Performance management in agile organizations


Performance management is tough enough in traditional organizations;
in agile organizations, three changes are essential to success.

The evidence is clear: a small number of priority
practices make the difference between an
effective and fair performance-management
approach and one that falls short. Organizations
that link employee goals to business priorities,
invest in managers’ capabilities, and differentiate
rewards for the extremes of performance are
84 percent more likely to have performancemanagement approaches that their employees
perceive and recognize as being fair. Furthermore,
these practices are mutually reinforcing:
implementing one practice well can have a positive
effect on the performance of others, which leads
to positive impact on employee and organizational
performance, which, in turn, drives organizations to
outperform peers.
But how do these priority practices work in the
context of agile organizations, which feature
networks of empowered teams and rely on a
dynamic people model? Colleagues rightfully ask a
number of related questions:
— Why do I need individual goals when the locus of
organizational performance is my squad, chapter,
and tribe?
— Who will coach and evaluate me when I have no
boss? How can my evaluator understand my
performance when he or she doesn’t see my
work day to day?
— How can we maintain a team spirit while still
fairly differentiating the highest- and lowestperforming colleagues?
The good news is that there are answers to these
questions—and, going further, agility can be a
springboard to improve performance-management
practices that traditional organizations struggle with
What defines an agile organization
“Traditional” organizations, designed
primarily for stability, involve a static,
siloed, structural hierarchy. Goals and
decision rights flow downward, with the
most powerful governance bodies at the
top. These organizations operate through
linear planning and control to capture
value for shareholders. Although such a
structure can be strong, it is often rigid
and slow moving.
In contrast, agile organizations
are designed for both stability and
dynamism. They are made up of a
network of teams within a peoplecentered culture that features rapid
learning and fast decision cycles
enabled by technology and guided by a
powerful common purpose to cocreate
value for all stakeholders. Such agile
operating models allow for quick and
efficient reconfigurations of strategy,
structure, processes, people, and
technology toward value-creating
and -protecting opportunities. Agile
organizations thus add velocity and
adaptability to stability, creating a
critical source of competitive advantage
in volatile, uncertain, complex, and
ambiguous (VUCA) conditions.
Five trademarks distinguish these
— a North Star embodied across
the organization
— a network of empowered teams
— rapid decision and learning cycles
— a dynamic people model that
ignites passion
— next-generation-enabling

2 Performance management in agile organizations
(Exhibit 1). Nearly all organizations, for example, feel
the need for more frequent feedback. Working in
agile sprints of a few weeks each creates a cadence
into which collective and individual feedback
naturally fits. Similarly, a culture of more autonomy
and risk taking opens opportunities for employees
to stretch, take on more responsibility, and find out
quickly how they can improve.
Agile organizations will, however, need to adapt each
of three core performance-management practices
to make the recommendations actionable in the
agile operating model (Exhibit 2).
Linking goals to business priorities
Transparently linking employees’ goals to business
priorities and maintaining a strong element of
flexibility are core practices of agile ways of working.
They are also significant practices if employees are
to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their
work. But agile organizations may worry about
how the emphasis on individual goals marries with
the autonomous teams that characterize agility.
There are three approaches that can help agile
organizations to adapt and ensure that goals remain
meaningful and linked to business priorities.
Introduce team objectives in addition to (or
instead of) individual targets
Empowered and autonomous teams are central to
agility. It therefore makes little sense to manage
performance solely—or even primarily—on an
individual level. Successful agile organizations
focus on team performance when setting goals and
evaluating performance, often allowing teams to
define their own goals to drive ownership. At one
bank, for example, performance objectives are a
combination of team goals, individual contributions
to the team, mastery of competencies required

The five trademarks of agile organizations have profound relevance for
performance management.
Trademark Changes aecting traditional performance management
Leadership sets broad direction and priorities, against which teams dene their own
objectives, iterating at pace
Flat organizational structure with limited hierarchy and no middle
Empowered and autonomous teams, with end-to-end accountability and
clear purpose
Risk taking, failing, and learning fast are encouraged
Continuous people development aimed at improving the level of performance
Culture that empowers the agile way of working
Craftsmanship (ie, development of expertise) as a cornerstone
Performance management isn’t materially di…erent just because of enabling tech
North Star embodied across
the organization
Network of
empowered teams
Rapid decision and
learning cycles
Dynamic people model that
ignites passion
enabling technology
Performance management in agile organizations 3
at the level of individual jobs, and alignment of
professional behavior to the bank’s values. The
weighting of these components varies by role, with
specialists, in particular, more inclined toward team
performance to encourage collaboration. Another
financial institution experimented with replacing
individual objectives in contact centers with team
objectives. Within a few months, it saw productivity
gains of more than 10 percent, compared with
control-group centers, in addition to a noticeable
increase in teamwork and cohesion.
Set objectives as a team, discuss results
frequently, and pivot as required
Teams in agile organizations work autonomously
and at pace, with a clear focus on output. They
follow broadly set directions and strategic priorities
rather than detailed, top-down instructions (Exhibit
3). Agile organizations typically rely on a tightly run
process—often a quarterly business review (QBR)—
to ensure alignment among the autonomous teams.
This is where objectives and key results (OKRs),
popularized at Intel in the 1970s and now used in
many organizations, from the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation to Google, come in. Every quarter, a
clear cascade from strategic priorities to objectives
at the team level is created, while performance
versus key results is made transparent and
discussed. To allow for changing priorities coming
out of the QBR, team and individual objectives
need to be dynamic, rather than fixed in a once-ayear exercise. Setting objectives collectively can
have other benefits, too, particularly with regard
to engagement and ambition. Unsurprisingly,
commitment to goals that you have set for yourself is
typically stronger than to those set for you by others.
At a B2B sales organization, shifting to bottom-up
goal setting (versus top-down setting by executives)
resulted in 20 percent higher overall targets.
Create transparency of targets and performance

