who consider the annual review to be an outdated process, bear in mind that this happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Part 1: Overview of Role and Recent Projects

Vadar writes:

During the past six months I have focusing on the construction of the Death Star with a view to using it as a tool to dominate the Galaxy. The project is extremely complex and I worked closely with key stake holders to ensure that the design and subsequent deployment match business goals and directives.

Separately I have been working closely with the Galactic Fleet to isolate the crush what remains of the Rebel Alliance. This has involved detaining and interrogating key figures as well as embarking on an extensive search across the out reaches of the Empire.

Palpatine writes

I concur with Vader’s comments. It’s also worth noting that Vader has been actively recruiting and restructuring the Galatic fleet leadership team.

Part 2: Performance Overview

Objective #1 – Deliver a fully functional Death Star

Vadar writes:

How well did I perform against this objective?

I delivered a fully operational Death Star, which passed all user acceptance tests. It is true that the delivery was delayed and I put this down to the project management techniques employed in the early stages. Towards the end of the project I took a much more hands on role implementing a more iterative and incremental approach to delivery. In doing it was possible to gain rapid feedback and ensure that value to the customer was maximized. Furthermore I made some tough decisions over poor performing members of the management team, introducing them to my ‘claw of death’.

Next Actions

I consider this objective complete, though note that following the destruction of the Death Star, we may need to build a new one.

Palpatine writes:

I agree that a functional Death Star was delivered. I am pleased that I was able to set a vision and direction and that the manifestation of that vision became a reality. I am also very pleased with the aesthetics, it almost looked like a real Moon.

While I was disappointed by the late delivery of the project I am much more concerned how such an obvious vulnerability found its way through the design reviews. I would have expected that this would have been picked up pretty much form the off. I am also deeply concerned by how it became possible for the Rebel Alliance to steal plans for the Death Star such that they were able to exploit the weakness. Furthermore the destruction of the Death Star has damaged our reputation as a Galactic force – how a single manned fighter was able to implode an entire space station is the stuff of science fiction.

Objective #2 – Crush the Rebel Alliance once and for all

Vadar writes

How well did I perform against this objective?

It’s fair to say that the Rebel Alliance cannot be described a ‘crushed’. I am happy with my overall approach, the Empire is very much in control of the Galaxy and the Rebel Alliance have not been able to secure an outpost, meaning that they are forced to move from temporary base to temporary base to evade a the might of the Galactic fleet. I feel strongly that it is only a matter of time before I have them trapped. That said I failed to account for key figures within the alliance, as well over looking a key vulnerability in the Death Star itself.

Next steps

I will embark upon a Galaxy wide search for the relocated rebel base, and continue with the aforementioned crushing

Palpatine writes

I agree that your general approach was thorough and methodical. I would have like to see more outright annihilation of innocent people but overall I am pleased with your execution.

Where I am less pleased is that you failed to adapt your plan to take into account key events, specifically the rebel attack on the Death Star and Luke Sky Walker’s ability to evade attack. It is unclear to me why you were not able to land a direct hit even when pursuing him along a narrow trench and supported by two of the finest pilots in the galactic fleet.

Part 3: Overall Rating

Vadar writes:

3 out of 5 – Effective contributor

Palpatine writes

2 out of 5 – Low Contributor, I feel that your overall performance was not up to the standard that I would expect from a Lord of the Sith.

Part 4: Feedback on Galactic Empire Inc

Vadar writes:

What I enjoy most about working here? I really like the almost unbounded opportunities to inflict misery and despair on pretty much anyone I like.

One thing I would change about Galactic Empires Inc. I think we need to review the weapons issued to our Storm Troopers, they seem faulty and rarely inflict any damage at all.

One thing I would like to see remain at Galactic Empires Inc. I think that our uniforms are pretty much the best in the industry. This is especially true for the Storm Troopers

Part 5: Future Development/Business Goals

Vadar writes

What I do well: Inspire terror in others.

