Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

Assessing Your Team

Assessments are often discussed inside companies, but often not done or done right.  I've seen everything from a simple email to complex Web-based assessment systems, all of which are created by people who do not understand technical team requirements and skills, or so it seems! And yet assessments are the cornerstone of any technical team member's usefulness to a company, providing a means of gauging strengths and weaknesses, as well as providing comparisons to peers. 

But a single one-size-fits-all assessment, even a technical one, can't fit everyone in a typical technical team.   The assessment of a developer is different than that of an architect or technical writer, a project manager cannot be assessed the same way as a senior database architect, and program managers need a different assessment from a test engineer.  It is true that everyone can have the same general format of assessment, and some items will be in common to more than one (or even all) team members, and there's a delicate balance between too general an assessment and too detailed an assessment. 

Over the years I've developed my own assessment forms, which have been refined and changed bit by bit as the years have gone by and I've obtained excellent feedback from some teams.  My assessment, which I introduce to practically every team I manage, is broken into several sections.  There's a specific section for skills that are unique to the job category, whether it is developer, QA engineer, technical writer, project manager, program manager, IT resource, and so on.  There's a set of general sections that applies to some or all, such as communications skills, teamwork, company involvement, and so on.  And there's a few sections that deal with leadership, team management, time management, and so on.  The assessment rounds out with some general comments instead of a simple quantitative scale for the sections just mentioned, and there's a section for goals.  It sounds daunting, but it really isn't.  The full assessment is about a dozen pages long, but most people only complete about three or four pages, and those take less than 15 minutes to do.  I have the employees do their pass, then the managers do theirs, and I review everything when done.

The goals are broken into several types, too.  There's specific project or group goals, there's company goals, and there's personal goals.  Each has a timeframe attached (usually six months, since I do assessments twice a year), and the goals from the previous assessment are checked and reported on, as well as setting new goals (which may be a continuation from the previous ones).  These goals are specific and achievable, otherwise there's no sense of real progress every six months.

At the end of the assessment period, the team leads or managers discuss each assessment with the individuals who report to them, and ensure any issues are discussed or escalated.  After that's all done, I go over all the assessments with the managers and ensure there's fairness applied in the ratings.  Then, all the ratings get reviewed by the group management team and any exceptional and unexceptional people are identified.  As part of this process, I also compare salaries of the individuals who are in the same positions so that their salary reflects their peers' and their progress.  Typically, when I arrive at any company, salaries are not consistent: someone may get paid 20% less than someone else for the exact same job.  Through assessments, I get to adjust these salaries and everyone gets to a fair level compared to their peers (which is crucial to maintaining morale and being fair to everyone).

The goals I have for assessments is to ensure everyone in my group is fairly compared to everyone else both their peers and in the group.  Being fair is important, and this is the best way I know to ensure fairness.  It also provides a positive feedback loop for individuals, sets goals for improving their skills and marketability, and ensures any issues are identified and corrected before they can have negative effects on the team and its deliverables.  The assessment period in my teams typically lasts two weeks, and while everyone grumbles the first time or two through, after three cycles they begin to see and accept both the need and the advantages of assessments. 

And so, assessments are part of every group I manage.  They have proven themselves useful every time.