Adapting three core performance-management practices will be crucial.
Performance-management practice What agile organizations may want to do
Introduce team objectives in addition to (or instead of) individual targets
Set objectives as a team, discuss results frequently, pivot as required
Create transparency of targets and performance
Clarify the roles that leaders play in development and evaluation
Focus on continuous feedback and ongoing development conversations
Frequently collect input from multiple sources when evaluating performance
Dierentiate individual contribution to team performance based on desired values,
mind-sets, and behaviors
Increase the emphasis on intrinsic motivation and nonmonetary rewards
Linking goals to
business priorities
Investing in managers’
coaching skills
4 Performance management in agile organizations
creates a risk that devolution and empowerment
might drift into chaos. One way to avoid this is to
introduce extreme transparency of objectives and
performance. At Google, all OKRs, starting with
the CEO’s, are visible to all other employees. At
LinkedIn, the CEO’s executive team reviews OKRs
weekly. This kind of transparency also has several
benefits: surfacing interdependencies among teams
and units, creating urgency and “mindshare,” and
reinforcing the nonhierarchical culture and mind-set
that characterize truly agile organizations.
Investing in the coaching skills
of managers
Our prior research shows that managers—
typically, line managers—are important stewards
of effective performance management. Investing
in their coaching skills to help them become
better arbiters of day-to-day fairness is often
the most powerful intervention in performancemanagement transformations. The agile
organization, however, challenges the traditional
model of the line manager. Who, then, acts
as the day-to-day arbiter of fairness? And
whose capability needs to be built? Agile

