Agile Project Management in Alaska
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Three Dimensions of High Performance

Agile 1 To be truly effective you need ability and passion. Some people use the formula:

 Performance = Ability * Passion

However, you also need time to dedicate to the work at hand; and so Availability factors in also. 
In the volunteer world we often say we are looking for 3 key attributes:

  • Talent (Ability in some useful skill)
  • Passion (motivation to do it)
  • Availability (time to commit to it)

In other words you need to have skills, enthusiasm, and time to dedicate to something in order to be effective. (This also applies to paid work too, but because we get paid for things it is easy to mix-up motivation with payment and forget about considering if we are passionate/motivated about the work.)

Framing team member performance along these axis’ can help separate the reasons and possible responses from the simple assessment that someone is not working.  However, people are complex and they do not fit neatly into boxes; we often experience varying levels of Talent, Passion and Availability from the same person on different tasks in the same project. So the model I outline below is intended more as a way of thinking about the issues rather than categorizing the people.

How Good?

Agile Talent 

Considering only Talent is tempting, but not the whole picture. Current low levels of talent may just be because someone is learning a new skill; in 3 months time that Talent may be much better developed. Plus, just because someone is technically competent doesn’t automatically mean they are a good team member. Attitude plays a stronger part in determining team fit and project success.

What about Attitude?

Agile Motivation
Considering how well motivated someone is gives a much better picture and clues for actions. It is easy to act on the low talent, low motivated “Dead Weight” people or the high-talent, highly-motivated Superstar”, but what about the “Well Intentioned Underperformer” or “Disenchanted Genius”?

Beyond their Control?

Performance may appear sub-par if people are not given the time or tools they need to do the job. Stretched between five projects the time may just not be there to produce a decent result. Task switching and stress can quickly sap moral and so talking to the individuals involved may be required to determine the root cause of low motivation.
Agile Availability

So we have attributes in three dimensions that will influence performance. Now that we have some reference for labelling the circumstances, we can start to discuss action plans relative to these X,Y, Z quadrants.

Our role and circle of influence

But first, before discussing strategies for dealing with people we need to assess our own position as observer. As a project manager in a highly projectized (as opposed to matrix) organization working with contract resources there are options to terminate underperforming workers. In matrix organizations where these project resources may report up through different managers, our options are limited. In addition, labour laws, unions, and corporate policies will impact the options available.

If your role is a co-worker or subordinate to an under achieving team member then formal coaching, transferring or dismissal may not even be an option for you. However, much has been written on guerrilla (stealth) coaching, managing-up, etc and these may be options for you.  Anyway, on to the segment areas...

The SuperStar (high talent, high motivation, high availability)

Agile 1 

The ideal project member; smart, well motivated, and dedicated to the project these people are worth their weight in gold. However we cannot be complacent, things change, people get bored, burn-out, or even relocate to Winnipeg! We need to constantly find ways to engage, and extend people so they don’t get bored and also we need to look out for signs of burn-out.

Missing Genius (high talent, high motivation, low availability)

Agile 2

Great apart from not being available when required. Try to recruit them more full-time to your project. Ask what they are interested in and try to create those opportunities for them. 
The Well Intentioned Worker (low talent, high motivation , high availability)

Agile 3
These are potential SuperStars in the making. They have the right attitude which is much harder to build than technical skills. They are willing and available and so worth investing considerable resources in developing. Even if their ability never makes it to technical brilliance, their co-operation, right attitude and hard work will be a valuable asset on any team.
The Pleasant Diversion (Low talent, high motivation, low availability)

Agile 4
These well intentioned workers who lack availability and high talent should be encouraged to develop their skills and be invited to keep in touch. With development and opportunities for increasing their availability they can become high performers.
The Despondent Genius (high talent, low motivation, high availability)

Agile 5
Smart, available but with poor motivation or a bad attitude is a potentially toxic mix. These disenchanted geniuses can quickly bring down morale. A negative focus and an ability to quickly and eloquently pick out the flaws in plans and make derogatory comments can stifle contributions from less able team members. We need to try and re-energize work for these people, find things for them to get enthusiastic about, explain the negative impacts of their comments and behaviours – often people do not see the impact they are having.
The Dejected Wanderer (high talent, low motivation, low availability)

Agile 6
These smart, but unmotivated folks do not have much time for projects and can be a drain also. Ideally we want to turn them around, find something to get them passionate about. However, if mentoring and counselling is not working, you might be best off without them, given the potential for spreading ill feeling to others. 
The Project Drain (low talent, low motivation, high availability)

Agile 7
With low talent and low motivation you have to question their net impact on the project. At least if they are around lots you can work with them to see if you can help with the motivation and provide training. One problem is that training needs some motivation from those taking the course to be effective. While traction may be slow to start it is possible to turn these people around. If not, they can rapidly drain the team by doing sub-par work and not pulling their weight.

