Skills are Only Half the Equation for Success


Are There Environmental Roadblocks Stifling Performance?
Suppose you've done all of these things (and more) to establish an environment for success. Your work is not done.

Corporate culture and norms are part of the environment and so are policies, procedures, measures, and reward systems. Examine the organizational environment to see if there are other obstacles that keep people from doing their best.

Are there factors that actually punish people for doing a good job? I once worked with a support group that was having a crisis in customer satisfaction. Support agents were expected to meet certain targets for the length of calls.That worked fine with simple problems, but when a tough problem that took more than a minute or two to fix came along, it was a problem. The measure actually punished people who went the extra mile for the customer and stayed on the phone long past the allotted time. These folks had the knowledge and skills to perform, but an environmental factor (a poorly designed measure) was in the way.

Sometimes policies and procedures are the culprit in stifling performance. One organization I know of requires bi-weekly budget reporting and forecasting. It can take up to seven working days to assemble all the bits of information needed to create a report. The procedure is difficult and frustrating, and the time people spend every month on budgets means they aren't doing other valuable work. In another group, each team member is required to provide written feedback to every other team member every quarter. It wasn't so bad when there were five team members, but now that there are twenty people in the group—well, you can do the math.

Pile on enough environmental roadblocks and people become frustrated and cynical. And frustrated, cynical people are less likely to do a good job.

Individual managers can't always change measurement systems, policies, and procedures. Insulate your group where you can and put the rest in context.

Remember that an individual's skills and abilities aren't the only factors in performance. Managers need to attend to both the person and the environment when assessing performance. Don't wait until the next performance evaluation season rolls around. Evaluate the work environment now. Does the management infrastructure enable high performance? Are you working to remove or reduce the obstacles that are hampering performance? What else can you do to create an environment for success?

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at and on her weblog at Her email is

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