Merit Increase in a self-managed group. Experiment 1: Best Employee

We did it, we removed hierarchy and managers, we are now all equal. Great.

However, as you may already know, most content in this blog refers to a self-managed office within the context of a bigger, hierarchical organisation, our self-management can only get so far, but still, pretty fun.

Before we realise, is that time of the year when the “bigger company” asks us to submit our proposals for promotions and salary increases. There used to be a clear step-by-step process for this, centralised through the managers. With no managers, what do we do now?

To be honest, we didn’t pay much attention to this and caught us by surprise, the deadline was around the corner and we had to find a formula very quickly and send out our proposals to corporate. We decided to run a simple voting.


The process was simple, every employee could fill in a ballot entering the name of the 3 employees they thought to deserve a promotion/raise. Each employee could vote only once, votes were anonymous and hence they could vote for themselves. The name on the first position would get 3 points, the name on the second position 2 points and the name on the third positions 1 point. Next to each name we needed to enter the reasons why we are proposing that employee.

At the end of the day, we proceeded to the scrutiny, counting all the votes in front of anybody who wanted to witness it.

The results were simple, we added up all the points and produced a ranking with the top 10 employees. That is the list that would be submitted to higher management for their consideration, they would still have the final word. The full list was available for anybody to see upon request.

A few days after this process was completed, we ran a retrospective about this method, and these are some things that came up:

What worked

  • Great progress consolidating self-management, for the better or worse, people were more in control than ever when it comes to deciding who outperformed. To trust them with such a sensitive topic, was consistent and giving a clear message.
  • People were pretty happy with the results. People at the top of the list were highly respected and made sense to most.
  • Corporate was also happy. They had a list of candidates where they could still apply their own rules, based on current salaries, seniority, recent promotions, etc.

What didn’t work so well

  • Many people shared that 3 candidates weren’t enough. They had more people in mind that deserve recognition and they would have liked to include more names in their vote.
  • Around ten people weren’t voted by anybody and others got very few points. Since there was only feedback given to people voted, there was nothing for the rest to work with and improve. Additional feedback initiatives were necessary for people to find out why they got so few or no votes.
  • This happened at the end of the year and we know this is not ideal. People tend to reward more recent behaviour and forgets about great work done earlier during the year.
  • People followed different criteria, which can be healthy but also confusing. There were some vague guidelines about what things to consider when selecting your candidates but still many people expressed very different approaches to their voting and that didn’t help towards a unified culture we wanted to create where behaviour is most important than results.

In conclusion, as a first attempt, it was a success but it clearly showed some flaws to be improved. In any case, it was very easy to set up and improvise so no excuse for not trying!

Wanna see what we did next? Check out Experiment 2


Peak 2: Mauna Kea – Climbing the Self Management Mountain Range

2-mauna kea

Mauna Kea – Work

Mauna Kea in Hawaii is probably less popular and touristy than Mount Fuji and it’s already 4000 meters high, so we’ll start feeling the lack of oxygen. When a self-organized team climbs up here we can expect they’ll have to deal with work-related decisions, so we call this one this the “work mountain”.

Execution decisions

While in Mount Fuji we saw how a team could decide among them who would do what, in this step we find how a team performs their tasks, meaning what solution to choose and apply to a given problem. Our experience is limited to software development teams but we believe this step is generic enough that the main idea can be applied to teams in different industries. So if we’re talking about a software development team this would be deciding the architectural and implementation details, maybe the technical solution they’ll use and so on. This is usually easy to delegate for a manager and very positive for the team as it makes them feel more engaged and helps them find a solution that takes into account the vision of every team member.

Vacation and time

Vacation approval and working times are some low added value tasks which are pretty easy to delegate, and yet some of those we still find a lot of managers handling. Delegating part or all of these to teams can be very beneficial for both teams and their managers, whose main task will be to let go of the doubts they may have that the team takes advantage of this.

Most of the teams we have worked with have reached this level, meaning they don’t need to submit their vacation request to any manager approval. Instead, they need the ability to see who in their team is on holiday and when, so that they can ask the group for a convenient time for vacation days and the group can safely agree, based on an internal working agreement about team availability.

Within these teams, working times have more or less the same rules as holidays. What is important for these teams is that the job they committed to do gets done. Some of this job will require close collaboration, for which being together in the office will be key. Other parts won’t require close collaboration and can be done by individuals at the time they prefer, in the office or at home. This is especially clear to teams working in software development but can be easily applied to other teams in different industries.

Decaf feedback

A constant flow of feedback is obviously something extremely important in the agile world and we are fond of finding many alternative ways to keep this flow alive. We took all these possible practices for fostering feedback inside teams and classified them as coffee, because good coffee needs to wake you up, right? We believe good feedback has to have the same effects as coffee, so this feedback that wakes you up is what we call strong feedback. A decaf feedback, on the other hand, is feedback that is just okay but is not waking you up. What makes feedback stronger or softer in this scale is the emotional investment in the exercise, so how hard is to give or to receive feedback, emotionally speaking, for the individuals involved.