goals are
assigned to
one tribe
Project is
assigned to
chapters and
Project is
assigned to one
Product owners
translate the
project into
Chapter leads or
product owners
meet with individuals to
set goals
Executive board
sets goal
to expand
into China;
direction to
chapter and tribe
“We will be in
China next year”
Tribe leads
feedback and
further shape
“We will achieve
xx sales in
China by end of
year; Jason will
lead this”
Tribe and chapter leads
translate project into
tribe, chapter, and
individual OKRs.
“We will have our oce
opened and our rst
customer in China by
end of quarter; Mary will
take care of
opening oce and John
of business
Product owners
feedback and
further shape
tribe and
chapter goals.
“We will
open our
rst oce by end
of quarter”
Tangible OKRs
are set.
“We will hire x
people in y
functions, have
requirements xyz
fullled, have an
oce space rented,
and all IT
bought and set up
by end of quarter”
Assess individuals on impact against
business goals and desired
behavioral attributes.
For „ow-to-work and
mono-skilled teams, chapter leads
meet with all part-time members to
set goals.
For the cross-functional squad for
opening the o‡ce, product owner
meets with individual squad members
(eg, sales, government relations,
supply chain, HR, IT) to set goals.
Performance management in agile organizations 5
organizations can address these questions
through three approaches.
Clarify the roles that leaders play in development
and evaluation
In a prior publication, we described three different
types of managers in agile organizations. In the
context of performance management, each
performs different roles. Chapter leaders evaluate,
promote, coach, and develop their people. Tribe
leaders set directions linked to business priorities,
match the right people to opportunities or squads,
coach their teams on how to enable collaboration
across organizational boundaries, and empower
people. Squad leaders strive to maintain a cohesive
team by inspiring, coaching, and providing feedback
to everyone. The common theme across these
leaders is active coaching for ongoing development
and arbitration of day-to-day fairness.
Focus on continuous feedback and ongoing
development conversations
As in any organization, individuals in agile
organizations develop through receiving feedback
and being exposed to development opportunities.
In successful agile organizations, feedback is
the heartbeat in a culture of taking risks,
failing fast, and pursuing continuous personal
development at all levels. These organizations
encourage employees to ask for and give feedback
constantly. Making this happen is often hard.
Managers and nonmanagers alike may need to
overcome mind-set and capability barriers to
giving and receiving feedback more frequently—
not just up and down the hierarchy, but also to
peers. A European financial institution, for example,
invested in dedicated capability building for teams
on how to have courageous conversations in a
peer-like way.
Frequently collect input from multiple sources
when evaluating performance
Agile organizations need disciplined rituals for
continuously gathering feedback and evaluating
performance (Exhibit 4). The line manager has
traditionally been the conduit for all information
about the employee. But without the line manager,
who acts for the employee? This requires a single
person to gather feedback on an individual from
several sources, synthesizing it, and working
with other peers to make sure that evidence and
decisions are calibrated. At a telco, for example,
a chapter lead1
evaluates the development of
an individual within the chapter, gathering and
synthesizing input from the product owners, team
members, and agile coaches that the individual has
worked with. The chapter lead then presents the
individual’s case to a people-review board made
up of chapter leads. The board makes a collective
performance decision and provides advice to the
individual on how to develop further, which is then
relayed by the chapter lead. Technology can help
here. A leading e-commerce player developed an
app for its employees that facilitates feedback and
allows employees to share feedback with others
after every interaction, the aim being for each
employee to collect more than 200 feedback points
during the year.
Differentiating consequences
Employees are more likely to view their
performance-management approach as fair if
outcomes are differentiated, particularly at the two
extremes of performance. In some ways, this can be
harder in agile organizations, at which collaborative
and highly interdependent teams mean that it is
difficult to trace results to individual efforts. Two
practices can help maintain differentiation and the
accompanying sense of fairness, without detracting
from the team spirit.
Differentiate individual contribution to team
performance based on desired values, mind-sets,
and behaviors
Successful agile organizations embody agile
methodologies and ways of working that are
tangible and visible in day-to-day work. Less
tangible, but a critical stable practice of agile
organizations, is culture—the strong, shared
1 Chapters are groups of employees with similar functional competencies who share knowledge and further develop expertise. The chapter lead
typically coordinates performance evaluations of the chapter’s members.
6 Performance management in agile organizations
values, mind-sets, and behaviors that underpin
and enable those methodologies and ways of
working. Successful agile organizations evaluate
and manage performance of individuals not just
against hard targets but also by the extent to
which the individual has shown and “lived” the
desired values, mind-sets, and behaviors. Potential
rewards or consequences should be well aligned
with these goals. In the case of a telco, for example,
rewards for sales teams are based on achievement
against individual and team targets in addition
to how well and how often employees offer
coaching and mentoring to their team members.
These contributions should be well codified and
recognized because they both motivate individuals
and create “pull” for the next opportunity.
Conversely, organizations should make clear
choices with employees who don’t actively live and
show the desired values, mind-sets, and behaviors,
as in the case of a fintech company at which
individuals not aligned with its core cultural values
and defined associated behaviors are simply let go.
Increase the emphasis on intrinsic motivation
and nonmonetary rewards
Work at most successful agile organizations is
characterized by a sense of fulfillment and fun: it
is common to hear employees describe how their
daily activity “does not feel like work.” Netflix offers
flexible benefits, such as unlimited vacation days.
Employees stay because they are passionate about
their work and the unique culture. While individuals

Mary compiles exposure list from
people she had signicant
interactions with during cycle in
review; her list includes some
description of the type of
interactions, and her chapter
lead approves the list
Mary holds regular one-on-one
interactions with her chapter
lead to discuss achievement of
“…it is taking longer than
expected to hire people as the
HR lead had to leave due to a
family emergency…”
Mary’s chapter lead
sources feedback
from her exposure
list, ensuring leaders,
peers, and subordinates provide input
“Can you tell
me about your
experience working
with Mary? What
impact did she have
on the team?”
Chapter lead
summarizes Mary’s
performance and
recommends a rating
“…in summary, Mary
opened the oce with a
1-month delay. However,
she retained the same
contractors and our next
oce will be open ahead
of time.”
Mary’s chapter
lead presents her
case in calibration
meeting and
updates her memo
“Is this enough to
justify a top
Mary receives
executive feedback
when her chapter lead
presents calibrated
results to her
you achieved your
goals in the cycle!
Let’s go into the
details …”
Performance management in agile organizations 7
expect to be paid fairly for their contributions,
offering flexible benefits gives agile organizations
an opportunity to place greater emphasis on
intrinsic motivation and frequent nonmonetary
rewards—including special assignments,
opportunities to present externally or attend special
events, high recognition in the workplace (awards
and celebrations), and time for pro bono work. For
example, a North America–based fintech company
offers unique leadership-exposure opportunities
and mentorship programs to reward performance
and increase retention.
Organizations embarking on agile transformations
cannot afford to ignore performance management.
Even teams undergoing pilots need to be ringfenced from traditional approaches to ensure that
agile practices and mind-sets have the freedom
to take hold and are appropriately recognized and
rewarded. Done well, performance management
that is customized to the agile goals and context
of an organization will enable full capture and
sustainability of the benefits promised by agility.

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