The Unwelcome Guest (Low talent, Low motivation, Low availability)

Agile 8
Low in all three dimensions the only saving grace of the Unwelcome Guest is that they are not around much. Again, training and mentoring should be used to try and move them up along the three dimensions, but maybe a transfer to somewhere they can add value might be you best option.

Summaries for the Three Dimensions

Talent – Talent seems an obvious first choice, if we need a complex C# application developing, let’s staff it with the best C# resources we can find. Yet Talent is often over-rated in a team environment. Prima-Dona personalities cause friction as their “my-way, or no-way” attitude stifles collaborative decision making. Likewise, an unwillingness to share information either because it is beneath them or they want to maintain their role as expert (a scarcity model for information) limits trust, saps patience and slows the project. Talent is only valuable if coupled with humility, patience and humour. The days of the invaluable maverick, eccentrics within IT were at best short lived and mostly media generated. Software projects are firmly in the knowledge worker domain. People without the requisite skills for collaboration and communication are of limited, short term value.

Motivation – Here I am talking about attitude and passion for the cause. The right attitude goes a long way towards fostering collaboration, uniting a team, and building a strong platform for sustained high performance work. Obviously they also need Talent/ to be useful to the project. A well meaning unskilled worker can be found a valuable place on a team, but we need a core set of talent to get the job done, solve the technical problems, and help define the vision and architectural direction.
Given the choice I’d choose Motivation over Talent for the majority of the team as long as we have some talented, motivated people on board. The true importance of Motivation surfaces when we experience the impacts of unmotivated workers or those with a bad attitude. Christopher Avery talks about the level and impact of “The Least Invested” member in his book (Teamwork is an Individual Skill). This becomes the destination for the motivation levels of other workers on the team. When people see the acceptance of this level of behaviour it is difficult to maintain their own levels of high work output, commitment and good will. “Why should I bust my gut, if this joker is getting a free ride?” While we like to think we are more professional, a downward drift often occurs. This is why I believe it is more important to act ruthlessly on bad attitude far sooner than poor performance.

Availability – Are they being allowed enough time to work effectively on the project? Or are they over committed and never there when required? Especially on agile projects where we deliberately focus more on face-to-face communications rather than documentation, having people absent is a real problem. Unwritten, tacit knowledge is hard to impart when people are missing.
Fragmented availability also impacts downstream work. If task B needs the output of task A, but task A’s worker is missing then task B and all its downstream activities get delayed until this person returns and completes the work. Likewise having access to knowledgeable co-workers for collaboration, brain storming and problem solving is only valuable if you can actually access them. If as you scan your work place you see more gaps than people, then while their skills may sound great on paper, what value are they adding right now?

With People Few Things are Clear Cut and Obvious
(Having just listed a bunch of boxes, why we should not rush to put people in them)
Of course the problems come in the grey areas, people who are generally good, but weak in some areas. Do you continue with mentoring or act more swiftly to replace them? I’d look to the attitude and then availability. If their motivation and attitude are good then more mentoring is worthwhile. If they are not happy, perhaps they are spread too thinly across many initiatives. In some companies this ability to multi-task is a prerequisite. In others we may have some options to reprioritize work and this can help them cope with stress and feel more motivated.

We should also be aware of Self Fulfilling Prophesies. If people get labelled as under performing, or having a bad attitude, then they accept that and may feel it is OK to continue as they are under this label. We must make sure that we are Treating People “As We Would Like Them To Be Treated” as opposed to how we think they should be treated. Without this approach we could be limiting their potential by our own actions.

When I first added a “Suggest A Topic” link on my blog I was sent the question by a friend “What do you do when you have someone on your project who is as much use as a bag-of-rocks?” I thought at the time “Oh-boy”, that is going to take some time to answer because while our initial reaction might be to get rid of them, it really depends on the circumstances (your position, their position, why they are perceived that way, what could be changed, etc) and I quietly avoided the topic.

However, I think the Three Dimensions of Performance can help us decide. Hopefully with some analysis we can determine if we want to try to step in and help them, step away, or perhaps hit them with a bag of rocks.


Milen Kovachev

Great insight! I really enjoyed reading this post.

Animesh Mehra

Great writing. Quite insightful.

Online Project Management Tool

Who would have thought the concepts like talent and passion could be applied in such a scientific manner? Very interesting approach!

N. Chandrakumar

Excellent article, and the analysis covers all the posible type of individuals.

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