At this point in the climbing teams usually start to use decaf feedback. An example of decaf feedback could be an anonymous online survey, in which nobody’s looking at your face while you give feedback, nobody knows who you are and you can just say anything you want. This is pretty easy to do for the giver, even if it could be hard for the receiver, therefore it’s not equally enriching for both, and even inexperienced teams who are new to feedback can use these practices.

How are you doing with oxygen breathe? Should we keep climbing? You’re ready for the next level. We’ll be close to almost 5000 meters soon visiting Monte Bianco.

Peak 1: Mount Fuji – Climbing the Self Management Mountain Range

1-mount fuji

Mount Fuji – Coordination

The first peak in this model is Mount Fuji, with its 3776 meters. If you’ve been there you may have noticed that it’s a pretty touristy place. In fact you can find experienced climbers but also totally inexperienced people who get there by bus.

We associate this mount with coordination, the first stage of self organisation in this model. This is when a team starts to self organize, which usually in our experience comes in the following forms.

Task distribution

Teams that are new to self organization usually follow Scrum or Kanban rules and visualize their work on physical boards where they can easily see who’s responsible for each task. In this phase team members love using magnets or other fancy sticky labels to see who’s doing what after discussing among themselves how to best divide the work and how to best leverage individuals’ skills in the team. Sounds familiar?

Space distribution

Where should teams sit? Who gets the brightest spots? Who gets the noisiest? Answering these questions may seem of little importance (if you’re lucky to be in a place with some self management in place already) but you’d be surprised by how many companies whose teams have managers making decisions for them struggle with this problem every time they form teams or change their members. Solving this puzzle can be an extremely painful process, with competing managers, back and forth consultations, half decisions,  long meetings, layouts that result from exhaustion rather than consent and ultimately, unhappy people.

A few years ago our office had this same problem to solve after reshuffling teams but we were in a favorable situation where we could decide as a group instead of having managers do that.

As scrum masters we were asked to come up with a process to solve the puzzle collectively, and we took the opportunity to be creative and add some level of self organization in the process. We tried to simplify it as much as we could and came up with a funny way to it.

We took all the teams involved to a session and asked them to elect a spokesperson on the spot to represent each team. Then, we gathered all the spokespersons around a map of the office and gave them as many little post it paper balls as team members in their team, each team a different colour, and asked them to place those paper balls on the layout together, discussing among themselves and bringing the voice of the teams they represented. We timeboxed it to 30 minutes and asked to come up with a viable layout in that time.

teams distribution paper balls

We were a bit scared at the beginning but interestingly there was no tension or argument, and people actually were very happy to take part into that because they felt like they had a voice in the decision. Simple, quick, sweet.

Team identity

Team identity can mean many different things to different people. In our experience team identity starts from very basic things like a name and logo, and part of our job back when we formed new teams a couple of years ago was to help them figure those out. One of the first things we did with them was to encourage them to call themselves something more meaningful than just “Service X Team” or “Component Y Team” (yes, that’s also you “API Team no. 2237” out there).

Another great way to let teams find their identity is by helping them find their values, which we usually do by facilitating that discovery process with them. Values are what’s important for them, what makes them angry, sad or proud of what they do. Interestingly, different teams in our experience found very different values which represent them quite well.

By helping them find their identity we helped them finding what makes them unique, so in way we could say we helped them like Sherpas would do (okay, considering this was Mount Fuji maybe we did more like bus drivers than Sherpas).

Start with Fuji

These are just a few examples of things that managers can start to delegate to teams. We consider these in our first level because they can do no harm to the business but they can mean a lot to a team building their confidence in making decisions.

Stay tuned and climb the next mountains with us!

Climbing the Self Management Mountain Range

Self management may mean different things to different teams depending, among other things, on the scope in which they are being self managed. I’ll give you an example. In Scrum we say that teams are self organised, but what does that mean? Does it mean that they can distribute tasks among team members as they find appropriate? Sure. Does it mean they can decide on how to take days off? Maybe. Does it mean they can decide how to increase the salary of someone within the team? Eeeeh, What?

This model is a simplification of this very complex topic and help managers, coaches and leaders in their approach to self management and delegation.

After several years of working with self managed teams in different countries, we found that Self management is very much like climbing mountains. It can be enjoyable and healthy but also challenging and dangerous. It’s definitely not for everyone and the higher you wanna go, the more practice and preparation you need. You can easily reach a low peak but you need training before you can climb a higher challenge. In the following model, we show the different peaks you will find while climbing towards self management, where to start and where to move next.

