Accelerate transformation with agile performance reviews

After my SWOT analysis of OKRs, I would like to share with you a framework for performance reviews that fit into an agile context. My experience and conviction are that realigning your performance management could be the key promoter of your company’s agile transformation. Sure, there might be other priorities now due to corona. But those who now invest in transformation enablers will also get through the crisis better; because with the approach presented here, you support a culture of constant learning and a willingness to follow the changes in your company.

Why you should take a close look at your performance reviews

There are various formats used under the term “performance reviews”: performance and potential assessments, employee interviews as well as feedback on the status and results of objectives. Still prevailing that they take place once a year, have a binding character and are set up in “top-down mode”. Until now, it is the exemption that employees give feedback to their managers. As you will read below, the framework presented is different, but let me start with the main weaknesses of current practice:

  • The annual exchange of performance, qualification requirements and potential are often no longer in line with the dynamics and complexity in the business.
  • Current practice does not focus on timely and continuous improvement, a positive cost-benefit calculation of the today’s models is questionable.
  • They are based on an outdated leadership and organizational model (top-down, one-size-fits-all). Annual models and continuous improvement – the contradiction is likely to be obvious.
  • The annual cycle overwhelms managers in the objective assessment of performance and potential. Findings from cognitive psychology prove this because our brain is very subjective. Especially in assessment questions our brain relies on short-term and readily available data and impressions (and does not take the complete performance in the year under consideration).
  • Often, the approaches are based on outdated competence models and thus look to the past instead of future requirements.
  • The assessment of a fixed set of competences, usually uniform for a company, is often too rigid. It does not take the complexity of management into account and restricts executives too much. This is especially true if you also make distribution specifications or voting rounds for the individual results. Digital transformation skills are largely soft skills that are not developed sustainably with existing approaches.
  • The approaches promote “single fighters”, but more and more companies are relying on the development of team culture.
  • Executives see little benefit at high levels of effort. Employees, on the other hand, want frequent feedback and often feel unfairly treated in the school grade models of performance assessment.
  • A productive feedback culture is not developed, because conversations take place too rarely and a fearful feedback model is used.

A three-part framework as a promising alternative

Positive results promise a basic framework of a three-part conversation format between employee and manager:

1. Expectations

Short-term to-do’s, important milestones and short-term goals are discussed. The manager explains the employee’s contribution to the team and the company’s strategy. It determines how the manager can optimally support the employee and the team in the points.

2. Feedback

From my point of view, feedback should always be mutual, constructive and on an equal footing. I recommend a format where feedback is not given but requested. In concrete terms, the interlocutors exchange the points on which the feedback recipient would like to receive feedback from the other person in advance of the appointment (read my detailed framework for feedback). It is ideal if, when preparing for the conversation, one also considers how the interlocutor could react to the topics addressed. The advantage of this model is that you have clarity on the issues of the exchange. Uncertainty about content and the nature of the feedback leads to both interlocutors having reservations and even fear of feedback. Neuroscientific findings confirm the approach described here as less fear-moned.

3. Development

In this section, current qualification and training requirements are discussed as well as possible development steps of the employee. The role of managers is changing in the direction of “learning coach”. As a learning coach, the manager discusses with the employee how successful a qualification has been and ensures that learning progress is achieved through demand. In addition, it assesses the progress in soft skills, which are critical to success in the upcoming changes for the company (such as willingness to change, teamwork, sharing knowledge, communicative competence, entrepreneurial thinking, customer orientation…) and combines these observation with support offers.

New roles for executives in agile companies

Use this model as a framework for your new reviews and specify the three sections mentioned above. Dynamics, complexity of the business and your management culture are the guiding principles for concretization. Larger companies in particular will work with ambidextrous models  in the field of leadership and organization. Start with this approach in the areas you want to change (first). You should then introduce your new model there as feedback and learning coach develop through regular application and practice. It should take place at least once a quarter in the three sections described above.

The Learning Coach is a new role for executives and meets the changing requirements for leadership in digital and agile companies. It is an answer to the question of what leaders in the digital economy are needed for. Managers are strengthened in relation to existing approaches in that voting rounds or control requirements are eliminated (also in the interface with talent management). And: Thanks to the approaches of the learning coach and feedback, it is possible to introduce agile principles even in hierarchically built companies.

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