Rethinking Performance Reviews

Last week, my colleague Sameer Patel put out a blog on a topic that’s been lingering in my “there’s got to be a better way to do this” pile for quite a while.  The topic:  Rethinking Performance Reviews.

Patel’s blog, titled “Why Performance Management needs to be disrupted. Pronto”, describes what both managers and employees already know and sense. Performance management is possibly the most soul-sucking activity at work. Patel calls out the process and describes it as little more than rushed data entry into systems of record the night before the system locks down. He’s pretty much spot on!

We’ve all been there. For many employees and managers alike, performance management season implies a “checking the box”, meaningless exercise. With changing employee expectations when it comes to continuous feedback; and an accelerating pace of change in business overall, the annual or bi-annual process becomes even more meaningless as business becomes far more fluid, with objectives and tactics often being adjusted and changed throughout the year.

There has been lot of effort rethinking the performance management “process” by both organizations and technology firms. Most recently, Deloitte shared their new vision as cited in HBR.   Deloitte found that completing the forms, holding the meetings, and creating the ratings consumed close to 2 million hours a year (yikes!).   Most of this time was eaten up by leaders’ discussions behind closed doors about the outcomes of the process (double-yikes!).

While Deloitte’s vision for the future of performance management has merit with its use of data science to gather insights on individual and team performance, it (and most other performance management processes) still have a very distinct flaw. Its purpose is mainly to rate and compensate people, however, this process hardly ever facilitates any type of meaningful feedback or dialogue. While most HR professionals would argue that managers ought to have discussions and share feedback with their employees on an on-going basis, in reality, it is the exception.

When it comes to giving and receiving effective feedback, it is a topic that is right on top of the list for many employees. They actually want it and firmly believe it can improve their performance. According to Sarah Canaday, author of the book “You — According to Them: Uncovering the blind spots that impact your reputation and your career, when it comes to feedback, many people have a similar response: “Sure, I get feedback from the boss in my annual review.” That’s important, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The kind of feedback that can have a genuine impact on your career is deeper and broader. It goes beyond measuring how well you met the goals or the deadlines; it uncovers how your colleagues feel about working with you, how you communicate and collaborate with them, how they perceive your ability to handle stress and adversity.

One organization that decided to essentially “hack” the performance management process is Medium (Hat tip to Robert Richman for this awesome example), a popular blog-publishing platform founded by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in August 2012.   Much like Deloitte did, Medium spent much time doing research, looking at their team’s personal experiences with reviews, and outlining their guiding principles for a performance management process that would meet the needs of their fast-growing company. What they came up with for their objectives is very different than Deloitte’s. What’s different? Almost everything.

Medium’s Five Guiding Principles

  1. Better Experience = Quality Input = More Meaningful Output.  This is arguably the key point. Something that’s been neglected for years is the experience for employees and managers. For the most part, today is deemed as administrative and involves forms, spreadsheets, systems, etc. This only makes the experience of reviewing people painful and agonizing. Ever met anyone excited about doing performance reviews? Most managers dread it. Forms, discussions, meetings…when does real work get done? No wonder we get lousy results.  We must make the reviewer experience better.
  2. Explicit Expectations. If expectations for what people are accountable for aren’t explicit, how are they supposed to know what to do and be measured against? Clearly articulated expectations are a must. Nothing new here, but yet there are so many opportunities to really be clear on where the performance bar is set and what is expected.   There are no short cuts here, except investing the time in an open and continuous dialogue.
  3. Build for the Long Haul. Business is always changing, that’s just reality.   But why does performance management reset every year or six months?  Can you really be a superstar one year and not meet expectations the year later? Reality is that some goals will take longer than 6 months to achieve.   Professional development can often take years of following a well-crafted plan. Continuity from one review to the next is necessary over time to make it relevant, credible, and truly growth-oriented. Stitch them together over time, and have a narrative that unfolds.
  4. Guided, Not Dictated: People respect feedback from peers, while wanting guidance on what they should/shouldn’t focus on from managers. A performance management process should always source from both peers + managers, but the manager guides.
  5. Goals Matter. Goal-setting is actually important, not a throw-away or something to be rigged (unless managers fear what happens when their people succeed, or their people are afraid of failure—in which cases there may be bigger problems to contend with).

What Medium’s team came up with likely looks like no other performance management system on the planet.

For capturing feedback from managers and peers, they used MadLibs, a fill-in-the-blank game started in 1953 as their format of choice. Why? Back to guiding principal #1 — Creating a better experience for Reviewers.

