Quantification: the act of counting and measuring that maps human sense observations and experiences into members of some set of numbers
The problem with measuring performance
A common challenge of performance assessment is measuring both the magnitude of change in a person’s performance as well as the direction of that change.
For the purpose of our discussion, here are some quick definitions:
- Direction: Whether a person is getting better or not
- Magnitude: How much that person is getting better or worse
As the old saying goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. If you’re trying to get someone to improve at something, you need to be able to not only determine whether they are moving forward (or backwards), but also – and equally as importantly – by how much.
Someone running up your Slope of Expectations needs to be managed very differently than someone who is strolling up … or sliding down.
This is somewhat easily solvable for objective criteria. You can measure how many times a person broke an integration build, the number of times the infrastructure under management went down unexpectedly or whether a project was delivered within acceptable time, financial and quality thresholds.
The problem becomes quite tricky, however, for measuring behavioural criteria, which are generally subjective to begin with. For example, performance plans usually contain behavioural goals, such as demonstrating leadership, or one of my personal favourites: tenacity. I mean, how do you measure leadership or tenacity?
A Performance Quantification Framework
One solution to this problem is to put a framework around how to quantify, measure and record performance indicators, both outcome-based and behavioural. The foundational attributes of such a framework are:
Using these attributes in conjunction with other frameworks (such as the Craftsman Model), you can create a valuable mechanism to provide real insights into a person’s performance. You basically take each performance indicator for a given role at a career stage, and apply the attributes against it. While this might take a little bit of time up-front to set up, it will yield great benefits when you sit down do performance appraisals later.
Lets look at each of the attributes in detail.
Does this performance indicator make sense?
Carefully assess whether the metrics being measured make sense, both in general, and in your environment.
A lot of times I’ve found that these metrics exist because they’re a remnant of the past. Someone copied them from a self-help book they were inspired by, and the metric became embedded in the performance measurement process. That, or someone in management needed labels for check-boxes on the performance appraisal form and they thought tenacity was a good candidate.
If you find this idea amusing – it’s actually not. I’ve worked in places where I’ve had to provide examples of, and justify my tenacity in annual performance reviews. I can tell you its a mind-numbing task.
Definitions and guidelines
A clear understanding of the performance indicator.
To be able to determine the magnitude of change, first you need to agree on the definition. This can be done by establishing clear guidelines and examples of what such behaviour looks like. For example, you could articulate what sort of things qualify as leadership for a given role, or what tenacity would look like.
It’s useful to get these examples publicised and validated by at least the senior members of your team. This doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out democratic process – part of being a good leader is to understand when autocratic decisions are appropriate. However, getting others involved allows the standards you’re setting to be externally validated and ratified.
How often the performance indicator should be measured.
Figure out how often the desired behaviours need to be demonstrated in the appraisal period. This will partly depend on the role and an individual’s stage on their career path.
For example, you can decide that you don’t expect apprentices to show a lot of leadership. This doesn’t mean they may not do so – just that you recognise that they’re young in their career and will generally follow rather than lead. If they show leadership behaviour, then by all means it should be recorded and rewarded – that’s one of the ways to identify high performers for leadership grooming and succession.
Journeymen, however, are expected to demonstrate leadership as a sign of progression. For them, you can decide what leadership means, which behaviours exemplify it, and how often you would like to record it.
The other aspect is how well someone is doing at a particular point. If someone is under-performing, then obviously you have a problem and weekly (or sometimes even daily) measurements are relevant. For high performers who only need to be appraised quarterly, it might be a fortnightly or monthly measurement.
Also remember that making and recording observations requires an overhead in terms of time and effort. This is true in all systems – human or machine – and you’ll need to make a call about how much overhead you’re prepared to bear of your and other people’s time.
The rating system for a performance indicator.
This is can be fairly straightforward or as complex as you want to make it. My advice is to use a simple linear scale from +2 to -2. The negative numbers are required to record instances where the opposite of the desired behaviour was observed. An example of such a scale would be:
||Exceeded expectations, went above and beyond
||Did not demonstrate expected behaviour
||Showed signs of behaviour contrary to expectations
||Clearly behaved against expectations
The description of each scale gradation aren’t that important, as long as the general idea is understood.
Also, remember to keep it simple. It is quite appealing to extend the scale out both ways, or to do fancy things like make it non-linear. Don’t. Keep it simple, and focus on why the framework is being used rather than the framework itself.