What I want to improve: Despite being a master of the dark side of the force, I am still unable to consistently smite Knights of the Jedi.

How I would like my career to develop over time:Long term I’d like to move into a Supreme Leader of the Universe role

Palpatine responds

I agree with Vader’s comments, in particular I am keen to help him to improve his smiting skills. While I do not see Vader’s wish to move into Supreme Leader of the Universeship as unrealistic, such roles do not come up often.

Part 6 – Objectives

Objective #1: Create a new death star

Next Actions: Review the design docs to remove unlikely failure modes   Time frame for achievement:  This coming October

Objective #2: Crush the rebel alliance

Next Actions:  Discover the location of the rebel base Time frame for achievement: Next April

Palpatine summarises objectives:

Long term, Vader is looking to rule the entire universe, I see building the most devastating weapon ever created and crushing the only viable opposition as key stepping stones towards this goal.

Part 7: Record of discussion arising from the review discussion

Palpatine summarises

During the meeting we discussed my rating of Vader’s performance. While disappointed he understands that the loss of the Death Star played a big part in my overall decision.


Remember kids, appraisals should be:
  • Separate from pay reviews
  • A small part of a wider mechanism to provide staff with continuous
  • A two way street

I thought that 7 Digital had some good things to say on the subject

What ‘How your company treats exiting staff’ says about you

Nothing impacts your working life like company culture and yet culture is very difficult to assess. This problem keeps me up at night and I’ve written about it before in ‘Why work at your company?

The trouble is that in many cases, the company itself does not really know that much about its own culture and even if it did, expressing it in a sincere manner is challenging, in fact most companies don’t even try at all.

But how about this as a question to quickly determine a how a company feels about its staff?

“HR hoops aside, what happened the last time someone left your company?”

Seems pretty innocent, no? Every company can answer that question in a positive manner, but I think the variations speak volumes.

For instance, recently we said goodbye to junior (ish) developer, he’d been with the company 18 months and was leaving to pursue a childhood dream to work as an air traffic controller (actually true).

On his last day there was a leaving ceremony where a few words were said in the office and a leaving gift presented, immediately afterwards there was a trip to the pub for those wishing to see him off.

Nothing unusual so far.

But it was the whole office of eighty people that turned out – the parting gifts, while inexpensive, were completely personalised – in this case it was a ‘make your own picture book’ with each picture and audio presenting some sort of in joke – jokes understood by the whole group. In similar situations, gifts have included a ‘time of day’ vs ‘date’ commit plot for a notoriously nocturnal team member, a Wordle of IRC logs for an especially chatty colleague and even a framed 3ware card (his nemesis) for a long suffering sys admin.

The pub trip was not just his team or engineering, but had attendees from across the entire company, and at all levels of seniority. Numbers were high, especially given it was a Friday night.

It was a sad occasion, but in many ways felt like a celebration. ‘Great working with you, can’t wait to see what you do next’ – it’s one thing for your immediate work mates to say this, but how about a whole company?

What struck me was how normal this felt, this is completely standard practice for us. Why wouldn’t we act in this way? On reflection I think that this would be considered unusual at most organisations. Such sends off are not unheard of but usually reserved for especially treasured members of the team. This difference say something about our culture.

By comparison, at my friend’s organisation, a senior (much loved) member of staff of 20 years service cannot even expect their manager to drop into their leaving ceremony. Their reluctance to attend driven by fear of tacit endorsement. It’s the same set up, leaving ceremony followed by pub, but a completely different feel.

How a company treats its exiting employees, speaks volumes to remaining staff. The actions of individuals in response to the leaver, reflect the company’s culture. Since the leaver no longer has any direct value to the company, these actions speak honestly about how the company values people.

So ask yourself, how does your company treat exiting employees and what does it say about the culture? What message are you sending to remaining staff? It is not for management to mandate a leaving procedure, but it is for management to create an environment where people matter.

