I like hacking – a different kind of appraisal

I thought I’d share a recent hack that has been effective, simple and useful, and – it’s about appraisals.

It’s interesting  how appraisals make people groan; in my experience it can be an opportunity to spend time reflecting, focusing, consolidating learning and building on achievements.  It can be GREAT.   It can also be a horror story where cowards take an opportunity to utilise a process to undermine,  or scaredy cats to say nothing, offer nothing, appear to think nothing,  or  perhaps  – it becomes bureaucratic nightmare with no perceived value.

I think I was lucky in my past; I usually looked forward to my appraisal; my chance to have my say, talk about me and my achievements, and sometimes to hear some insights that shifted something.  In my years managing I saw one to ones, team reflections, appraisals as a core part of my work as a manager; I’m still slightly gobsmacked at the amount of people who do not have one to one time with their teams/their managers. I have so many questions:

  • What are they (managers) doing I wonder to myself if they are not constantly talking with their teams?
  • How do they know how the work is getting done, what the problems are, what the successes are?
  • How do people get their own needs articulated, let alone get met if there is not regular reflection and sharing?

Teardrops on the office floor

I worked in an organisation where our appraisal and reward schemes placed an equal importance between the how and the what, and where attention, effort and energy were placed on educating managers and staff about the whole cycle of performance management.  (It started with an audit of objectives where I was appalled to find a list of 30 job tasks clipped to appraisals as “objectives” and other lazy objectives such as “Employee X should live the company values”.  Save me)

Surprise surprise

My least favourite boss ever, someone I didn’t respect, didn’t appear to respect me, demonstrated that he did pay respect to the appraisal process, and reinforced for me the value of a well prepared discussion. After a thoughtful description of how he viewed my contribution he asked me to think at the end of our discussion whether I was “present” in that organisation, or trying to recreate my past.  An ah ha moment.  I remember the impact of that more than I remember being pissed off at the rating he gave me.  (I can shrug at that, although what a divisive way of working we have created there, and obviously I do still remember it!). I still find value at the insight and am grateful that he thought so hard about me and that his question enabled me to move into the present.  A grudgingly increased respect.

Labour of love

In a past life, I spent hours on calibration, when done well – a useful and insightful way to develop capability to differentiate; but always a chore -right?

If we’re managing performance effectively, we know on a day-to-day what our teams/selves are doing well, what we can do better etc.  The annual reflection then doesn’t need to be about the day-to-day; but can be an incredibly valuable way to integrate the year’s work, learning, and create space to think.  It could be a labour of love, rather than the hard labour it appears to have  become.


I like hacking

So here’s the hack.

I am working with a Leadership Team designing an appraisal process.  They wanted an appraisal that would be congruent with their leadership style of transparency and collaboration.   They aren’t keen on red tape, conforming, whilst being committed to upholding principles of good governance.

  • We kicked around ideas, decided that doing something shared, rather than the usual behind closed doors would be interesting, and perhaps challenging.
  • Each person would reflect about themselves, and about each other as their preparation.
  • They would meet as a group to share reflections; time for each person, time for the collective challenges.
  • The write up would be as a narrative – no forms.
  • We would avoid objectives, but focus on direction, we would focus on strengths, aspirations and the future, rather than weaknesses, disappointments and the past.

Each person was invited to think about the following questions about their own contribution:

When you reflect back over your time with the organisation and in particular the last two years, what achievements are you most proud of?
• What strengths and qualities do you bring into your role with your organisation?
• What stretches and challenges you?
• What do you need from the your team/your boss to enable you to fulfill your potential?
How would you like to see your time with the organisation described when looking back at some future point?

Each person was also invited to prepare for each other; informing their thinking through asking these questions:

What do you consider to be this person’s key achievements?
• What strengths do they bring into their role with the organisation?
• What have you noticed that stretches/challenges them?
• What can you offer to help them achieve their potential?
• How would you describe their overall contribution to the organisation?

Our original thinking was that I would design the process with them, and they would facilitate the discussion themselves. In the event, busy people, they decided they would benefit from my presence.  I took the lead in loosely structuring the time,  steering them through the process, asking clarifying questions, helping them stay with any areas of potential discomfort, and – wrote up the notes.  I believe speed is of the essence in capturing the key discussion points.

No forms, no ratings, no nervous mumblings or anxious preparations, just open, mature conversations, energy directed to achievements, recognising learning, forming deeper connections.

Thinking about and discussing strengths and potential created an open environment that meant that there was no awkward feedback moments; what needed to be discussed, got discussed; it was an honest and frank reflection.

The group process also allowed us to focus on organizational futures and accelerated agreement on some actions that may have been put on a list somehow.

They loved it.

I’m sure our hack needs hacking itself – how do we integrate it with everyone else; are there other elements we can explore; through not having ratings what is the impact for remuneration?

However, I think we can get so hung up on making things neat and tidy, that we can corner ourselves into a box having spent a lot of energy developing a perfect process.

Gwaaan, have a hack.