How We Improved Performance Reviews — What We Did

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 second post in a series on performance management and review. If you haven’t read the first one on Improving Performance Reviews then I recommend you take a look at that first before reading on.

What Was Wrong?

As I mentioned in the previous article, a cycle with yearly performance reviews doesn’t work. Objectives become irrelevant or forgotten, the business and team landscape changes, and people simply don’t get comfortable being a part of, or good at, something that only happens once or twice a year. As a result the traditional performance reviews and objective setting cycles that a lot of companies use end up becoming de-motivating for both team members and managers and are just something “to get out of the way” each year before moving onto “real work”.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

So Why Not Change It?

Both me and my management team were becoming frustrated by being part of a performance management process with yearly performance reviews that we felt was not enabling us to get the best out of our teams. We wanted to change things. But, as part of a large company with pre-existing people processes, we did not have the mandate, nor the time, to initiate company wide change. So what we did was driven by a need to make both a positive change for our teams and also to still fit within the existing yearly cycle that the company uses. An attempt at getting the best of both worlds. And to fly a little under the radar while we proved the concept.

Let’s not forget, as Grace Hopper once said — “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”.

So we made some incremental changes which we feel has had a positive effect on our team’ member’s career development, their motivation and our motivation too.

So What Did We Do?

When it comes to anything involving people then it pays to seek advice from as many different people and sources as possible. We looked at how a number of different companies were doing their performance management, companies ranging from those that did no formal sessions, to those that did a lot. There was one that really stood out — Atlassian. What Atlassian had done with performance management seemed like something that would fit with our thoughts on the types of changes we wanted to make.

I won’t explain why the Atlassian model is good in too much detail, because they have done a great job of that themselves. I suggest you read their posts which explain much more.

In short, what they had done was take the traditional model, split it into bite sized chunks, distribute these throughout the year and enable timely performance feedback. Exactly what we were looking for.

Now, it’s very easy to read blog post after blog post about other companies cultures and how awesome they are. I’ve seen it argued that a key measure that investors use when deciding which start-ups to invest in is the company culture, and so companies blog copiously about their perfect culture. Even if they aren’t exactly the whole truth. It’s always wise to treat these article with a pinch of salt and find somewhere else that has actually adopted similar changes. Fortunately we found that REED, a large UK based recruitment site had taken the Atlassian model and were using it day-to-day.

So we contacted REED and spent some time with their technology leadership team discussing how they had implemented the Atlassian model and what their experiences were. After those discussions we felt confident that the Atlassian model, while it would require some adaptations to suit our context, was usable, workable and something worth trying.

Start Small And Iterate

Given that we needed to work within the company performance management cycle and policy then we were able to take some parts of the Atlassian model but not all. The model overall splits into four different areas:

  1. Rip apart the traditional performance review — and redistribute the good bits into more frequent sessions
  2. Stop paying individual performance bonuses
  3. Create bite sized chunks (of feedback and career review)
  4. Performance is still evaluated — but no exact rating is given and a two axis feedback system is used to promote a more coaching based set of conversations.

Unfortunately we had no control over the payment of bonuses, and the performance evaluations (a.k.a a yearly performance ‘score’) needed to be fed back every year. Changing this just for my group was not possible and even if we had been able to do so, it would have presented a very confusing view to the team members who are also part of a wider technology team not using our new process. There was also the danger that if we started to evaluate our teams differently then that could have impacted how they were evaluated in comparison with their peers outside of the team, with potentially negative consequences. So we focused on implementing a system with bite sized chunks of feedback and review, together with ‘scoring’ using the same four level system that was implemented across the company.

MVP

The Atlassian model uses six different themed sessions called Checkins to drive performance and career development conversations. These are held monthly, targeted at taking about 30 minutes each and the discussions are led by the team member. Everyone has the same checkin at some point within the same month.

For our initial MVP of the process we decided to use four of the themes:

  • Focus Areas
  • Love and Loathe
  • Removing Barriers
  • Career Long Term

It was very important to explain the different checkin themes to the team, set expectations on what the team member needed to do to prepare and what the intended outcome was of each session. That way we could explain the value that could be gained from each session. We prepared cards that each team member could use to understand more.

Focus Areas

Love and Loath

Removing Barriers

Career Long Term

One Common Timeline

It was also important to ensure that it was clear to everyone when discussions needed to take place. By ensuring that everyone in the group (managers included) had the same themed checkin discussion each month then, as a leadership team, we were able to meet at the end of the month and identify any common themes that had arisen from discussions. For example, was there something that was blocking a lot of people? Could we allocate some budget or additional focus to doing more team building, changing a process, buying more equipment, etc that would benefit the team as a whole? Were there some stakeholders that multiple team members were having issues with connecting with? What was making the team members happy and therefore we should be doing more of?

By having a common dataset at the end of each month we were able to have far more meaningful and valuable conversations about change than we had been able to have before.

We used the timeline below to ensure a common focus across the team.

So What Happened?

In the next article in this series I’ll explain what happened. How did we roll out the new process to the team? How did we continue to evaluate performance in-line with our new monthly process and the companies expectations, and how did we ensure a common approach to preparing and recording the output of each of the checkin discussions? How was the new process received by the team?


Originally published at Stephen Janaway.