Being always-on means we don’t wait to reach alignment around expectations and performance at the end of a review period. We’re always calibrating and aligning. This removes any sort of surprise in how an individual on the team is doing and recognizes the specific impact they had on the business. It’s also for us to find and perform specific just-in-time growth opportunities for each individual.
Today, continuous deployment is an accepted and common best practice when it comes to building and releasing software. But, where’s the continuous deployment for the individuals? Just like the software we write, we’re iterating on ourselves and deploying new versions all the time. We learn, grow, and try new ideas, concepts, and approaches in our work and interactions. But how are we supposed to iterate and grow when, generally, we calibrate so infrequently? Take a minute and think about your experiences:
- What do calibrations look like for you?
- When was the last time you got feedback?
- How often do you have performance conversations? Do you have them at all?
- Do you always know how your work connects to your job expectations? Do you know how your work contributes to the organizational goals?
- Are you ever surprised by your performance evaluation?
- Were you able to remember, in detail, all of your contributions for the performance review window?
If you receive feedback, have performance reviews, and answer "no" or "I don’t know" to any of the above questions, then unfortunately, you’re not alone. I’ve answered "no" and "I don’t know" to each of these questions at one point in time or another in my career. I went years without any sort of feedback or review. I have also worked on teams where performance reviews were yearly, and only at the end of the year did we try and collect a list of the feedback and contributions made over that year.
I have found great value in performance reviews with my team, if and only if, they are continuous, and always-on. Anything short of always-on leads to surprises, missed opportunities for growth and for corrective feedback to be effective, as well as an incomplete view on individuals' contributions. This culminates in missed opportunities for the individual when it comes to their performance, promotion, and compensation reviews and conversations.
Ye Old Performance Review
Ye Old performance reviews are plagued by the same problems which surrounded software development before continuous deployments. Once every X number of months, we’d get all the latest features and build release candidates, and try to ship our code to production. These infrequent releases never worked out and were always plagued with issues. Knowing that this didn’t work so well for software deployments, why are so many still applying the same thinking to the individuals in their company and on their team?
The Goal of Performance Reviews
Performance reviews intend to calibrate (meaning to capture and align) with an individual on the impact they had on the business over a given period, reward them for that impact, provide feedback, and stretch them into new opportunities (when they’re ready).
Some Problems with Ye Old Performance Reviews
I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall what I had for dinner a week ago, let alone what I worked on months ago. Sure, I can give you the high-level details just like I can for that dinner I had last week. I probably had protein and some vegetables. Which one? Who knows. The same applies with impact conversations. How are we supposed to have a meaningful impact conversation if we can’t recall what we did and the impact it had? How are we supposed to provide feedback, so you can do better next time on that meal, if we don’t even recall what we ate? The specifics around those contributions are important, and those specifics are available now.
An always-on calibration reduces: surprises and disconnects. It helps ensure the presence of specificity when reviewing contributions, and individuals grow into better versions of themselves. What if after that meal I made last week, I got feedback right away from my partner. That meal was good, but it could have used a little more spice. Great. Now the next time I make that meal, I can add some extra spice. If she didn’t tell me for a year, then every time I made it this year, it would be lacking that spice. I would have missed the opportunity to refine my palate and grow. Let’s look more closely at some of the problems which arise with these infrequent calibrations.
When reviews are infrequent or non-existent, we’re unable to know the full scope and impact of the work performed by the individual. Their work isn’t fully realized, captured, and rewarded. If we do try to capture these contributions at the end of a review window, we run into a few problems:
- Our memory fades and we forget our contributions and the impact we had.
- Our contributions often end up taking the form of general statements that lack specificity.
- We suffer from a recency bias that colours how we see the contributions over the entire review period. This results in more weight being given to recent contributions and less to those which happened closer to the start of the review period.
- Managers and individuals can have a different or an incomplete view of the contributions made.
If we are unable to see the full scope of work contributed by the individual, we’re missing opportunities to reward them for this effort and grow them towards their long-term goals.