The Complex, the Complicated and what it means for NASA

When people say ‘Simplifying Complexity’ I hear ‘I don’t know what these words mean’. This isn’t entirely fair, as we shall see, but it gives you an idea of my preconceptions before attending a training session of that title.

The facilitator started off by inviting each member of the group to talk about the influence of complexity in their professional lives. As we went around the room it became clear that for most of the group complexity was a synonym for hard or complicated. Many would agree, including the Oxford English dictionary. However, here was a group dominated by senior members of a very large IT professional services company. These are people for whom complexity science is highly relevant to their professional lives and people for whom there ought to be value in defining Complexity with a big C and in particular differentiating the Complex from the Complicated.

Cynefin

The Cynefin Framework characterises systems (and problem spaces) into five classes – Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and Disordered. Once the class of a system is identified the framework provides guidance on how to work most effectively with the system. On a personal level I find it very useful in explaining to me not only why an incremental and iterative approach generally works well in software development, it also suggests to me under what circumstances such as approach does not hold. You won’t see NASA using Scrum for instance, more on that later.

Cynefin can be expressed visually like so:-

 

cynefin_as_of_1st_june_2014-1

Credit Wikipedia

The key distinction I see is that of Complex and the Complicated.

  • Complicated

An example of a complicated task is building a submarine. It’s definitely not trivial, but if the tasks are broken down sufficiently the problem is tractable and predictable – essentially it becomes a series of Simple tasks. By contrast a Complex task retains its complexity even after being broken down.

  • Complex

An example of a Complex task could be to ask a room of people to arrange themselves such that the closest person to them is exactly half the distance from them as that of the 2nd closest. It would be extremely difficult for an individual to orchestrate this task, instead each individual actor must make a small change, observe the consequence and then make a further change based on the feedback.

What does this mean for Software?

Taking a manufacturing production line as an example, once it reaches steady state the system can be described as Complicated and is predictable. This is important because for many years Software Development looked to the world of manufacturing for guidance. In doing so, implicitly defining software development as a Complicated task. The thinking being that with sufficient up front analysis the problem could be solved without a line of code being being written. It is for this reason that the Waterfall model rose to such prominence and was so readily adopted.

More recently manufacturing has been shown to be an inadequate metaphor and that in fact software development is more akin to product design, thereby  inhabiting the Complex quadrant. This means that the correct approach, according to Cynefin, is to probe, sense and respond. In effect the iterative and incremental approach practiced by those inspired by Agile and Lean thinking.

So what does this mean for NASA?

If what I say is correct, what does this mean for NASA? After all they have some of the smartest brains on the planet available to think about this sort of thing and yet their processes appear to assume a Complicated rather than a Complex environment.

NASA is an extreme organisation and it is only natural that what works for them will deviate from the common case. Despite the challenging nature of their work I would argue that their domain is Complicated rather than Complex.

Complex systems are characterised by there being many unknowns and an inability to determine the nature of those unknowns at the beginning of the process. In NASA’s case they are genuinely in a position where, for software at least, the problem space is well defined.

For instance, the software runs upon hardware based on Intel’s 386 architecture, hardly cutting edge, but whose behaviour (warts and all) is well understood and has not changed in years. This means that the inputs to the system are well understood and the behaviour deterministic. NASA has managed to turn what would ordinarily be a Complex system (that of software development) into a Complicated system and in doing so their software teams work to vanishingly small defect rates, albeit at enormous cost and at the expense of delivery time. I found this article to be a fascinating insight into their working practices.

In conclusion, Complexity science provides a means to characterise systems, the Cynefin framework provides definitions to differentiate the Complex from the Complicated. Software development is almost always Complex though it was originally assumed to be Complicated. This is why agile and lean approaches have been shown to much more effective than traditional methods that assume a Complicated system such as Waterfall.

Identity and Narrative – Managing Change

People hate change, and the reason they hate change is that they really hate change, and that change is hated because they really hate change…….

