How We Improved Performance Reviews — What Happened?

tl;dr No-one really likes performance reviews. But giving your team members good, actionable feedback and setting clear direction with them is very important. In my team we changed how we did performance reviews.

Note: This is the third post in a series on performance management and review. It’s worth reading the other two first:

What We Did

In part two of the series I talked about how my team and I took the performance review and feedback system that is used at Atlassian and adapted it to suit our groups context. I talked about the themed ‘checkin’ sessions and how we got the whole group working to a common timeline for review and feedback, and the advantages that brought.

We what happened? How were the changes received and what was the feedback from the teams?

Selling the Idea

Once we were clear on our direction, we had agreed as a leadership team how we wanted the process to work and what themes we were going to use, then we prepared to sell our idea to the rest of the team. I strongly believe that one should not dictate changes that affect people’s career development or relationship with their manager, and so it was critical to us that the team members were bought into the ideas of the changes and our reasoning for proposing them.

We gathered the team together and explained the new process and how we felt it benefited them. I explained how I felt that the traditional process was sub-standard and could be improved. The key messages were this:

Feedback is better when it’s timely and so we want to start a process where that timely feedback enables higher quality discussions about you

As a group we agreed to run the process for one cycle and then review the results. If, after that, the teams were happy to continue then we would continue and if not then we would stop and revert back to the company-wide yearly cycle.

Kicking It Off

The issue with selling an idea to a group is that often, in private, people will express their reservations more freely. So it was key to ensure that managers then spent time with their team members and gave them the opportunity on a one-to-one basis to discuss the new process. This was also a good opportunity for managers to explain the process in more detail and seek additional buy-in.

The checkin sessions themselves are intended to be 30 minutes long in order to ensure that the process does not take too much time every month. It ensures that only the valuable things are discussed, and the sessions can be to the point and targeted at what matters. However, since this was a new process then we ensured that the first few checkin sessions ran to an hour so everyone could get the hang of it.

Writing It Down

Since checkin sessions were short and punchy — although not literally :) — then it was critical that everyone prepared for them. The checkin’s process works if the team member comes to the session having already prepared what they want to talk about. In order for them to be able to do that then we needed somewhere that they could document their thoughts.

Being an MVP then we did not want to spend much on supporting tooling (there is an excellent tool called Small Improvements which supports this sort of process) so instead we designed our own form. It’s simple and includes questions that the team member should answer in order to prepare for the session. The idea is that they fill in the relevant tab before each session, the manager can then review and prepare based upon the information they’ve entered, and then the checkin session itself can be focused on the discussion and actions from that discussion, rather than the actual ‘thinking’ time. It allows sessions to be targeted and valuable.

We designed our own form to support the process. If you’d like to see a copy then leave a comment below. We used the questions below to drive discussions:

Another advantage of using the form was that each team member built up a record of their year, what they had done, and how they had performed. This meant that when we did need to provide yearly feedback into the main company process then it was simply a matter of extracting the information we already had in each form. It was also great to encourage team members to look back through their forms to see what they had achieved throughout the year.

Not Just Qualitative Feedback

By meeting with our team members every month for themed, targeted performance and career management discussions then it also meant that we had a great opportunity to give them quantitive feedback. Like a lot of companies, we use a four point scale and at the end of each year every employee receives a performance review score which has an impact on salary and promotion — standard stuff in most companies. Once per year with no indication in-between how they are performing relative to that four point scale.

This seemed unfair so we adapted the checkins process to also include giving the team member feedback each more on how they had performed against the scale and why. This helped solve multiple complaints against a yearly system:

  • One key aspect of feedback is to amplify the positive and managers could tell their team members about the good things they were doing.
  • Since the manager and team member were setting goals together as part of the checkins process then we wanted managers to act more like coaches. Having the team member measure themselves them this helped to amplify ownership of their goals and performance.
  • Team members got timely feedback that meant that they could adapt quickly if they weren’t on track.
  • Managers could give timely, targeted feedback with recent examples, in order to drive meaningful improvement. No more having to keep a years worth of notes or trying to remember what the whole team were doing a year ago.

However, merely getting a feedback score from the manager still presents a surprise and it was important that the manager was able to have a meaningful two-way discussion about performance. In order to drive this we asked each team member to give themselves a score, on the same scale, before the session. This enabled the manager to then understand how the team member felt they had performed, and it encouraged the team member to think about their achievements during that month. The discussion, held towards the end of the checkin session, could then be focused on any differences between the manager and team members interpretations of their performance.

Running The First Rounds

The first rounds went smoothly. One thing we learnt pretty quickly was that it took time to adapt to the process and so running the first couple of checkins for each team member as hour long rather than 30 minutes was definitely necessary. There was also some prompting required of some team members in order to get the forms filled in prior to the checkin session rather than during the session but this was to be expected given that the process was different and new.

People were surprisingly happy to provide a feedback score for themselves and by asking them to do so, we were able to make more meaningful and example based discussions on how they had performed.

Feedback

As we had promised, we ran the process for four checkins, i.e. one cycle and then sought feedback from the team. Broadly speaking it looked like this:

We Liked

  • Focused sessions are clearer beforehand
  • Keeping track of things and getting constant feedback
  • It’s easier to remember what’s happened in a month
  • Makes the annual review much easier
  • More productive
  • Constructive, thought provoking guidance

We’d Like To Change

  • Some sessions are too similar or too regular
  • Some sessions are too close together
  • The process is too time consuming so could it be shortened?
  • No 360 feedback
  • There’s nowhere to document the managers feedback

And So…

We now had some feedback to work with. Overall the experiment had been a success and was worth continuing with, albeit with some small changes. Overall we had:

  • Designed and rolled out a process which enabled timely, targeted, example based feedback to each team member
  • Enabled each team member to take responsibility for their own development and think about it each month, before the checkin session
  • Set clear, regular, expectations on people’s performance throughout the year
  • Made it far easier to deliver what was required by the companies yearly performance management process.

In the last article in this series I’ll explain what we did in order to improve the process to suit our context even better, and some of the key learnings we got from running the process over a longer time period.


Originally published at Stephen Janaway.