Takeaways From The Responsive.Org Unconference

Last weekend, I attended the Responsive.Org unconference in SF. Having had lukewarm experiences with unconferences in the past, I was really positively surprised by the level of the unconference and how much value I got out of it. Having a high caliber of attendees is a critical piece for success and the organizers totally nailed that part. My key takeaways are below.

Performance Management

This session, facilitated by Todd Elkin Aetherwyn, explored how the performance management process may look like in a networked, rather than hierarchical org.

  • Evaluation rubrics can be mapped to Dan Pink’s Drive Framework:
    • Autonomy – self-management, etc
    • Mastery – expertise in the domain of the role
    • Purpose – impact on the company’s mission
    • +Relatedness – communication/collaboration skills, including people management
  • Roles providing feedback:
    • A peer
    • A customer (can be an internal customer)
    • Your manager / someone else who has the perspective to assess the impact of your work on the company’s mission
    • A mentor (you should have one…)
    • Someone you’re afraid to get feedback from – this is all about personal growth, right?
  • Nudge towards transparency – encourage colleagues to make the reviews that they get public, or at least some portion of them . If more people know what you’re trying to improve about yourself – more people can help you do that
  • Explore other growth/maturity framework as inspiration for developing progress milestones along each rubric in a more objective/easy to evaluate manner. For example: Shu-Ha-Ri, CMMI, etc.

Unbundling Managers

This session was facilitated by me. I was curious to further explore some of my issues with Holacracy by  decomposing all the various things a manager in a traditional organization is responsible for and seeing whether there’s a way cluster them around new “non-managerial” roles.

As it turns out, the most compelling answer was right under my nose, in the “executive trinity” post. The role of the manager can potentially be unbundled into three roles. I’m still struggling with how to name them, so bear with me:

  • A people lead – typical “people management” responsibilities but with a more professional development focus. Hiring, firing, comp changes and promotions are view through the lens of recognition and professional growth.
  • A work lead  – typical “project management” responsibilities. This person is responsible for managing the work and helping the team deliver on its commitment/objective.
  • A direction lead – this person is responsible for helping the team set “what” they should be working on, by being extremely proficient in the “why”. They are responsible for helping the team stay aligned with where the larger organization is trying to get to.

I know that this idea may sound far from baked to some, and completely trivial to others. It’s a work in progress.


This topic has been a lot on my mind lately. Specifically, how to design a good system for handling compensation. Fortunately, Ryan Irwin facilitated what turned into a double-session on this topic. And the focus was primarily on cash and cash-equivalent compensation.

The biggest takeaway for me, was as profound as it was simple: designing a good compensation system starts with defining the key beliefs of the designers/decisions makers in 3 major buckets:

  • Market forces – the purist approach for compensation suggests that people should be compensated based on their market worth. Netflix comes close to this ideal by encouraging its employees to interview and get offers from other places so they’ll have a better sense of their market’s worth. But labor markets, that tend to be thicker, are not perfectly efficient. Furthermore, assessing market worth is a pretty challenging and inaccurate task (typically consisting of trying to match job description to some market standard). Lastly, simply paying market price may conflict with other values that you want to promote through the compensation system (see below).
  • Employee needs – are there any variations in individual needs that the system should account for? for example: number of dependents, varying cost of living in different geographies, differing tax regimes across countries, risk / risk adverseness preferences.
  • Contribution to the organization – in many companies, this translates to some connection to the performance management system. But there are other aspects of this bucket that are also worth exploring. For example: loyalty/tenure to/with the organization, rewarding effort/behaviors instead/in addition to outcomes, degrees/certifications, etc.

Once you have clarity on the answers to these not-so-trivial questions, manifesting them in the various compensation components becomes a lot easier.

Since many compensation system were structured based on “best practices” or “industry standard”, going through the reverse exercise can be a pretty effective trigger for change. For example, many standard Paid Time Off (PTO) policies tend to have a tenure component in them, but the fact that this implies that the organization values and rewards loyalty is hardly ever discussed.

Takeaways From The Responsive.Org Unconference

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