I’d love to know who said this

All teams are subjected to continuous environmental change, but it tends to be gradual and hard to perceive at a week by week level. I want to talk about the sharp, often unexpected step changes and go into some strategies to guide a team through the worst.

Before diving in, I want to introduce a model for characterising teams. There are two attributes that I consider critical in determining a team’s ability to function.

  • Identity – Who the team perceive themselves to be, what they value.
  • Narrative – Why the team exists, what value they bring.

I’m unaware of anyone else talking specifically in these terms but similar thinking appears in Daniel Pink’s ideas of Autonomy, Mastery (both mapping to Identity) and Purpose (narrative) as well as echoes in the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Ordinarily, definition of identity and narrative is straight forward. The team will arrive at their own identity over time, while the narrative, for the most part, comes from the commercial arm of the company. In times of change there are no such guarantees. I’ll look at each in turn.

Identity

As an individual, our identity is in part context specific and a function of those around us. The same is true for teams. This means that when the environment changes quickly, it can be difficult for a team to define itself. Definition means identifying the skills and attributes that set it apart and most importantly what it values when compared to those around it.

A manager can help speed this process. They have a birds eye view, they know how their team have defined themselves in the past and have more opportunities to interact with the broader business. The manager ought to be able to spot and highlight specific points that will go and form part of the team’s new, long term identity.

Additionally during upheaval it is for the manager to contextualise the actions and focus of other teams/departments. It’s all too easy to enter into a spiral where ‘everyone apart from us is an idiot’. A team needs to understand how they are different, but they also need to collaborate and work effectively with those around them.

Narrative

Narrative is interesting in that it should be easy to identify. The business is willing to invest in the team for some purpose and that purpose ought to be the team’s narrative.

During times of upheaval this is not a given, and it could take months for a clear narrative to emerge, as the dust settles and the business redetermines the best way for the team to add value.

But waiting months for the new vision is not an option. Put bluntly, if the business cannot provide a compelling narrative quickly then the team manager must arrive at one. Once again it is time to make use of the manager’s elevated view of the organisation to sift through the confusion and draw out something tangible that resonates.

Conclusion

All teams need a sense of identity and a sense of narrative in order to be productive. During times of significant change both of these characteristics come into question. It is up to the team’s manager to act as the catalyst, as the team aims to arrive at new definitions.

Too Much Trust

Trust trust trust trust trust trust trust trust trust trust
Excerpt from the management book I wish someone would write

 

A central theme in agile software development is that of trust. The agile (small a) movement speaks of openness, collaboration and collective responsibility – none of which are possible without trust. As a manager my team cannot be effective if they do not trust each other nor can I bring about anything but the most superficial change if they don’t trust me.

I’m not the only one who feels this way, turns out I’m in good company 1 2 3

So I like trust and consider it to be a ‘good thing’ but the point of this post is not to talk about how great it would be if there was more trust in the world. In fact I want to talk about situations where increasing trust can actually be destructive.

The total level of trust is undoubtedly important, but equally important is the distribution of that trust. The greater the differential between the relationship containing the most trust and that containing the least the less chance that the overall group can act as effective team.

A good high level example might be an engineering org and a sales org. It doesn’t matter how much internal org trust exists – if org to org trust is low the company will not perform as well. In fact the lack of inter org trust will felt all the more keenly in contrast to the strong internal trust that exists.

Applying this idea to a single engineering team, if a team has high trust for one another and a new member joins then it will take time for that new member to earn the group’s trust and be accepted as part of the team. This healthy and only natural. However if the team is split down the middle with two groups of high internal trust who do not trust one another then strengthening internal group trust will only entrench the distrust of the other group. In this case increasing trust can actually be harmful.

What I’m saying is that the effectiveness of a group to act as a team can be characterised by the weakest trust links in the group. If the differential between relationships is high then increasing trust in already strong relationships can actually hinder rather than help the team.

