The Soda Academy
"We decided to try our hand at designing a performance management system that could keep pace with the way our team worked."
"The real win is that we’re having conversations that energize rather than drain us."

Peter Kang, Barrel

Ditching the Performance Review

Ditching performance review

What if we did away with performance reviews?

This is a question that our management team debated last year after our latest series of performance reviews. We had introduced new changes to the format in hopes of stimulating engaging discussions and deeper feedback, but the overall feeling was largely the same. There were a few insights, but we were mostly glad that they were done and that we didn’t have to worry about them for another six months.

We work in an industry that prides itself on providing strategic thinking, crafting great designs, and building wonderful experiences. How was it, then, that we were content with having mediocre performance reviews that left both supervisor and employee exhausted and unenthused?

Having tinkered with the performance review format for years with limited success, we felt that the review itself should be questioned. It had become a bloated experience. An hour-long conversation that took place twice a year was expected to include discussions about performance, professional development, compensation, and goals for the next six months. We had grown overly reliant on the performance review, and it was the dominant piece of our performance management system. We decided to try our hand at designing a performance management system that could keep pace with the way our team worked and could provide a better experience for both supervisor and employee.

The performance review, at its core, is a conversation between supervisor and employee. The problem was that the conversation wasn’t very good. We decided to design our system by using conversations as the building blocks. What kind of conversations would be most engaging and helpful to both supervisor and employee? What behaviors would help to facilitate better conversations?

We mapped the types of conversations that could happen between supervisor and employee:

  • Timely conversations focused on specific performance feedback: If the supervisor, through observations or collaboration, notices an area for improvement, the conversation should happen right away so that the moment is fresh on everyone’s minds. The discussion focuses on what was observed, what could be done better, and actionable next steps.
  • Regularly scheduled check-in conversations: These regularly scheduled meetings, every 2-4 weeks, are for the supervisor and employee to discuss how things are going with projects, professional growth, and workload. It’s important for the employee to understand the goals of these conversations and for the supervisor to come prepared with good questions to prompt deeper insights.
  • Conversations about the company: These conversations can happen one-on-one or with a few other employees. It’s an opportunity for the employee to provide feedback about areas where the company itself can improve, and also a chance for the supervisor to answer questions or share information about company-wide initiatives and goals. We also supplement this with anonymous surveys asking employees for feedback.
  • Conversations about career and professional development: These can supplement check-in conversations with more focused discussions about skills development, career goals, and evolving responsibilities. Having these at least once a quarter helps us stay on top of the shifting landscape of our industry and ensure that our team is adopting new capabilities at the individual level.

A great conversation has powerful effects. It increases employee engagement and aligns both supervisor and employee towards the same goals. However, it’s also difficult to achieve and requires the right conditions and consistent behavior. Here are some things we’ve noticed:

  • The ability to listen (truly listen) becomes a paramount skill for the supervisor. Listening is not something that comes easily for everyone.
  • Supervisors cannot be burdened with too many direct reports, otherwise the whole system falls apart. Management needs to commit to a reasonable number of direct reports per supervisor. Documenting conversations and following up on discussions ensures that these conversations build on top of each other over the long term.
  • Changing up the conversations so that they take place inside and outside the office can have positive effects. Some employees will prefer having conversations while walking outside or at a coffee shop versus being face-to-face in a conference room.
  • Clearly articulating the design, goals and deliberateness of these conversations helps the team understand that they’re not being burdened with random meetings. Also, giving employees the opportunity to give feedback on the conversations will help evolve and enhance the performance management system.

We’ve noticed gradual shifts in our team’s behavior through some of our changes. People are starting to get more comfortable about giving each other open and continuous feedback that is specific and actionable. We’re also having more productive conversations about professional development and setting realistic goals in 2-3 month increments. The real win is that we’re having conversations that energize rather than drain us.

We still have quite a bit of work to do on our performance management system. Moving forward, we’ll continue to assess and re-assess our efforts. Mirroring the way we work with our clients and on projects, we’ll ask ourselves a familiar question… Is this the best possible experience we can build?

Peter oversees the disciplines that deliver expertise and creativity to Barrel’s clients. He co-founded Barrel in 2006 after a short stint as an investment banker. Peter is passionate about exploring the intersection of design, content and technology to create impactful experiences for clients. He also enjoys thinking and writing about company culture and the forces that shape it.