Top two rules of Performance Reviews – How to not make them a Candy Scramble

Just like everyone else I have had many great performance reviews and a couple of stinkers. I had a bit of an epiphany during an Empathy session at Protegra that clarified why some reviews go well and some go very badly.

First things first though. I’m finding these sessions at Protegra on “Empathy” and “Giving and Receiving Feedback” extremely helpful. I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years and this is the first time anybody has understood that Empathy and the process of giving and receiving feedback is an acquired skill. In many ways it is similar to estimating.

No Performance Reviews!

Many people are proposing that we should simply do away with performance reviews. I would propose that performance reviews are like estimates, they are not inherently evil. Could they be used for nefarious purposes? Sure, but almost anything can. I think if you follow the two rules of Performance Reviews you will find the reviews become much more useful and positive. When Performance Reviews are a negative experience it is usually due to what bad managers or leaders do with the review. Yea, kinda like estimates. ūüôā

The two rules

The training provided a great hierarchy on feedback which I found really helpful. There are essentially three types of feedback:

Appreciation – Informal, personal feedback on how someone is doing or has done something recently, Focus is usually just on the past.

Coaching – More formal but still personal Feedback on how someone has done something recently. There also is the added focus of coaching for the future as well as acknowledging the past.

Evaluation – The most formal of the feedback types. This is the performance review. Like coaching the focus is both on the past and the future, but there is also an additional component of ranking or evaluation to some standards of the role or competencies.

Rule #1

The types of feedback need to be provided by the same person in the order listed. I can’t expect to evaluate someone if I don’t have a relationship that has already involved providing Appreciation and Coaching Feedback. But yet, this is exactly what a lot of large corporations do! The manager is expected to gather and provide feedback sometimes with limited direct experience with the individual. This can lead to misinterpretation and incorrect emphasis being placed on some feedback received from others. In many cases, anonymous feedback is also incorporated with no personal context to allow that ¬†information to be used appropriately. This is the Performance Review equivalent of a Candy Scramble.

Many times this is done because the focus is not on helping the individual to grow and get better, but to do annual performance reviews because that is what Human Resources says we need to do.

But if we focus on providing Appreciation and Coaching before we can do any Evaluation, it places the emphasis back where it belongs.

Rule #2

We need to make all types of the feedback a conversation. Again this is where having Appreciation and Coaching feedback sessions will help to make the meetings more conversational. In many large companies you don’t have a discussion with your manager until your performance review. You have no idea what he or she thinks, you get blindsided with feedback, and you say nothing when he or she asks for your thoughts. If you aren’t providing Appreciation and Coaching to your people, you are essentially ambushing them and not building relationships. These managers are usually the same people who remark after someone left that they are surprised and how they never said anything about being unhappy.

If we just have annual reviews without any Appreciation and Coaching discussions, they will never become conversational.

Summary

I found these types of feedback helpful and made it clear where performance reviews have been less than optimal when I had been giving and receiving feedback.

Another component of feedback is to make sure it is specific and actionable. Many times feedback ends up being vague and difficult to understand and incorporate. (Bob, we really need you to show more initiative) If we provide Appreciation and Coaching feedback we will find more specific types of feedback being provided. This is because those types of feedback almost always are grounded in specific examples that have been observed. Then the Evaluation feedback just summarizes what has already been communicated and the Evaluation feedback is less vague.

Of course providing Appreciation and Coaching feedback require time and effort, but the people we work with are worth it.

360 Performance Feedback “in the round” – Abolish the EAT Phase!

performance feedback is one of those issues that seems to confound Traditional and Agile projects alike. Even with Agile projects, sometimes the Performance Feedback gathering is left out of the retrospectives. Frequently the Performance Feedback is left to the end of the project or at major milestones to gather feedback.

I have worked at Protegra for over 8 years. Protegra is an extremely collaborative company that embraces the principles of Lean (& Agile), but we have also struggled to capture high quality, timely, and meaningful information to assist in Performance Feedback. I played the role of Delivery Manager for over 4 years and we frequently struggled with trying to counsel people in regards to Performance Feedback for whom we had little information on. Since we are a project based company and we fundamentally do not believe in supervisors or managers, we also did not have roles that were solely responsible for gathering and delivering feedback. It was the responsibility of each and every team member to do this. So what did we do?

Just like every improvement, we did this through a series of small improvements. Rather than go through each improvement, let me recap where we are now. To summarize, this resulted in three areas of change:

1) Reinforce the terminology of Performance Enhancement to fit the intent and communicate the reason behind gathering the information

We have found that language is very important to communicate the true value of a process. Many people viewed Performance Feedback as being required for compensation. We re-inforced the language of Performance Enhancement and stressed it is about helping people improve on the competencies they want to improve on and that are  important to the role. It is not a cookie-cutter approach where we fit people into a role description and rate them accordingly. This was a fundamental first step on the change. (And it is a continuous effort)

2) Create a Technical Performance enhancement Framework

The next step was perhaps the most difficult. We created a framework that recognized the true competencies of our culture, roles and team members that we are aware of. An important distinction was that these competencies were for our culture and roles and¬†not positions. We don’t have positions at Protegra, but rather a variety of roles¬†anyone can play on projects. Unlike other Performance Enhancement systems, this is a constantly evolving collection of competencies as new competencies and skills become valued¬†at¬†Protegra. Another key aspect was to ensure that the competencies also had objective criteria to be able to help assist people in the evaluation of the competency. Instead of just stating:

“Mike is a good .NET developer and has achieved an intermediate level of Programming expertise”

The competency framework will prompt the reviewer to evaluate competency aspects we incorporate in the terms “good” and ¬†“intermediate level”. For example, for the role of a Software Developer on a project these would involve providing grades on such¬†aspects as:

– Use of SOLID design principles

– Use of Standard Design patterns

– Creation of Change tolerant code

– Creation of Automated Test Cases and test coverage provided

– Among others

This level of information is gathered on less frequent basis due to the amount of effort required. It is very important, but we still needed to capture information quickly and frequently that could feed into this structure.

3) Hold Retrospective Performance Feedback sessions “In the Round”

The most important aspect we then implemented was holding¬†Performance Enhancement sessions “In the Round” as part of each and every retrospective. Unless the Performance Enhancement is incorporated into the process of the project, it will be left behind. Although people were apprehensive at first, as they become comfortable with the process and more comments and feedback was gathered. To be honest we have only recently implemented this process but the results are quite astounding. In this setting we also asked people to consider the following questions when evaluating their teammates:

– What can they do more of?

– What can they do better?

– What can they do less of?

– What can they do differently?

It is still a work in progress but the results are going in the right direction. I believe our approach again aligns with the Agile approach.

The largest realization I had was that holding Performance evaluation Sessions at the end of a project or during a considerable period of time is EXACTLY like having a User Acceptance Testing (UAT) phase. But we were rather having an Employee Acceptance Testing (EAT) Phase.

We need to attack the elimination of the EAT Phase is projects like we have eliminated the UAT phase. This validation of team members needs to occur daily just like our testing!