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The last few years have seen an explosion of interest in management circles for the use of word constructs that include ‘agile’. Recently the phrase ‘Agile Performance Management’ has begun to appear around the web. Is ‘Agile Performance Management’ just a buzzword phrase, or is it something more?

Buzzword Bingo

Buzzwords are jargon used out of context - or as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it “special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand”.

Some management jargon is useful - for example it has been argued that it enables concise communication about complex issues; for example when a marketeer talks about a ‘millennial’ they have something quite specific in mind. Others argue that jargon is created purposefully to obfuscate - either to conceal true meaning behind serious sounding euphemisms (so rather than fire people, an organisation might talk about ‘right-sizing’ itself), or to establish authority where perhaps there is none.

“buzzwords allow managers to sound authoritative and, as a result give them an appearance of authority. Buzzwords that do not have precise meanings are especially useful here as managers can use them to signal their authority and others will struggle to prove them wrong.”

Even though management activity is already awash with jargon this has not stopped people from having fun with the idea.

  • The first ‘buzzword generator’ was created by Phillip Broughton and was published in Newsweek magazine 1968 - his ‘three column’ generator has been widely copied and adapted since with many such generators now available online.
  • Buzzword Bingo - a favourite pastime of many attending training or corporate events - was created in corporate America in the early 1990s and became a global entertainment after it featured in a Dilbert cartoon in early 1994.

The rise of 'Agile' as a qualifying term...

The use of the word ‘Agile’ as a management term is a modern phenomenon. Prior to about 1990 the term is rarely used in management papers, but in the years since 1990 there has been an accelerating rise in its use: roughly half of all the management papers that use the term ‘agile’ in either their title or abstract have been published since 2010.

Agile started out as a term used specifically to describe manufacturing processes that could be rapidly switched between products and / or accommodate high degrees of product variability. After a few years this use extended to apply to the more general ‘Agile Supply Chain’ - but the focus remained on the ability to respond quickly and cheaply to variations in product demand. About 30% of all papers written about ‘agile’ refer to this application of the idea.

In the early 2000s a significant change in use appeared - ‘agile’ began to be used to describe flexible approaches to software development: one quite different to the original use. ‘Agile Software Development’ covers a mix of methods designed to help early-stage software development in situations where the specification of the software to be developed is not finalised: the methods mostly relate to rapid-feedback mechanisms and approaches to group working that enable the incremental development of the software product alongside the finalisation of its specification. About 40% of papers written about ‘agile’ refer to this application of the idea - ‘Agile Software Development’ is now the most popular version of ‘agile’ in use.

Two other notable sub-groups of ‘agile’ thinking are:

  • ‘Agile Organisational Development’ - a broad range of topics relating to the design of organisations that can change configuration more quickly than traditional forms that begins to emerge around 2000, possibly due to the emergence of different organisational structures and start ups with a flatter hierarchy, such as Google. This term however only accounts for about 10% of ‘agile’ papers; and
  • ‘Agile Project Management’ - topics about methods that help project managers run projects where methods and / or end-points are likely to change frequently during the course of the project - which began to emerge about 10 years ago, and contributes just over 5% of papers on ‘agile’ topics.

Adding ‘Agile’ qualification to a management term seems to be associated with ideas about how to adapt activities in ways that make them more flexible and responsive to uncertainty and change.

Is 'Agile Performance Management' jargon?

Notably absent from our analysis of management thinking is any mention of the term ‘Agile Performance Management’ - we could find no management research papers at all that use the term.

Yet it clearly is a term that is being discussed and used - this blog article was in part prompted by a direct question asking to clarify what the term meant.

If you have a question about Performance Management - ask us!

In our research we found that the specific phrase Agile Performance Management appears in just 16 trade published documents. This is clearly not a large number, especially when considering the context: since 2000 over 100,000 equivalent articles have been published that use the word ‘agile’.

Our research into the term shows that:

  • it appears to have been coined in 2005 in a promotional press-release for a software product that no longer exists
  • it next appears in 2011 within another press-release, this time for a commercial report on HR Trends in 2012 - in the 2012 report the term is used as a descriptor but is not defined. A similar press release in 2014 for the 2015 version of the report refers a 2014 report which may contain a definition of the term - but the ‘paywalled’ report appears to have had only limited circulation
  • the remaining references (all since 2014) appear in promotional pieces for four different software products and a training course. None of these are particularly clear about what the term ‘Agile Performance Management’ might actually mean. The four software products each appear to support the automation of the documentation of personal goals and their routine review / revision over time.

Our analysis shows that currently ‘Agile Performance Management’ is more of a ‘buzzword’ than a specific management idea.

We will keep our ear close to the ground on this one - and if a consensus emerges about what ‘Agile Performance Management’ actually is, we’ll of course let you know through these pages. To get the news first, make sure you sign up for our monthly email updates.

And so what...?

So while ‘Agile Performance Management’ is not yet a management meme of note, we recognise the descriptions given by the various software vendors do reflect some common ‘best practices’ regarding personal goal setting, especially the need to review and adapt these goals on a regular basis.

You can find out more about best practices in personal goal setting and review elsewhere on this website. For example, our presentation pack on aligning personal and corporate goals discusses six ‘best practices’:

  • Employees should have a concise set of personal objectives that balance both corporate / team goals with personal development goals
  • Employee goals / objectives should have ‘line of sight’ support to the organisation’s strategy
  • Employees and and managers should have a shared understanding of how the organisation’s overall goals relate to their own personal goals and the work of their team
  • Performance information should be used to foster routine / regular dialogue within the team about how to achieve both shared and individual goals and targets
  • Goals and measures chosen should support an objective appraisal of actual performance
  • Achievement of the goals and measures chosen should be able to be linked to the determination of personal rewards.

To this we would also add:

  • Frequent review of goals and adaptation according to internal/external factors.

It may well be that the Performance Management approach your organisation uses reflects these best-practices (and so perhaps is already ‘agile’). If you think your organisation’s approach could be improved, we are here to help! Contact us today to find out what we can do.