Managing Performance

See my previous post for background on this series of posts. The question we are attempting to answer is: How does someone (in this case, my friend Ravi who has 9 direct reports) set performance objectives for teams and individuals so that he does not have to spend too much time directing day-to-day activities?

There are many aspects of managing performance. you can find some of my previous posts here. Of course, Employee Performance Management is a vast area, so is performance measurement, for example see this great introduction (a US govt. office document but useful for everyone) or this article in HR World (“16 ways to measure employee performance”).

Time spent in directing and monitoring day-to-day activities of one’s reports serves many purposes (providing technical guidance, mentoring new hires, tracking performance issues/potential, etc). For this discussion, we just consider the time that needs to be spent because this provides the basis for yearly/six-monthly/quarterly performance reviews. Even though organizations have different ways of doing performance reviews, one of the most common input in this process is manager’s feedback about the employee’s work. To give effective comments during the review, the manager needs to be aware of the details of the work and should be able to provide concrete examples, so the logic goes. This means that managers do need to spend a lot of time with their reports in order to collect this data.

However, if you dig deeper, you will find that in many organizations (and in case of many managers), this detailed data is mostly used to justify a certain rating given for employee’s goals for the appraisal period. This justification is needed because the goals are not specific and measurable enough to afford objective (and mutually agreed) evaluation based on work done in the period. So for example, if the goal is ‘deliver the feature in release X on time and with quality’, it is hard to get agreement on whether the individual met this goal, exceeded this goal or needs improvement. Detailed examples and reasons from the manager (collected during those daily interactions on project work) help gain that agreement. Such data can be used to gain agreement only if it has been collected first-hand, and hence they need lots of time commitment. This time commitment can be avoided with careful goal setting and mutually agreed ways of measuring attainment of a goal.

One of the best ways of avoiding the need for this time commitment is to spend significant time with each individual in setting details goals, objectives, and measurement criteria. In some cases, this could be easy (esp. with organizations which play with lots of numbers, like customer support, test, etc). However, in some organizations, setting objective goals can be very hard. In those cases, what I have found to work is mutually agreed upon measures of subjective goals. For ex, it is hard to phrase ‘deliver the feature in release X on time and with quality’ into very objective measures, for a developer, ‘deliver the feature by meeting all planned release milestones and with 0 known P1 bugs’ come close, but is not perfect. However, If the employee and manager agree on some other measure that makes sense for their world (for ex, in case of Software as a Service companies, number of customer reported issues can be a good measure of perceived quality of a feature, and data is available very soon after the release), it makes measurement more objective, if not the goal. However, an important criterion is that there should be mutual agreement on goals and the measurements.

Once such goals and measures are set, a manager need not spend time just to make sure they know enough about the project to use later. They can be sure that when the time comes to evaluate performance, these measures will help both of them and there will be few surprises and hence cause for disagreement. Time saved this way can be applied in more important activities like mentoring, career discussions, etc.

One important factor in this exercise is the amount of trust that employee has on the manager and on the performance review process. If this doesn’t exist, no amount of goal and measurement setting will help, and even after collecting lots of data with significant time commitment, performance appraisal time will be a bitter experience for both parties.

In the next article in the series, we will talk about Managing 1-1s and how time can be efficiently utilized there, without sacrificing value. Stay tuned.

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