Dealing with Poor Performance in an Agile Enterprise

Phil Van Sickel

This is a topic that many coaches don’t want to deal with. Some might even go so far as to say that once you become agile, you won’t have to deal with personnel issues anymoreteams will self-organize and take care of this for you. Many middle managers wonder if they will still have a job after their organization becomes agile. The terms "organizing" and "managing" are often grossly misunderstood. Organizing is about planning the work the team will be performing. Managing is about motivating, coaching and handling personnel issues.

Agile is not a pill that somehow eliminates our human genes and makes us angels. People are still people, and no matter what structure you put them in, there will be those who decide to skirt the system and see how much they can get away with. Others will simply not be up to the challenge or not able to do the work required of the team. Finally, there will be those who simply do not get along with their teammates. They may be quite capable otherwise, but the personalities just grate on each other, causing the whole team to be dysfunctional. These situations will all require a manager to deal with them.

Agile done well will help reduce the issues the managers must deal with. Good teams will work to train and support one another. Peer pressure is a marvelous motivator. A good scrum master will use team building techniques and conflict resolution to help the team perform well. Being self-organizing gives people more ownership of their daily schedule and helps employees be more engaged. Retrospectives will help teams hold each other accountable and have open conversations about issues, including under-performing and team dynamics.

Agile done well will help expose these issues sooner, so they can be dealt with more quickly. The courageous teams will call out the person or persons privately who are not pulling their weight. Good scrum masters will recognize those situations that are not responding to conflict resolution and will escalate them to the manager. Good metrics and the imperative to demo working software will typically expose the poor performers fairly rapidly.

So, what happens once an individual has been identified as performing below expectations and all of the best practices in agile have been exhausted? The teams have done their best to hold this person accountable and to bring their behavior into acceptable team norms, but to no avail. What are the options in an Agile enterprise? In many cases, standard HR approaches to dealing with the person would come into play. The issue in an agile environment is how to deal with the team while dealing with the individual.

As a manager, your priority is to bring the person to a place of performing and thriving. Your other priority is to enable the team to perform and thrive, and these two things may not be able to happen simultaneously. You will need to have one-on-one sessions with the team members and the person involved to make this determination. It could be a skill set issue, or it could be a personality issue. Once you have determined that it is most likely a team fit issue, then the job becomes how to move this person to a team where they will be a fit.

Work with the person and the other scrum masters to explore which new team would be the best fit. Have they worked with some of the team members successfully in the past? Are they more familiar with the solution? Are they more comfortable with the tools? Once the right team is identified, work to move the person as soon as possible, preferably at the next iteration break. Only if the situation is absolutely dire on the existing team should the move occur mid-iteration. Even in this case, I would only remove them from the existing team and then introduce them to the new team in preparation for sprint planning.

If it is determined that it is not a team fit issue, an improvement plan should be put in place with the understanding that without improvement, they will be moved out of the department and possibly let go. Work with them to see if there may be an open position in a different role that would be a better fit for them. If this is not available, or they are not willing to make such a transition, then begin the improvement plan.  

The improvement plan should be for one to two months with very clear objectives for what they must accomplish. I would not put them back on a team during the improvement plan. You do not want to burden a team with this situation. You will need work that they can work on under your supervision. It could be refactoring code or building automated tests. Perhaps there is a one-off app that is small that they could work on themselves with an end user. It needs to be work that can be done to demonstrate their skills and their commitment to improving. If they meet their objectives, then I would look to put them back on a new team. Give them a fresh start. My preference is to let the scrum master know about this person, so they can spend extra time with them to continue their improvement. You may need to check with your personnel policies concerning this.

As in all personnel issues, discretion is very important and is not in violation of the principle of transparency. Transparency in agile refers to the work being done, not the lives of the people doing the work. People are not robotsthey have personalities and emotions. They have egos and self-images. They have histories that may not always be illustrious. Our role as managers is to create safe environments for our people and treat them with dignity and respect. In a safe environment, people will share with their teammates at their own pace. That is up to them. Good scrum masters are also trained in this way and can be excellent allies in helping build a top-notch workforce.


Phil Van Sickel

Phil is a Senior Project Manager for Summa's Agile Practice. With experience spanning both Agile IT and Lean Manufacturing, Phil helps companies apply agile at scale concepts to optimize their end-to-end product development processes. Phil has worked with businesses from small start-up to multi-national enterprises in the healthcare, manufacturing and financial services sectors.