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Performance management – an agile approach

Roly Walter
10th February 2020

Last week, we attend our first ever HRD Summit which took place at the ICC in the heart of Birmingham city centre. We’re still quite new at major events, this is only the second one we’ve attended, so we didn’t quite know what to expect. My team and I had a very busy couple of days, with some very intense and diverse conversations. It is so interesting and useful to speak with senior HR people and discover their approach to performance management.

Given that I was going to talk about how important it is for each organisation to find their own path, that meets their individual needs and fits with their culture, it was reassuring to hear so many echo my sentiments! I’m a firm believer that there is no magic formula, every firm is different and trying to impose a rigid approach, slavishly copied from someone, else is doomed to fail.

This is the crux of our philosophy. We work with each of our customers to help them find an approach that works for them. This seemed to resonate with the audience at the summit, so I thought it was worth sharing the transcript here. I hope it encourages you to have faith in creating your own unique performance management approach that works for you.

Performance culture: One size doesn’t fit all

“Good afternoon everyone!

I’m Roly Walter, founder of Appraisd which is an online performance management system. I have 15 minutes to talk about performance management in general – a subject close to my heart. And having worked with hundreds of organisations over the past few years, I’ve got some insights that I wanted to share with you and hopefully you’ll find interesting… eye-opening… possibly controversial… let’s see.

Just before Christmas I made this post on LinkedIn which got a bit of attention, so I thought I’d expand a bit on it here.

Basically, every year around Christmas time you see articles in the industry press and now even in the national press about the dreaded annual appraisal. Here’s one from the Financial Times. It’s the same thing each time: it takes far too long; it feels pointless and so on. I know everyone sitting here will have heard this message before.

In my post however, I have a minor rant not about appraisals themselves, but about these ranty articles. There’s just something annoying about people complaining about the same thing again and again. To me this means there’s something there that won’t quite budge. There’s some resistance. Perhaps even something worth keeping hold of.

For the record and the avoidance of doubt, let me just tell you that I think having a single sit-down performance review once a year with your manager with nothing in between is insane. I think we’re all agreed that frequent, regular discussions with your manager are essential in the modern workforce. Right? In fact, according to a 2018 Forrester paper that was commissioned by Workday, “those with monthly or continuous performance processes are 1.4x to 1.5x more effective at engaging and retaining employees than those with annual processes.”

But I also think it’s insane to ignore the quieter voices that you don’t always hear.

These are real tweets taken a few days ago when I was putting this together. I spoke to a GP friend of mine about appraisals – and that is what they call them – and he thinks it’s a vital system. In fact, he’s training to become an official appraiser!

I’m interested in the grey areas – not the black and white. Let’s just calm down a bit.

A recent study said that 16 % of employees dread the thought of their annual reviews, but presumably this means that 84% don’t[1].

The point I’m making is that performance management is a topic that requires a nuanced, considered approach, an approach of listening (listening to these people!) and finessing. An approach that takes input from the community (your employees) not just the brainwave or ideology of one person. And, also which considers the overall aims of the organisation.

I’m talking about evolution, not revolution. And the problem with my message is that’s it’s not as exciting. The person who makes small incremental changes to the performance management system will not get the glory of the person who tears it all up and starts again. But incremental changes are often the way forward.

Some of the common problems we hear are:

  • it takes too long to decide on a rating
  • information is out of date
  • lose track of what’s happened
  • too focused on assessment not the future

But:

  • we do like to take stock and reflect
  • I don’t realise how far I’ve gone unless we reflect on a year
  • I only want to talk about my career once a year

These are all valid. Let’s bear these in mind while we now strip things back to building blocks.

First let’s look at the ingredients for any performance system – and by system I don’t mean the technology just yet – I mean the processes, the method.

Here are some of the most common tools used to encourage performance. I’m kind of going back to basics here.

Objectives, or goals, expectations, or priorities

All different words for the same thing: they give clarity to employees on how to make decisions. Each employee faces choices every day. Should I do this, or focus on that? These goals will help them decide for themselves on the right thing to do.Everyone should have a goal, even if it’s just to keep the reception tidy for the next 20 years.

How often should you set them? For some people it should be once a month, once a quarter. For others, the same one will do for five years. The question to you is: are you copying what another organisation is doing around objectives because you read about them in the news, or are you finding out what works for yourself? Are you allowing people within in your organisation to adjust the system to suit their department, or level of seniority? No one knows your business better than you, so have the confidence to build an approach that meets your unique needs.

Feedback, praise, recognition

What we hear is younger people want feedback all the time so that they can get ahead and develop themselves, older people are looking more for recognition.Make sure you’ve thought about both when designing your performance management system.

Career and personal development

How often should you have a chat with your manager about your career? How long does it take to make a meaningful difference to your career? Most people don’t get promoted more than once every two years. So why would you talk about it every month? Far better to set the expectation, via your system, that you can have a career discussion every six to 12 months.

What about reflection?

Is it so wrong to reflect on what’s happened over the past year? I don’t know about you, but I love the period between Christmas and New Year – it’s when I get a chance to step away from day to day work and think about making big changes to my life and my family’s life. Is it so bad to take the same approach with work?

For many people an annual review, supported by frequent conversations throughout the year, will be a welcome opportunity to take stock of their work and plan for the future. For other, high-growth, scale-up organisations this simply won’t work. All organisations are different and it’s absurd to take a single methodology and apply it to all.

And within organisations there will be many different types of work, different personalities, different learning styles – it would almost be an insult to them to assume they’ll respond to the same system in the same way.

It sounds more efficient to make everyone in your company use the same forms, the same process, the same cycle. But who’s actually getting the efficiency gain? Probably HR. Not managers and employees who may struggle to fit in to a prescriptive model.

Moving towards personalisation

In this era when your experience of the web, whether it’s your Facebook news feed, the targeted adverts you see everywhere, or even the helpful suggested replies on your Android phone, the personalisation of content to you is becoming the expectation. So, I can see the personalisation of enterprise systems going the same way.

Adopting an agile approach

So, you may be wondering, if you’re thinking about changing your performance management system, how can you possibly get all this right first time? You can’t.

The best companies I’ve seen have an agile attitude that goes like this:

  1. They state that this is a work in progress.
  2. They implement something, anything. Build an MVP.
  3. They make small incremental changes frequently. In software we call this ship early, ship often.
  4. They really listen to managers and conduct retrospectives.
  5. They think aloud: talk employees through their thinking.
  6. They repeat the above.
  7. They understand that this is never finished, it will need to change as the requirements of the business evolve.

What you end up with is not just a good system, but the best possible system for your unique organisation, that can also evolve as your company and your environment evolves.

Thank you.”


[1] Research from Cezanne HR, 2019