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Andy Leonard

Andy Leonard is an author and engineer who enjoys building and automating data integration solutions. Andy is co-host of the Data Driven podcast. Andy is no longer updating this blog. His current blog is

Performance-Based Management and Andy’s Law

Let’s begin with an assertion:

“People are more important than process.” – Andy, circa 2008

Whenever an enterprise or institution adopts a new process or policy, that policy should serve people and not shackle them. The nicest thing that can be said about a policy that binds people is, “It wasn’t well thought out.” It’s a bad idea, in other words. What’s the logical thing to do when we encounter a bad idea? Reverse it, as quickly as possible. Is it a good idea to hang on to the bad idea because (hypothetically) we’ve paid business consultants lots of money? or someone – even someone we like and respect – may lose face? No. It is not. Those are merely excuses for continuing the bad idea.

I’ve shared my thoughts on Performance-Based Management (PBM) in the past. I believe PBM is a bad idea and I request you take a few minutes to read the post at the link provided. Go ahead, I will wait right here until you’re done. Done? Good.

Performance-Based Management looks great on paper but it just doesn’t work in practice. PBM is based on faulty premises that we will address in a bit, but PBM’s defenders keep claiming “it hasn’t been implemented properly.” Does this excuse sound familiar?

“Why is PBM So Bad, Andy?”

I’m glad you asked!

PBM is an effective way to squelch innovation. It’s not the only way, mind you; but PBM is as effective as non-compete agreements in killing creativity. I wrote about non-compete agreements in The Last Percent,

They [non-compete agreements] effectively shave the last sigma or two from the bell curve of technologist thought and capability. This is precisely the domain where the 100x, 1,000x, and 1,000,000x innovations and inventions dwell.

If you read my earlier post about PBM you see an example of how it kills teamwork – which is a surefire way to limit innovation.

“Why on earth would a technology company implement such a policy, Andy?” That is an excellent question. My answer:

PBM Looks Good on Paper

Unpracticed, PBM appears to solve a number of problems. Performance management is reduced to a bevy of statistics like lines-of-code written or defects closed. PBM claims to recognize an inconvenient truth; all employees are not created equal. Finally, PBM reduces the required skillset of the manager to a spreadsheet jockey; and spreadsheet jockeys are less expensive than experienced managers.

Managing statistics is a lot easier than managing people – especially innovative people. Innovative people are creative, and creative people are notoriously indisposed to authority in any form. Difficult to manage? Indeed, and impossible for some to manage. There are two effective ways to manage innovative individuals:

  1. Gain (or possess) their respect.
  2. Get out of their way.

A spreadsheet jockey is not going to gain the respect of an innovative person. Armed with their spreadsheet and need for metrics collection, the spreadsheet jockey is not going get out of the way. Because of this, PBM is a recipe for disaster for most innovative employees.

I believe the assertion that all employees are not created equal; some are better at their jobs than others. This, I hold, will always be true. But PBM focuses on one end of the less-than-awesome employee issue, putting the onus – and blame – on the employee. I asked a wildly unpopular question of management and HR at the company where a 20-60-20 PBM scheme was inflicted: “Are we hiring the wrong people or are we mismanaging the right people we hire 80% of the time?” I thought that was the right question at the time. I still do.

Fixing PBM

The problem is not that we are doing PBM wrong. The problem is that PBM is wrong. It doesn’t matter how we do it, it will never produce the desired results.

Therefore, PBM must die.

Or at least be neutered. One way to minimize the damage of PBM is to acknowledge there is but one true metric for innovative work: shipping. Creative work is art. And no artist likes to show (measure) the work until it is complete. Once the work is complete it can be measured as done. Why do I advocate a single, holistic metric? Because “shipped” accounts for nuance and intangibles that simply are not measurable. One PBM-neutering tactic is to define this single metric and be done with it. The historical metric is easy as it is a Boolean value: It either shipped or it did not ship. The current status is also simple: It is either done or in development.

“What about measuring how long the project took to ship, Andy?” I’m cool with that as long as you follow some simple rules:

  • Feed this data into an evidence-based scheduling system
  • Never use this information against the developer
    • In fact, do not even make the developer aware of this information’s existence
    • Use this information instead for the developer by adjusting any estimate according to previous evidence

Reporting “shipped” metrics would require a daily email a developer could compose in less than a minute (slightly-sarcastic mini-diatribe about the cost savings of the reduced need for management redacted).

In technology, “shipped” is the only metric that matters. Lines-of-code and defects closed are game-able.

Andy’s Law

I would like to see this abuse of people in the name process come to an end. Performance-Based Management is more than just a bad idea; it’s counter-productive, wastes time, and costs money. Elevating process above people is wrong and bad. Using statistics in this way is math poorly applied. Hence, Andy’s Law:

Statistics may be used to measure anything about people, except people.


Published Friday, May 10, 2013 10:29 AM by andyleonard

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Mike Henderson said:

This reminds me of a pet peeve I had about performance metrics since I have been an adult. And that's the ever popular "At Brand X we don't meet expectations, we exceed expectations."

What happens next is annual performance reviews get so inflated that if an employee isn't painted as a super-hero, their career is dead in the water.

It become a viscous cycle. Supervisors worry that if a person who comes into work and simply does there job well, they will unfairly hurt that person's career if they report just that.

May 10, 2013 11:06 AM

RichB said:

"Shipped" is great, but if it only works within the limited tests, or under only minimal load, or fails to scale over even short periods of time then we have bigger problems.

May 13, 2013 4:32 AM

RichB said:


A viscous cycle?  Is that like a bike race through custard?

May 13, 2013 4:33 AM

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