The self management mountain range, is based on real mountains (can you guess the names based on their shapes?) and each one of them represents a step towards a more mature self managed group.


We’ll write separate posts to describe what each mountain looks like, with real life examples of teams that we’ve coached or found at the different levels. Are you ready to start climbing? Let’s start with Mount Fuji!

Self-Managed Training Experiment

For us, is very important to get better and better at what we do. Mastering a field is a big motivation driver, and learning is one of the fundamental pillars in our Barcelona office.

This is what we do:

  1. We make sure there is a healthy budget set aside for this purpose
  2. We give this budget to the teams and let them spend it

We don’t set any more rules. We call volunteers to create a “Training Circle” and people in this circle takes time to look into interesting training, respond to training requests from teammates and keep track of budget.

Training and Development on the Gears.

The training circle keeps an eye on budget spent and tries that everyone gets some meaningful training. Volunteers can leave or join this circle whenever they want and all training and budget used is documented in a public wiki page for everybody to see.

After a 12 months following this model, I can say that everybody is very happy, with opportunities to travel, attend interesting events and stay connected with the community.

We removed all the bureaucracy and management approvals. Simple.


Merit Increase in a self-managed group. Experiment 3: Salary Distribution

Like everything else we do in our office, we keep looking for ways to make recognition and salary increases as engaging as possible. On previous attempts (experiments 1 and experiment 2), the approach was more democratic, people would vote for the best workers and the ones with more votes were strongly considered by management for increases and promotions. This time we tried something fundamentally different. We wanted people to make a conscious decision and make it really count, regardless of whether everyone else was on the same page or not. So this is what we did:

Management gave us the total budget allocated for salary increases, we split it equally by the number of people involved in the exercise and we added just one rule: Your share isn’t for you, it’s for you to give away. How you do it, is entirely up to you, but know that whatever you do, it’ll happen. So you can decide to increase the salary of somebody and nobody will question it. All you have to do is to write an email with your decision and send it to management. The reasons of your decision are appreciated but optional.


To help you understand the method, I will give you a concrete example. Imagine we are a group of 30 employees and there is a 60,000€ budget for increases (Note that we’re talking about annual salary increase, not one-off bonuses). Now, If we split it equally, you’d get 2000€, but again, those aren’t for you, those are for you to give away in whichever way you like. So you could decide to give it all to one person, or split it equally and give 69€ to each employee or decide to give 1000€ to Tina, 500€ to Julia, 300€ to Marta and 200€ to Oliver.

If somebody forgets to do it by the given deadline or doesn’t want to do it, we would split their share equally to the rest.

Once everyone submitted their distribution, your annual salary increase will simply be the total sum of the different amounts that other employees decided to give you. It could be 1000€, it could be nothing or it could be 2987€ who knows.

You may be thinking that this won’t work or that this can’t simply be done. Well, stop thinking, we did it and we still talk to one another.



Here some of the objective facts of our experiment:

  • 30 people were invited to use this system
  • People didn’t know each other’s salaries
  • Only two people didn’t want to participate
  • Only two people gave the full share to a single person. Any thoughts?
  • Only a few people shared their amount with less than 4 colleagues
  • Most people shared their amount with 12 people or more
  • Management didn’t ‘intervene’ and honoured the results as they were


Now, is this fair?

Let’s see. Of course, fairness is an extremely complex concept, here some thoughts that we exchanged after the fact:

  • People who received a total increase, inferior to the original share, felt like they underperformed or came out worse
  • A good number of people felt that not knowing everyone’s salary, prevented them to make the best decision. Others thought that they had no problem recognising top performers regardless of their salary.
  • Half of the people kept their share within their own team while the other half had no problem to send money elsewhere


Our conclusion

Some people feel that bigger teams have a better chance to get more money, others feel that the popular types get more and others that more isolated people who are constantly travelling or working directly with clients would get less due to limited visibility. Maybe so, maybe not. We’re all human and are by nature subjective. We all share the feeling that everybody else will abuse the system, will be unfair and their decision will be influenced by lots of external factors while we, ourselves, will make a proper decision. See something wrong with that assumption?

Is this system perfect? It isn’t. Is the traditional manager-centric approach perfect? It is not. Do we need to keep improving the system next time around? Always.

The main difference between these two systems, and our great win, in my opinion, is that we all participate; and beyond the subjective fairness of the results, the fact that we are even discussing and experimenting with this is a huge cultural breakthrough.

On a personal note, I feel great about having the power of increasing the salary of somebody who under my own criteria deserves it. It’s an incredible feeling and I love working in a place like this one.

After a few rounds of experimenting with promotions, we learned a thing or two about it. Wanna see what we did next? Check out the Merit Increase in a self-managed group. Experiment 4: Star Awards



The Candies Feedback experiment

Candies feedback is a tool we use at our Barcelona office to foster a culture of feedback and continuous improvement for teams and individuals.