Traditional performance management systems, which typically feature open-ended questions (e.g., “What should this person start, stop, and continue doing?”) can be debilitating and massively time consuming for the reviewer, and difficult to synthesize/make sense of. On the other end of the spectrum, numeric grading systems (e.g., “Gabe scores a 7 out of 10 on Leadership!”) can be reductive, arbitrary and inactionable — and often leave reviewers shrugging their shoulders.

With the MadLibs format, it becomes easier to synthesize patterns and identify outliers: Standardized fill-in-the-blank answers enable Medium to line up reviewers’ responses next to one another, recognize and distill patterns, and easily identify the outliers (which they are able to either dismiss or probe more deeply on).

Here’s an example of what a MadLibs feedback form looks like:

I can count on Gabe for ____________.

He is viewed within Medium as ____________. He directs his energy toward ____________, and does so with ____________ effectiveness.

At his best, Gabe is ____________, ____________, and ____________. His strengths include ____________ and ____________.

When things aren’t going well, he does/is ____________ and ____________.

Some areas for growth include ____________ and ____________. He could operate on a whole new level if he were to ____________.

In the next six months, I’d like to see him explore possibilities in ____________ and ____________, and stretch his skills in ____________. Specifically, I’d recommend he connect with ____________ or try ____________.

What’s an example of when he totally crushed it?

What’s an example of a situation he didn’t handle well?

If he were an animal, he would be a ________ because ________. [metaphors can be informative + lighten things up]

The process

Medium treats the process as a way to write a continuous narrative about employees. Each review cycle focuses on a chapter per-se, with a continuous narrative of the employee’s development and performance.

  1. Step One / Assignment: Gabe’s manager, Naureen, assigns between 4-7 reviewers (including Naureen herself) to provide MadLib feedback on him.
  2. Step Two / Fill-in-the-Blank + Synthesis: Madlibs are sent to the reviewers with responses subsequently synthesized into a coherent, compelling compilation.
  3. Step Three / Let’s Talk About It: Naureen (manager) and Frank (People Ops) together sit down with Gabe for ~30 minutes to talk him through the feedback, get reactions, and begin to discuss what’s ahead. Naureen gives her take on it (“I like the suggestion to grow empathy skills, and wouldn’t pay as much attention to developing your JS chops”), and at the end of the conversation Frank shares the Doc with Gabe so he can always have access.
  4. Step Four / Goal-Setting Time: Gabe has the next two weeks to develop stretch goals for himself, which come in the form of personalOKRs. He needs help and looks to others (including Naureen, but also his friend Dan in engineering) to help him out.
  5. Step Five / Closing Out Chapter One: Naureen, Gabe and Frank sit down one more time for 15-30 minutes to tweak OKRs and finalize Chapter One ofThe Story of Gabe.

Six months later they’ll do it again, and add it to The Story of Gabe — next time as Chapter Two.

So what has Medium actually achieved with this reworked process?   Well, a few things:

  1. An Experience that Doesn’t Suck. Or dare I say, almost fun? The Madlibs format is straightforward. People know what to expect when they rate employees and employees become familiar with the format by which they will receive feedback.   Most of all, it covers pretty much everything there is to cover and doesn’t sugarcoat the typical opportunities for improvement/development that makes most managers shiver before they deliver feedback to employees.
  2. Synthesized Feedback.No matter the system or process, synthesizing feedback is nearly impossible when it comes in free-form formats.   Numeric ratings are much simpler to synthesize, but again they are reductive, arbitrary and inactionable (we are not scoring the Olympic ski jump event; and even that system is often argued).   With the Madlibs format, feedback from multiple people is easily synthesized and patterns can be quickly identified.
  3. Meaningful Feedback. Despite the simplicity of the format, it is fairly comprehensive and begs for meaningful conversations where feedback is shared and clear objectives are set.   There are no short-cuts such as checking boxes or assigning a rating, there’s actually helpful content and context to each question.
  4. A Continuous Narrative. This isn’t a linear process and developing an employee often doesn’t follow the organization’s deadlines.   The notion of performance reviews as a narrative that offers value to both managers and employees is critical.

While not every organization will be able to adopt what Medium has done, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better way to revamp a process that has lost all meaning years ago.   We need to be going back to the drawing board and much like Medium did, focus on the last-mile. An exceptional experience at the front-end of the process will always create meaning and value.


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