Why a score is given for a particular observation of a performance indicator.
When you record a score, always also record the reason that score was given. Again, this can be as short or as detailed as required. Depending on the frequency and the significance of the observation, I usually add enough detail to give me context and refresh my memory when I come back to it later.
One of the reasons for doing this is that it makes you think about the score you just gave. Sometimes I’ll record a score, write out the reasoning, and then realise that the score wasn’t really an accurate reflection of the commentary I’ve written.
Having comments is also useful when sitting down with someone to discuss their performance.You can have a more meaningful conversation when you are able to provide concrete examples of instances where you observed a behaviour that you want to encourage or discourage.
Similarly, if your environment requires it, these records are also helpful for formal human resource processes. For example, you might need to include evidence for justifying an extra performance bonus, or alternatively, to let someone go for consistent under-performance.
Add a pinch (or two) of discipline
A certain amount of discipline is required to consistently use this framework. There’s no point setting up the attributes for each performance indicator across your teams for each person if you’re not going to stick to using it.
Depending on how many people you need to do this for and how frequently, the best way to do this is to add timeslots and reminders to your calendar. All it then takes is perhaps two or three minutes – sometimes even less – to record a score and the reasoning for it.
Because your team is worth it.
Whoa! I hear you say. That sounds like a lot of work.
That’s right. No one said people management was easy. It’s a responsibility, and if you’re taking it seriously, you need to put a lot of hard work into it. Creating cohesive, engaged and high performing teams and a culture to support them requires a lot of effort. But that’s why you do it. That’s why it’s part of your craft.
I’ll write some more posts soon with examples of usage and the sorts of insights that can be extracted from using such a framework. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about any other tools and frameworks being used for quantifying performance.
In an earlier post, I talked about using performance appraisals as a tool to have a personalised, growth-focussed conversation with people about their careers within the context of your organisation’s business operating environment.
It is important to ensure that these conversation are well grounded in the opportunities available and the established career paths you have set up for your teams.
One of the ways I have done this is by adapting the Craftsman Model for Career Management to create a tool that I call Syed’s Slope of Expectations:
It essentially takes the stages along the craftsman journey and plots them on a linear slope, outlining the path one needs to follow to move forward in their career. Remember that this is a model, so it necessarily (over)simplifies things to allow focus on a particular area of analysis.
One of the reasons this works well is that it easy to understand. Everyone gets the metaphor, and it doesn’t require lots of planning or documentation to start using it. You can go out for a coffee and use it to have a casual chat while waiting in in queue for your slightly hot organic weak decaf skim soy caramel latte with extra froth.
How it works
Basically, it can be used to have conversations with individuals and explore one or more of the following:
- Where on the slope they currently are.
- Have they moved on the slope?
- Which direction they’re moving in (or standing still).
- Why do they feel they’re moving in that direction?
- What needs to happen to keep moving forward (or stop sliding back)?
- Is this still the right slope from the last time we spoke?
- If this is the wrong slope, how do we get them to the right one?
This isn’t an exhaustive list. Use these as starting points and go from there. This is an analysis tool, so make sure you ask lots of open-ended and probing questions in a non-interrogative way.
Although it isn’t essential, it also helps to have some sort of career progression framework in place to refer to when having these conversations.
It’s all in the name
When I first called it “Syed’s Slope of Expectations”, it was deliberately meant to be a joke. Everyone chuckled when I first drew it up in a group-wide meeting and explained how it works. But the name has interesting connotations:
The expectations are mine
Potentially the more accurate name is “The Slope of Syed’s Expectations”, since I expect people to put in their best effort at work. If they don’t, then they let themselves, the rest of the team, and the organisation down, and I really want to understand why so I can help them get over it.
It’s an incline
Climbing up, by definition, is challenging. If someone isn’t being challenged, they’re not growing and getting better. Not a good thing. It’s understandable that everyone goes through periods where they just need to consolidate their skills or are going through a major life event outside work. Other than that, they really need to be ploughing ahead.
If you’re not going forward, you’re standing still or sliding down
I really like it when someone identifies themselves in this situation. It requires a keen sense of awareness and contextual understanding, and tells me that I need to invest more time to help this person out. We can explore why a person is feeling this way, whether their perception is just based on some short-term frustration or an actual issue, or how we can find ways to remove impediments from their path.