When reviews are infrequent, we’re missing out on the opportunity to grow the individuals on our team. With reviews come calibration, feedback, and alignment. This leads to areas for growth in terms of new opportunities and feedback as to where they can improve. If we try to capture these things at the end of review windows, we have a few problems:
- We’re unable to grow in our careers as quickly because
- We can’t quickly try out new things and receive early and frequent feedback.
- We’re infrequently looking for new opportunities that benefit our career growth.
- We won’t be able to provide early feedback or support when something isn’t working.
- There’s a lack of specificity on how team members can achieve the next level in their careers.
- Individuals can overstay on a team when there’s a clear growth opportunity for them elsewhere in the organization.
Frequent calibrations allow individuals to grow faster as they can find opportunities when they are ready, iterate on their current skills, and pivot towards a more successful development and contribution path.
The Quarterly Calibration Document
Every quarter, each member of my team makes a copy of this quarterly objectives template. At present, this template consists of six sections:
- Intended Outcomes: what they intend to accomplish going into this quarter?
- Top Accomplishments: what are their most impactful accomplishments this quarter? Other Accomplishments: what other impactful work did they deliver this quarter?
- Opportunities for the next three to six months: what opportunities have we identified for them that aren’t yet available to work on but will be available in the upcoming quarters?
- Feedback: what feedback did we receive from coworkers?
- Quarterly Review: a table that connects the individual’s specific impact for a given quarter to the organization’s expectations for their role and level.
As you can probably guess by looking at these sections, this is a living document, and it’ll be updated over a given quarter. Each individual creates a new one at the start of the quarter and outlines their intended outcomes for the quarter. After this is done, we discuss and align on those intended outcomes during our first one-on-one of the quarter. After we have aligned, the individual updates this document every week before our one-on-one to ensure it contains their accomplishments and any feedback they’ve received from their coworkers. With this document and the organizations' role expectations, we can calibrate and state where they’re meeting, exceeding, or missing our expectations of them in their role weekly. We can also call out areas for development and look for opportunities in the current and upcoming work for them to develop. There’s never any surprise as to how they are performing and what opportunities are upcoming for their growth.
A Few Key Points
There are a few details I’ve learned to pay close attention to with these calibrations.
Review Weekly During Your One-on-one
I’m just going to assume you are doing weekly one-on-ones. These are a great opportunity for coaching and mentorship. For always-on calibrations to be successful, you need to include and dedicate time as part of these weekly meetings. Calibrating weekly lets you:
- Provide feedback on their work and its impact
- Recognize their contributions regularly
- Show them the growth opportunity available to them that connects to their development plan
- Identify deviations from the agreed upon intended outcomes and take early action to ensure they have a successful quarter
Who Drives and Owns the Quarterly Calibration Document?
These calibration documents are driven by the individual as they’re mentored and coached by their manager. Putting the ownership of this document on the individual means they see how their objectives align with the expectations your organization has for someone in this role and level. They know what work they completed and the impact around that work. They also have a development plan and know what they’re working towards. Now that’s not to say their manager doesn’t have a place in this document. We’re there to mentor and coach them. If the intended outcomes aren’t appropriate for their level or are unrealistic for the provided period, we provide them with this feedback and help them craft appropriate intended outcomes and objectives. We also know about upcoming work, and how it might interest or grow them towards their long-term goals.
Always Incorporate Team Feedback
Waiting to collect and share feedback on an infrequent basis results in vague, non-actionable, and non-specific feedback that hinders the growth of the team. Infrequently collected feedback often takes the form of "She did great on this project," "They're a pleasure to work with." This isn’t helpful to anyone's growth. Feedback needs to be candid, specific, timely, and focused on the behaviour. Most importantly, it needs to come from a place of caring. By discussing feedback in the quarterly document and during weekly one-on-ones, you can:
- Collect highly specific and timely feedback.
- Identify timely growth opportunities.
- Provide a reminder to each individual on the importance of feedback to everyone’s growth.