The procebluecandybigss is simple: every 6-8 weeks every team/department in the office ranging from scrum teams to Finance or Client Services have a few days time frame to give feedback to each and every other team, in a public and transparent way, with this format:

  • Things that the receiving team is doing great, that help the giving team or the whole organization to reach their goals
  • Things that the receiving team could improve
  • An amount of candies

The reason why we chose to use candies was to avoid any reference to money which could deviate attention from the feedback part. This exercise has nothing to do with performance review.

The amount of candies that goes together with the feedback is the part that’s a bit tricky: for every feedback session each team can give away an amount of candies that is equal to the sum of all other teams’ members:

Team No. of team members No. of candies the team can give away
Lion 7 13
Capricorn 5 15
Gemini 8 12

In this example the Lion team should give away a total of (5+8)=13 candies to Capricorn and Gemini in this edition.

In every edition of this exercise all teams give away their candies based on the feedback they give and they have to give all their candies away. The Candies Feedback application we developed in one of our hackatons suggests by default this amount to be equal to the number of people in the receiving team, which means that a “neutral” feedback should be associated with one candies per person in the receiving team as in the example above. Similarly, a positive feedback should be associated with an amount of candies greater than the suggested one and a negative feedback should be associated with an amount smaller than the suggested one:

Giving team Receiving team No. of candies
Lion Capricorn 3 (out of 5)
Lion Gemini 10 (out of 8)

In this example, in this edition the Lion team chooses to move two candies in favour of the Gemini team, perhaps because their contribution to the organization’s goals or to the Lion team’s goals has been a great one (or maybe because Capricorn team’s contribution has been lower than expected).

Once the round of feedback is closed, every team receives a full report of all the feedback that the other teams have given to them, plus the sum of candies:

Giving team Receiving team No. of candies
Capricorn Lion 6 (out of 7)
Gemini Lion 8 (out of 7)

In this example, the Lion team receives (6+8)=14 candies (something’s going on between Capricorn and Lion, these two teams don’t get along well together…)

Not only each team gets to know what the others say about them: everyone can see everyone else’s feedback and amount of candies, that is, what is said during each edition is completely public and visible to everyone in the office.

Lastly, a big bowl of real and yummy candies is available for all teams to take their part as resulted in the feedback round.



Experiment results

We have run a dozen editions of this experiment in our office. We started with a cheap and disgusting excel spreadsheet and later on developed our own application for that. But what we did not compromise on was office-wide participation: since day one we asked all teams in the office to enter feedback. Most people first reacted to this new experiment just by ignoring it. When urged to complete feedback before the due date, many said things like “We have real work to do” or “I have nothing to say because I do not work with anyone else in the office”. Getting a full round of feedback from everyone was a very tough task at the beginning, as we had to face big resistance to this novelty.

The first edition results caused big shock to some: the very fact that results were public, even if largely advertised beforehand, generated panic reactions in some teams, and a big “Hallelujah” in others.

Over time, teams got used to this exercise and peer pressure started to build up: teams who did not take the exercise seriously or did not give feedback were urged by other teams to do so, taking a load off the organizers’ minds. The “I don’t know what others do” excuse however kept going on for a while. We addressed this in two ways: by asking the complainers to get out of their silos and ask, and by asking the complainees to give visibility of what they do with presentations, demos and other ways of being transparent.

High frequency has been a concern for some teams for a while. We started with a 4-week cadence and after several rounds of feedback on the exercise itself we reduced it to 6 weeks and then to 8 weeks. The key was to create the habit first, and then to start including changes. As of now, we are considering to run the exercise on demand.

One to one phase

Thanks to their inclination to self-management, our scrum teams have taken this game to its next level: at the end of every edition they share between their members all the candies that team has received with same feedback-based mechanism. In the previous example each Lion team member has (14/7)=2 candies to completely give away among the other team members:

Lion team member Candies received
Captain America 2 (out of 2)
Wonder Woman 4 (out of 2)
Superman 1 (out of 2)
Green Lantern 2 (out of 2)
Flash 0 (out of 2)
Professor X 4 (out of 2)
Punisher 1 (out of 2)

In this example, Wonder Woman has had a great edition, while Flash has something to improve according to his own teammates. As per the team phase, we deem very important that real and actionable feedback is given together with the candies.

We deem very important that real and actionable feedback is given together with the candies.


Over time we have applied some changes to the original concept to answer to participants’ feedback about their experience with this game:

  1. Teams now can throw candies away instead of giving them all to other teams: this means that teams can throw candies to a bin, to say that no other teams really deserve those. This is a very strong message that this team has some unmatched expectations
  2. There are extra candies: in every edition there are a few extra candies to give away on top of the normal ones and these can be used to appreciate one team without necessarily take something away from another one