From a practical perspective, the manager’s job is always to create an environment where trust can grow, but it is important to focus on the low trust relationships since they are the ones that characterise the effectiveness of the team.

Worried about candidates googling during a phone screen? You’re doing it wrong.

Interviewing is time consuming, companies have a finite amount of time to dedicate to recruitment and inevitably some capable candidates are turned down at CV stage without ever having a chance to shine.

Phone screens are a great way to address this problem, they are typically shorter and often run solo. They allow a company to take more risks and consider candidates from further afield.

My company is still pretty new to phone screening, we’ve been trialling it out in cases where it is difficult for the candidate to attend in person – perhaps they are based overseas. As a result I’ve been doing a lot of reading on how best to construct a decent phone screen. By far the best writing I’ve found is Steve Yegge’s take. I’m not sure how practical it is to fit everything Yegge mentions into a 45 minute call, but I consider it an excellent resource.

A common fear I have seen in other discussions seems to be that candidates will use google to somehow game the system. If this is a genuine concern then one of two things has gone wrong. Either:-

  • The questions are purely fact based and will tell the interviewer nothing about how the candidate thinks.
  • Or, the questions are fine but the interviewer is focusing on the wrong part of the answer.

A question like ‘In Java what is the difference between finally, final and finalize’ will tell you very little about the candidate. Plenty of terrible programmers could answer that without problem and what’s worse, a talented but inexperienced developer might stumble. In short these type of quick fire questions add little value to the overall process.

Something like ‘How does a Hash Map work? How would you write a naive implementation?’ is more interesting, it’s open ended but forces the candidate to talk about a specific area of knowledge – even if they don’t know, you’ll learn how good they are at thinking things through from first principles. The only way that it can be gamed through googling is if the interviewer simply waiting to hear specific terms and is not asking free form follow ups.

I’ve just googled Hash Maps on wikipedia and could probably quickly extract ‘Associative array’, ‘key-value pair’, ‘Collision’ but really if that’s all the interviewer wants to hear then the question is of limited value.

So what I’m saying is that if you’re concerned about googling, then it’s probably the questions or desired answers that are the problem. Furthermore if one in a hundred people do manage to game the system you’ll pick them up in the face to face in an instant.

‘We only hire the best’ – I don’t believe you

Ask anyone about hiring developers and the advice is always the same ‘only hire the best’. The principle reasons being that

On the face the face of it this seems like great advice, who wouldn’t want to hire the best? It turns out pretty much everybody.

For instance, how long are you willing to wait to fill the position? What if you are really really stretched? What if you’re so stretched that you worry for existing staff? What if hiring a specific individual will mean huge disparities in pay between equally productive staff? What if not making the hire is difference between keeping a key client or losing them? At some point every company has to draw a line and elect to hire ‘the best we’ve seen so far’.

The difference between the great companies and the rest is how to deal with this problem. Great organisations place recruitment at the centre of what they do. If hiring is genuinely everyone’s number one priority then hiring the best becomes more achievable. For starters you might even have half a chance of getting ‘the best’ into your interview room in the first place.

Of the rhetorical questions posed above, in all cases the impact can minimised (though not eradicated) so long as management understands and anticipates the challenges in recruitment. For example “What if hiring them will mean huge disparities in pay between equally productive staff?” A company that intends to hire the best understands the value of keeping the best. So compensation of existing staff, especially longer serving staff relying on annual raises to ensure market parity, must be at an appropriate level. Doing so can be hugely expensive when multiplied over all employees and this cost comes directly from the bottom line. Companies that put recruitment at the core are willing to make the investment. Yishan Wong’s writing on this subject is brilliant.

If hiring really is everyone’s number one priority then there is a trade off to make, something has been deprioritised or sacrificed to make room. As a result hiring is much more than a partitionable activity, it is a statement of corporate identity. Proclamations like “we only hire the best” are meaningless without an understanding of the trade offs and sacrifices made.