During our weekly one-on-ones, we discuss any feedback that we’ve received during the previous week from their coworkers. I also solicit feedback for teammates at this time that they may or may not have shared with their coworkers. We take time to break down this feedback together and discuss the specifics. If the feedback is positive, we’ll make sure to note it as it’s useful in future promotion and compensation conversations. If the feedback is constructive, we discuss the specifics and highlight future opportunities where we can apply what was learned. Where appropriate, we also incorporate new intended outcomes into our quarterly calibration document.
What Managers Can Do when Things Aren’t on Track.
This topic deserves its own post but short of it is: hard conversations don’t get easier with time, they get more difficult. Let’s say we don’t appear to be on track for reaching our intended outcomes and the reason is performance-related. This is where we need to act immediately. Don’t wait. Do it now. The longer you wait, the harder it is to have these difficult conversations. For me, this is akin to howlers in Harry Potter. For those who don’t know Harry Potter, these are letters written to seemingly misbehaving students from parents for which the letter yells at the student for some misbehaving that occurred. If you don’t open these letters right away and get the yelling over with, they get worse and worse. They smoke in the corner, and eventually the yelling from the letter is far worse when you eventually do open it. To me, this is what I think of whenever I have difficult feedback I need to provide. I know it’s going to be difficult, but all parties should provide this early and give the recipient a chance to course correct. The good news is that you’re having weekly calibration sessions and not yearly, so the individual has plenty of time to correct any performance issues before it becomes a serious problem. But only if the manager jumps in.
What Happens When We Aren’t Hitting Our Intended Outcomes and Objectives
First, it’s important to be clear as to which intended outcomes aren’t being hit. Are they specific to personal development or their current role and level?
Personal Development Intended Outcomes
In addition to achieving the expectations of the role and level, they’re hopefully working towards their long-term aims. (See The AWARE Development Plan for more on this topic). Working with your Development Plan, you’ve worked back from your long-term aims to set a series of the short-term intended outcomes that move you towards these goals. Missing these intended outcomes results in a delay in reaching your long-term aim, but this doesn’t affect your performance in your current role and level. When personal development aims are missed, we should reaffirm the value in these intended outcomes, and if they’re still appropriate, prioritize them in the future. We need to discuss and acknowledge the delay that missing these outcomes have on their long-term aims, so all parties remain aligned on development goals.
Role or Level Intended Outcomes
At the start of a review period, we’ve agreed to a set of intended outcomes for an individual based on the role and level. Once we learn that the intended outcomes for the role or level aren’t going to be achieved, we need to understand why. If the reason is that priorities have changed, we need to refocus our efforts elsewhere. We acknowledge the work and impact they’ve had to date and set new intended outcomes that are appropriate for the time that remains in the review period. If, on the other hand, they’re unable to meet the intended outcomes because they aren’t up to the task, we may need to set up a performance improvement plan to help them gain the skills needed to execute at the level expected of them.
The Quarterly Review
We roll up and calibrate our impact every quarter. This period can be adjusted to work for your organization, but I’d recommend something less than a year but more than a month. Waiting a year is too long and there’s too much data for you to work within creating your evaluation. Breaking down these yearly reviews into smaller windows has a few advantages, it:
- Allows you to highlight impactful windows of contribution (you may have a great quarter and just an ok year, breaking it down by quarter gives you the chance to celebrate that great period).
- Allows you to snapshot smaller windows (this is your highlight reel for a given period and when looking back over the year you can look at these snapshots).
- Allows you to assign a performance rating for this period and course correct early.
If we want to be sure we have a true representation of each individual's contributions to an organization, ensure those contributions are meeting your organizations' expectations for their role and level, and provide the right opportunities for growth for each individual, then we need to be constantly tracking and discussing the specifics of their work, its impact, and where they can grow. It’s not enough to look back at the end of the year and collect feedback and a list of accomplishments. Your list will, at best, be incomplete, but more importantly you’ll have missed out on magnifying the growth of each individual. Worse yet, that yearly missed growth opportunity compounds, so the impact you are missing out on by not continuously calibrating with your team is huge.
David Ward is a Development Manager who has been with Shopify since 2018 and is working to develop: Payment Flexibility, Draft Orders, and each member of the team. Connect with David on Twitter, GitHub and LinkedIn.
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