Every organisation has their own challenges. It makes sense for each one to approach performance management in an agile way and find their process. In this article, our founder and CEO, Roly Walter, outlines his approach to agile performance management.
What is agile performance management?
Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of organisations to help them find their performance management process that meets their needs and supports their culture. I firmly believe that there is no magic formula. Every organisation 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 our clients and others in the industry I speak to, so I thought I’d explain it in more detail. I hope it encourages you to have faith in creating your own unique agile performance management approach that works for you.
Agile performance management vs traditional performance management
Every year around Christmas time, you see articles in the industry press and now even in the national media about the dreaded annual appraisal. It’s the same thing each time: it takes far too long, it feels pointless, and so on. I know everyone reading this will have seen or heard these messages too. Maybe this is why you want to know more about the agile performance management approach.
I have no issues with people complaining about appraisals. What I do take issue with is people complaining about the same thing repeatedly. To me, this means there’s something there that won’t quite budge. There’s some resistance. Perhaps even something worth keeping hold of.
The beauty of agile performance management is that people don’t have to throw their existing entire performance management process out of the window. It should work incrementally, taking the best of your existing performance management process and rejecting what isn’t working.
For the avoidance of doubt, let me 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 and are a big part of an agile performance management system.
In fact, according to a paper produced by Gallup, Millennials (who comprise the majority of the workforce currently) are looking for regular contact with their managers. In fact, 72% of those who strongly agreed that their manager helped them to set performance goals regularly were also found to be the most engaged at work.
But I also think it’s insane to ignore the quieter voices you don’t always hear. I spoke to a GP friend 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!
A recent study said that 16 % of employees dread the thought of their annual reviews, but presumably, this means that 84% don’t.
The point I’m making is that performance management is a topic that requires a nuanced, considered approach, an approach of listening and finessing. An approach that takes input from the community (your employees), not just the brainwave or ideology of one person. And also considers the overall aims of the organisation. Agile performance management can allow for these things.
I’m talking about evolution, not revolution, when introducing agile performance management. And the problem with my message is that it's not as exciting. The person who makes small incremental changes to the performance management process will not get the glory of the person who tears it all up and starts again. But incremental changes are often the way forward and ultimately are far more practical and cost-effective to the organisation.
Common problems with annual appraisals
Some of the common problems we hear from the organisations who run annual appraisals we speak to are:
- It takes too long to decide on a rating
- Information is out of date by the time the appraisal comes around
- It’s easy to lose track of what’s happened over a year
- The appraisal is too focused on assessment, not the future
But some things are liked about annual appraisals, such as:
- 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 strip things back to building blocks.
How to approach the agile performance management process
First, let’s look at the ingredients for any performance management process — and by process, I don’t mean the technology just yet — I mean the approach, the method.
Here are some of the most common tools used to encourage performance. I’m going back to basics here.
Employee goals, objectives, 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 the right things to do for themselves. Everyone should have a goal — even if it’s to keep the reception area tidy for the next 20 years.
How often should you set these goals or objectives? For some people, it should be once a month, or 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 you? Are you allowing people within 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.
An agile performance management system allows you to make these conscious decisions based on what works best for your organisation. If this is annual appraisals, then so be it. But perhaps it is annual appraisals, plus a 15 minute weekly check-in? There is no right or wrong answer in agile performance management, provided your system keeps your employees engaged and productive.
Feedback, praise, recognition
We regularly hear that younger people, millennials or younger, want feedback all the time so that they can get ahead and develop themselves. Gen Z and Boomers are looking more for recognition. Ensure you’ve thought about both when designing your agile performance management process.
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 in 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. This doesn’t mean that you don’t need regular catch-ups about other day-to-day activities. In agile performance management, it’s not either, or. It can be both or neither, depending on what’s suitable for your employees.
What about reflection?
Is it wrong to reflect on what 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 the day-to-day work and think about making significant 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 won’t work. All organisations are different, and it’s absurd to apply a single methodology to all.
And within organisations, there will be many different types of work, different personalities, and 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, process, and cycle. But who’s getting the efficiency gain? Probably HR. Not managers and employees who may struggle to fit into a prescriptive model.
Moving towards personalisation
In this era, when you experience 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 is becoming the expectation. So, I can see the personalisation of enterprise systems going the same way.
Adopting agile performance management
So, you may be wondering, if you’re thinking about changing your performance management process, how can you possibly get all this right the first time?
You can’t. The best companies I’ve seen have an agile attitude that goes like this:
- They state that their performance management process is a work in progress.
- They implement something, anything. Build a minimal viable product and test it.
- They make small incremental changes frequently. In software, we call this ship early, ship often.
- They really listen to managers and conduct retrospectives.
- They think aloud: talking to employees through their thinking.
- They repeat the above.
- They understand that this is never finished. It will need to change as the requirements of the business evolve. This is truly what agile performance management is all about.
What you end up with is not just an agile performance management process, but the best possible one for your unique organisation. This can also evolve as your company and environment evolves.