Secret Sauce: Managing Performance

Methodology Doesn't Matter; People Do

I've been in industry for 15 years, as unbelievable as that seems.  I just want to shake people when all they can talk about is Process this and Methodology that and Tool this other.


Okay, it does matter, but only when you have the people end of things sorted out first.  Assuming an equally talented group, those with a better system will (generally) perform better over time.  However, no methodology in the world is going to make disengaged, sloppy employees perform well.  (It's tempting to draw a parallel to the Auto Industry, but I'll spare you.)

So, let's postulate that it's the people that matter.  So what?

Well, if you take that as true, there are conclusions to draw:
  1. You must attract top-performing people.
  2. You must retain a large percentage of those people.
  3. You must eliminate those who don't perform.
It's really that simple. 

Okay, item #3 is non-obvious:  Can't the top-performers just take-up the slack for the also-rans, since they produce 5x to 10x their output?  Yes they can, but they'll end up getting frustrated and leaving, for two reasons.  First, they're going to understand they're pulling someone else's weight, and nobody likes that.  Next, talent likes to be surrounded by talent.  Say it however you like: "A's hire A's," etc.   

The harsh reality of #3, though, is it's difficult, both from human and legal perspective.  But let's leave those aside and examine what you get when you miss just one of the above.

1 + 2 + X: You can't fire people.

For whatever reason, you lack the processes and/or will to cull the herd.  Okay:
  • Accountability will disappear.
  • Top performers will become mediocre in absolute terms.  Why kill yourself?  You're lightyears ahead of Bob over there, and he barely shows up to work.
  • You'll have no real success at #2, for the reasons described above.  You'll continue to retain mediocre people who think they're superstars because they're still better than the freeloaders you retain.

1 + x + 3: You can't retain people

Okay, you're managing performance--good for you!--but people are leaving.  Tough luck; it happens.  What's that look like?
  • Everyone is super young and energetic.  Accountability and work-ethic remain.
  • Your organization has zero wisdom or identity.  Basically, you're a Frat:  The membership turns over every 4 years, and you might cycle among competence, superstardom, and doldrums.  Exciting, but not what the business wants.
  • You end-up reinventing the wheel, because no one has the seasoning and wisdom to understand when things inter-relate, and it's easier and more l337 to rewrite that crappy code from 6 months ago for the 3rd time, anyway.  Pass the Red Bull!

x + 2 + 3: You Can't Attract Top People

For whatever reason, the spigot of top talent isn't flowing your way.  Maybe you're in a crappy location.  Maybe you're making electronic buggy-whips.  You're retaining the talent you have, but attrition will still occur--People don't live forever, they retire, etc.  You are, at least, dealing with issues when they arise.  What's that look like?
  • It's pretty grim, let's face it.  You'll see shrinking groups, more responsibility on fewer shoulders, and a general feeling of holding on by your fingernails.
  • Like any organization--churches, clubs, etc.--in these circumstances, you're getting older and more defensive.   Fresh blood brings new ideas and practices--some good, some bad--and your COBOL/C/Java wizard doesn't have anyone new keeping him honest.  You'll hear, "We've always done it ____ way." Alot.
  • Free flow of ideas?   Why would I want to do that?  Everyone has 10+ years of experience, so why write anything down?
  • People have a false sense of job security based upon what they know.  Or, what they knew 10 years ago that still (magically) works.


In their own way, each of the above scenarios can work.  They're just not foundations upon which you can build a vibrant organizations.


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