It’s really about communication
Communication is one of the foundational elements of great people management. Hopefully this tool helps improve yours as you move along your path to becoming a management and leadership master.
I’d love to hear if you use a similar concept, and what your experience with it has been.
Performance appraisals are generally uncomfortable events.
Not just when its my performance that is being reviewed, but also when I’m doing the reviewing. Having said that, I recognise it as an integral part of people management, and without such evaluations it would be impossible to help people develop and move forward in their careers.
Facilitating great business outcomes while enabling people to do interesting, meaningful and challenging work is essentially is what people management is about. If you can focus the conversation on how to progress someone’s career rather than what they’ve done well or otherwise, you actually have a shot at engaging them.
Engagement – one of the ultimate management goals – leads to discretionary effort.
Discretionary effort is what people choose to put into an activity, above and beyond what they are required to.
So how does one go about making performance appraisals a more comfortable event, which can in turn bring about more engagement? Here are some ways that I find helpful.
Not an annual event.
For starters, make the frequency contingent on how much support your staff need to get where they and you want to get to. Some people need lots of discussion and help, some just need little nudges. Figure out where they’re at, agree to a cadence, and stick to it.
Even if you catch up with them once a quarter, it feels a lot less burdensome than a massive career chat once a year.
Also important to note is this is only the committed schedule. If you or they feel like they are going through a challenging situation or are undertaking a stretch assignment, make time to give them extra attention.
Remove the formality.
Make the conversation as informal as you can. A performance appraisal should be a two-way conversation – meaning both parties need to be relaxed and comfortable speaking their minds for it to be effective. Generally this can’t happen in a rigidly formal setting.
If you can do it outside your office, great! If you can do it over coffee, even better. It breaks the ice and turns it into a friendly chat rather than an assessment.
If you need to sit in your office behind your desk in an authoritative position to feel confident, then perhaps you should re-think your career in people management.
Focus on them.
The best way to engage anyone is to answer the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) question for them. Most people I review don’t ever explicitly ask it, and its obvious some have never actually even thought about it. It is however quite helpful to frame the conversation around this so it becomes about them, their career path and their growth rather than a box-checking exercise.
Obviously, all of this has to occur within the context of your business operating environment and your team’s long and short term goals. There’s not much value dwelling on someone’s aspirations to become a world class, full time acrobat in a travelling circus if their primary role at work is project manager.
Use failures as lessons learned.
As I mentioned earlier, the best way to deal with failures and setbacks is to learn from them. A lack of failures and setbacks means someone isn’t really trying to push themselves out of their comfort zone.
Within reason and accepted thresholds, accept and appreciate risk-taking and failures, and provide a safe environment for people to do so. Really interesting and innovative ideas start to surface when people’s constraints are removed and they feel that their manager has their back.
Use weaknesses as opportunities.
Pointing out someone’s weaknesses – even if they are aware of and acknowledge them – isn’t very motivating. Instead, use the issue to have a conversation about the importance of addressing the weaknesses, what potential obstacles may be causing or exacerbating them, and what the path to improvement could be.
Framing the issue this way enables you to change the conversation from one where someone has to defend themselves to one where they are interested in exploring how to get better.
Be honest and transparent.
This goes without saying, but as the old proverb goes, “honesty is the best policy”. If you use lies and deception to extract performance out of people, you will eventually get found out, and the resulting disengagement and resentment will come back to bite you.
If career progression opportunities exist, are real, and are achievable, then that’s great. If they don’t, then do the right thing and let people know.
There are, of course, sensitive matters that you may not be able to fully disclose. Barring those, the more information you can provide to people, the better decisions they (and you) can make. Sometimes those decisions will result in them leaving, but that’s usually a good outcome for everyone involved.
Ask for feedback.
There’s not much point trying to get better at something without getting feedback about it. Apply the same principle to yourself, and get feedback about how the appraisal process feels and works (or doesn’t) for everyone else.
If you’ve made the effort to genuinely help others, given them time and attention, and acted honestly and transparently, most people will trust you and reciprocate with real feedback to improve the process – and your skill at implementing it.
So there it is. Certainly not a comprehensive list, but some of the ways I’ve found to make the conversation more meaningful and effective. Done the right way, performance appraisals can actually be something you and your staff can look forward to.
What are your strategies to making the performance appraisal process better?