Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Broken Evaluation System (A Rant)

"All's fair in love, war and politics" is a new one I heard recently.  Interestingly, the novitiate in this cliched idiom, 'Politics', doesn't just refer to the Constitutional Political System, but to the politics of life in general.
It got me thinking of the various forms of politics we encounter in our lives.  The most quaint one to me is office politics.  Now politics generally has a negative connotation to it.  I will be neutral in its usage for the purpose of this post.

Having working in the IT service industry for quite some time now, I have experienced and suffered and played my share of dirty politics.  I must admit I am terrible at it, costing me dearly at times.  But like it or not, foul politics in office environments is here to stay, and people unskilled at it had better train to at least safeguard themselves against any malicious attempts.

I will be talking about the IT work culture in specific.  In corporate IT environments, where there are 10 candidates for each position of promotion or each position of evaluation (e.g. good, above avg, avg, bad etc), and all the candidates considering only themselves as the most worthy, the talent managers have an arduous task of picking people.  This is where it gets filthy.
The kind of rating system wherein each talent manager (or a project manager or anyone for that matter) gets a fixed bucket of evaluation numbers is called Stack Ranking.  It implies that the person in charge has to pick people and put them in buckets of Good, Average, Bad etc., and there's no way they can exceed the pre-decided number for each bucket.  This usually annoys me to the core.  Say, for instance, you join a firm and are placed in a team of 10 people.  No matter how hard you work, you are sure that three out of the ten are going to be rated as the best, five as the average and two as bad.

What's wrong with this?  To begin with, this system pits one team member against the other.  It means people in the same team distrust each other and even go to the length of sabotaging each other's work (It happens, all the time).  Ironically, corporations spend a lot on team building training exercises.  Stack ranking means the decision about your pay hike or promotion is completely based on the perception of one person, which might easily be influenced by someone else (who is either in direct competition with you or just dislikes you).  From the corporations' perspective it's bad because it fosters a toxic intra team environment, while the ideal case would be teams competing with each other for excellence.  You win as a team and lose as a team.
In a recent Vanity Fair article the author takes a rancid shot at the Stack Ranking system and how it caused the famous 'Lost Decade' for Microsoft.

In essence I claim that the Stack Ranking system is inherently inefficient, at least in the IT and software development areas which are a talent based and creative kind of work.  This system would work flawlessly in production line jobs and labor works where evaluating performance is simple (number of light bulbs packed per hour, number of screws bolted per day etc.), but it fails at measuring the output in terms of software value produced.  That's the reason IT needed a new kind of project management methodology, aka Agile.  Waterfall and other tested models didn't succeed much.  Almost all Software companies use either Agile or Iterative as the basic methodology of development.

As a conclusion, I state that the priority of any corporation (IT especially) should not be forcing its employees to compete against each other, but motivate them to work towards a common goal, a common team goal.  This works in every creative industry.  Leadership by intimidation and by virtue of designation will only cause harm by losing talent.  Period.


  1. P.S. The title of the post has a 'The', it is specifically meant to indicate The Broken system in the IT industry.

  2. I wish there existed covert agencies that conducted courses on diplomacy in corporate environments.. Would make life easier for the focused achievers and help companies retain genuine talent rather than conniving politicians amongst their employees

  3. Mr Naik, I agree with you. Although a drastic move, this will only help meritocracy.
    Thanks for your comments.

  4. Found this gem on one of the blogs:

    "the best way to have a great future is to be part of a team that values progress over politics, ideas over territory, and initiative over decorum"