Controlled development or how to collect feedback and not alienate people.

Unfortunately, sometimes something bad must happen so that something good can follow. Irreversible events with unpleasant consequences give us a very strong imperative to never allow something like that to happen again. This was also the case in this situation.

„The secret of the world is the tie between person and event. Person makes event and event person.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life

The Antologic’s approach to line management was created after the entire, fully commercialized development team—people with unique skills that have been with the company for several years—had suddenly left. It was a group of young and talented people who were to determine the strength of the company in the future. Of course, this was only a consequence of previous actions, but it doesn’t change the fact that something unexpected had happened, something that you can’t remain indifferent about.

The response to this event was a plan. The plan assumed that from this moment on everyone in the company would have their own Line Manager. The plan, like most plans, was good. It was only through practice that we realized what we decided to tackle and what we are still tackling to this day.

The basis of the plan was communication. It is always a good idea to talk to each other more. Feedback was to become the reason for the communication. The communication was to result in an assessment of the current activities and setting goals for the future. And these, in turn, were to provide a real perspective for development and a sense of importance for the company. A simple thing that thousands of organizations around the world have been doing for decades. And yet it touches virtually all spheres of the company’s life. Because there are no plans without goals. Because there are no goals without vision. Projects, orders, KPIs, budgets, schedules, annual plans, and sales strategies. And people in the centre of it all. A developer, tester, manager, specialist in any field we can come up with is just a role that a person has to fulfil. But you don’t speak with the role as the role has no problems, no expectations. It has no unique „I”, it can be labelled and stored away in a drawer. You have to reach people. And to do it, you have to listen to them and understand them. If someone listened to the team that I mentioned in the first paragraph, the end of this story would probably be different. And that was the real plan. Impossible to fulfil completely. But when ideas are laudable, the effect is not always the most important thing. What counts is the path we take and what our motives are. Because the crowds follow the vision, not the leader. And this vision changes, just like everything changes. The only thing that doesn’t change is the need for the vision itself and its consistent implementation.

As I mentioned, it all started with feedback. I don’t intend to write about feedback in detail because people much smarter than me had already done that in the number of volumes that you couldn’t read in a year. Many companies have made millions on it, for example by creating 360-degree feedback software and tailoring it to the client’s needs.

But we started slowly. Each Line Manager started collecting feedback for a specific person (hereinafter referred to as a report). They were supposed to do this according to a certain pattern and by speaking directly with the people who work with the report on a daily basis. This pattern assumed that the most important areas were to be addressed, such as involvement, specialist knowledge, communication, etc. These conversations were to result in assessment and goals for the near and distant future based on said assessment. What could go wrong? Hm… Let’s go step by step…

The paradox of feedback: everyone wants to get the most critical and true information to learn as much as possible about themselves and become better; meanwhile, no one wants to provide such information because it is in bad taste to speak ill of colleagues. What if someone doesn’t get a raise because of me? Or worse: gets fired. And here lies the first obstacle. It’s impossible to gather qualitative feedback in an organization that isn’t accustomed to this process. It’s necessary to make this process an element of the so-called organizational culture. So that all employees understand it the same way, know what it is intended for, use it often and get used to it. It must be written into the company’s DNA. But this needs time and explaining to each and every person. Maybe there are specialists who do it quickly and effectively. Maybe not. Even if there are, they’ll conduct a training course, suggest and implement their mechanisms, issue an invoice and leave. And we are different from everyone else… They don’t know us. The first step is always difficult.

So we have our feedback. It’s collected cyclically every few months according to the pattern. It’s collected at the last minute, of course. But what does this feedback give us? And what kind of measure do we use to find out whether it’s good or not? And how should it be used as a basis for setting goals and defining plans? Another conundrum: feedback without context contributes little.

It’s the context that makes feedback make sense. Or rather contexts, because there are more than one. The level of proficiency, years of experience, expectations from Business, role in the team, area of work and many, many more. Some of these contexts should be shared by everyone, because we work at the same company, and we cannot have double (or triple and quadruple) standards. And that’s how the competence matrix was created. The idea is very simple. A list of competences, features, behaviours that are important to us and that are expected to be shared by everyone, regardless of the role. A guidepost for a junior on how to become a senior. In addition, a scale (gradation) for each competency to be able to determine the level of proficiency in it. Not too long, not too short. Not too general and not very detailed. Let me correct myself… It’s hard to even think about it. Not to mention putting it into practice and using it wisely. But we have to start somewhere. We have it! Let’s go further!

Wearing a chain mail made of contexts, a breastplate made of the competence matrix, wielding a sword forged of goals and development plans, we are going to serve feedback justice. But there’s still a man under this armour. Line Manager is not just a product of the company’s imagination but a man, just like his report. What’s more, he also reports to another Line Manager. And this man, armed with tools, won’t be able to do anything until he establishes a valuable relationship with his report. If they are unable to build an understanding and trust between them, the effects of their actions will not be satisfactory. And the goal is for everyone to be happy, isn’t it? Thesis: not everyone can be a Line Manager.

One of the biggest challenges of the system I’m describing is that the Line Manager–report pairs are well-chosen. The consequence of choosing badly is a waste of time and discouragement of the people involved. One of the pillars of Line Management is that someone who may be your teammate helps you get better. These are usually the people that you regularly go for a beer after work with, not some unfamiliar person from HR who has to look at a piece of paper to remember your name. Such an arrangement gives a much better chance of building trust and being able to put yourself in the shoes of your report. This arrangement also entails some risk because an HR person has (or at least should have) the appropriate competences, knowledge and experience in the field of „working with people” that the Line Manager lacks (or at least doesn’t have them developed to the same level). On the other hand, the Line Manager can be and very often is not only a coach, but also a mentor, because he plays the same role in the company as the person he supports. An HR person cannot compete in this regard. Each solution has its pros and cons. The most important thing is to consciously choose one solution and implement it consistently. No one said that the Line Manager is „assigned” forever. Changes happen and you shouldn’t treat them as something bad. Nevertheless, the consequences of such a change are significant. Starting to work with a new Line Manager means taking a few steps back. But it is necessary to be able to move forward on a new path. Of course the change can’t be rash. Difficult situations happen all the time and there is always something that can be done to at least try to solve them. Change should only be considered after a few unsuccessful attempts, as a last resort. An expensive but necessary one.

 

In this post, I have addressed some important issues without mentioning dozens of others. The first phase of building Line Management, as we now know it in our company was feedback. The feedback stage passed quickly, and we were faced with new challenges which had to be addressed in order for the whole project to develop in the right direction. But you’ll learn about it in future posts.

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