Tuesday 5 July 2016

Tail wagging the dog

This blog is on a subject that is uppermost in my thoughts at the moment – that of performance management, and in particular bringing a new approach into my current workplace.  It isn’t a straightforward prospect though and much as I’d like to wave a magic wand and do away with the annual appraisal, it isn’t as simple as that.

Here isn’t the place to discuss the current approach as I’m about to start what I’m calling a “big conversation” within the organisation so I’ll do that there, but here IS a good place to try to put some of my thoughts about performance management down, as much to organise my thinking as anything and prepare me for that big conversation.

I’d be very interested in carrying on this conversation and thinking with you, if you have time and some thoughts to share.  Let me know if so.

There’s obviously a general trend in organisations these days away from the annual appraisal and similar processes.  This article in Personnel Today highlights the oft-cited examples of Accenture and Deloitte moving away from annual appraisals and comments on their thinking.  And this article from the BBC builds on this by talking about building a coaching and performance culture.

So its not new as a concept, and yet many people struggle with letting go of the annual appraisal, despite almost everyone I have ever come into contact with in every organisation slating it.

From my own perspective, in my HR career I think I have designed 4 different, distinct processes that could be labelled as appraisals (but were called something else…something sexier).  Each one I put an awful lot of effort into, consulted people about, researched widely, designed carefully and launched thoroughly.  Each one I thought was a better iteration than the last and by the 4th version I thought I had something approaching perfection in terms of the annual appraisal.

And all of them failed.

Every one, in the sense that line managers didn’t like them, staff didn’t like them, and the organisations saw them as a tick box exercise that they resented doing because it got in the way of actually doing the job.

So my views on the appraisal have evolved somewhat and I figure if organisations don’t like them and don’t value them, then why keep them?

Is it because we’ve always had them and someone somewhere sometime thought they were important?  Pete Estes, later to run General Motors, said in the 1960s (yes, really) that “if we’ve been doing something the right way for 15 years then in these changing times that’s a sign we are now doing it wrong.” Later he refined this to 5, and even 1 year – and never more is that true than today where the pace of change and technological advance is immense.

So my view is the annual appraisal may have been the right concept back then (I won’t define when “then” was), but the world has moved on.

Of course, organisations need to have a handle on employee performance.  But that isn’t a once a year conversation where both employee and line manager feel awkward.  The examples I’ve cited have brought in a more holistic, continuous process (often using the “check-in” technique) and are more focused on fuelling future performance than reviewing past performance.

But many organisations, despite not liking the “ticking the box” mentality of the annual appraisal, still use it as a comfort blanket and cling to the notion that there must be some good in the process, and push for 100% completion of appraisals as if that makes the system work and proves it is good.

Here, then, is the tail wagging the dog.  Measuring appraisal completion rates says nothing about the quality of the conversation and even if it does result in high completion rates and proves there is an efficient process, it doesn’t make it an effective process.

But I’m struggling to get my head around NOT recording the more continuous “check in” process – lots of organisations need to have some evidence of performance management, but as soon as you start recording it then no matter how good the process, doesn’t it become a differently-timed version of the annual appraisal?

In this article, Deb Siverson argues why changing demographics are at the heart of some of the growing trend towards more regular and continuous feedback, and whilst I don’t want this blog to become a “millennials are taking over” post there is a growing trend towards instantaneous feedback in lots of industries that we need to replicate in the employment relationship.

Here’s some examples:

·         Trip Advisor (and similar) style feedback is now commonplace in many organisations from a customer perspective.  I’m a regular on Trip Advisor, Rated People, Glassdoor, and read reviews on Argos, Amazon, Currys and other places I buy stuff from.  I like being able to see up to date feedback, good and bad, about something I’m about to buy or someone I’m about to do business with.  Why can’t that style of feedback make its way into the employment relationship, with every employee having a feedback rating and comments that builds over time?  Its not the ONLY performance measure, but its an interesting snapshot (even if backward looking) and a way of ensuring feedback is monitored, acted upon and used to measure performance.
·         On almost every social media site there’s the ability to Like, Share, Comment etc on posts you see and read.  That’s another way to look at feedback and it’s a way of life now for those entering the workforce.  And social media is now prevalent in many workplaces, but not necessarily used for performance management purposes.
·         Professional sports all use data and continuous feedback to drive improved performance.  Look at Wayne Rooney – he has access to oodles of data about every game he plays in and probably for all his training sessions too.  He can compare his performance with any other player in his own team or any other team.  He can get feedback from team mates instantly on the pitch in the middle of a game, and can hear supporters likewise.  If he ventures onto social media after a match he’ll see comments from those who watched him.  In this blog I talked about listening to Sir Clive Woodward speak about the use of data and performance analytics in the England Rugby Team, and this still holds true.

I guess what I’m saying is that there are enough examples out there of performance management being done in an instantaneous and continuous way and working very well.  But not enough workplaces are embracing it to manage their staff in a new way and to ditch the annual appraisal. For this to happen, the organisation needs to be clear on what performance actually is.

If they can recognise it, and measure it, then organisations can figure out how to acknowledge it, reward it, or penalise its absence potentially. But that line of sight is critical as its feedback on what is going on. Feedback that ensures that continual focus on performance. 

I often compare the employment relationship to actual relationships and will do so again here.  In a good, effective relationship there is constant feedback from both sides, good and bad.  Holding onto feedback to deliver it at some later stage is never, NEVER, a good thing (trust me, I’ve been divorced) and can create problems and a lack of trust an openness in that relationship.  The same is true in the employment relationship.

But whilst I’ve got the dissatisfaction with the current reality, I haven’t yet got a clear vision of what I want in place of this reality – although I have got a sense of which direction I want to go in.

I am convinced the annual appraisal has had its day, but simply to remove it might mean organisations have no way of managing performance, and no way of evidencing this – so a fine line has to be walked. But how, if you replace the annual appraisal, do you keep some evidence of performance management to show an industry regulator? And how, no matter what format and frequency you install in its place, do you avoid merely substituting one bureaucratic process for another?

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who’s done any thinking on this or achieved success with this route.

Will the tail always wag the dog?

Till next time…


PS in other news, Brexit pushed up the cost of our foreign wedding considerably! But we are just over 50 days away now and I've got to start thinking of a wedding speech. Maybe I should do it as a poem like my recent Ignite?

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