Moving from Performance Management to Performance Dialogue

I just finished reading Let’s Not Kill Performance Evaluations Yet by Lori Goler, Janelle Gale and Adam Grant. I am in full agreement with the premise of their article: that performance evaluations can have real value to employees. I think it’s clear that understanding “where you stand” is better than having judgments hidden in a black box, only to surprise you when it’s time to discuss a salary increase. After all, open sharing is a natural aspect of constructive human relationships, so it’s destructive to have a secret evaluation going on behind your back.

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Throughout the article they made excellent points, using research to show how most employees would rather have an evaluation than not. I’m not a fan of “killing” reviews, so I am happy to have a solid piece of writing to show that’s not a great idea. Most people would agree that something is better than nothing, and if you’re going to do traditional performance management, I think the approach described at Facebook would be called “best practice.” Best as they point out (among others like Jeffrey Pfeffer) means you gather input from multiple perspectives, evaluate performance over time, and attempt to remove bias from the written discourse (BTW, I love that they are so committed to removing bias, but have to say that most companies I know simply don’t have a “team of analysts” available to conduct that step). Best also includes translating performance ratings into compensation.

Despite the clarity of their points, I still don’t think “best practice” is good enough to make traditional performance reviews worthwhile. Even when done with as much care and diligence as described by Facebook, it’s still a very time consuming, expensive, and unsatisfying process for most participants. It’s still a dreaded, necessary evil that people must suffer through in order to be considered for a raise. I’m not sure how satisfied Facebook employees are with the reviews process, but other research on performance appraisals shows satisfaction levels are well below an acceptable level we’d apply to any other business process. Can you imagine if you accepted a 65% CSAT score as “good enough” in your customer contact center or any kind of product quality standard?

So while something is better than nothing, I think it’s unacceptable that such an expensive investment would be “okay” at anything less than 90% satisfaction for participants.
The trend to “kill reviews” is misguided, but understandable. I think the real problem with performance reviews is more fundamental than the issues of transparency, perspective, and bias. Fixing these issues assumes a paradigm about people and work that is functionally out of date and misaligned with what high performance people need to be successful. Ask one successful entrepreneur when a performance review helped them improve (actually ask them all!). I think that’s um, never. That persona couldn’t even stand getting through school, let alone have a boss give them a rating. Isn’t that a really interesting conundrum? It makes me wonder if there might be other dynamics underlying high performance that we don’t fully understand in the HR and OD bubble.

original-faxTo me, using performance reviews is like using a fax to send information to your insurance company. They need paperwork to justify their actions because their processes and tools are built around audits that review PAPER. Their well-designed controls don’t allow their agents to have email addresses or a printer, so you can’t send an attachment for them to print and file. Because of their sunk costs in legacy systems, customers have to print, sign, scan and fax so their agents have something physical to file. Despite the fact the paper actually originated in some “newfangled” digital transaction. Pretty crazy, huh?
Solving the problems with performance reviews is not about how to deliver them better, it’s about taking a step back to wonder, “What’s the best way to help people perform at their best?”

This might seem like a tangent, but in order to truly fix performance reviews, we need to dig deeper into today’s relevant human performance dynamics and create an entirely new design paradigm. Here are some warm up questions to stretch your thinking and start looking at this problem from other angles:
How do we know if people are doing good work?
How do we know if people are doing the right work?
Why do we care about the answers to those questions?
Why do entrepreneurs achieve so much without getting reviewed?
Why do entrepreneurs succeed without having a boss?
Why do some sports teams overachieve while others don’t?
Outside of business, what are other situations where work quality matters?
What do we know about evaluation in school versus evaluation at work?
What do we know about evaluation in families?
What motivates people to do good work?
How do you measure human output?
Who should measure human output?
What information do people need to perform at their best?
How do salaries get set?
Do bonuses motivate people?
What is performance? How do you know when it’s effective?
When have you experienced a performance insight? How did you get it?
When you have you done your best work?
What makes you call that “your best work”?
Why is the sky blue? (Just kidding!)
What’s the difference between effort and output? Do both matter?
Where have you observed “high performance” in action?
What are the conditions that create high performance?
What kinds of relationships exist in high performance situations?
What kinds of relationships exist in low performance situations?
Are relationships an important factor in high performance?
How does the human brain react to threats? What does it do to our body?
How does the human brain react to challenges? To rewards? To compliments?
What is the language of high performance? Are some words better than others?
Where did the term feedback originate?
What’s different about work today versus work 25–50–100–1000 years ago?

I’m sure you could come up with dozens more questions as you pick apart the situation and begin to wonder with a “beginner’s mind” what performance reviews are all about. The next step is to define a clear problem statement that motivates us to persist in this now completely messy process. This is about finding satisfying answers to these questions:

What problem are you trying to solve?
How do you know you have this problem?

To move us forward more quickly here, I’ll share some of the work I’ve been doing over the past decade while struggling with this persistent and complex challenge so many companies face. It took me several attempts at making performance reviews better before I decided to zoom out and rethink the whole concept. I built “best practice” processes at Citibank, Levi Strauss, and Mercury Interactive before arriving at IDEO, where implementing a best practice review system was abhorrent to even consider. Since I was forced into finding a different way, I adopted IDEO design thinking techniques (When in Rome…) to help me create something that would work there.

I interviewed dozens of IDEO designers and support staff to hear their stories about performance reviews, feedback, and other related topics. I did a review of the literature and conducted benchmarking conversations. Not surprisingly my anecdotal discovery netted strong negative feelings about “being reviewed” but thankfully provided all kinds of cool ideas for making improvements.

Well into the process, I asked a sharp young designer in Boston what he thought of 360 reviews. Instead of answering about his experience receiving a review, he flipped the question and answered about giving them saying, “I don’t have time to give feedback to others!”

Given the supportive and collaborative nature of IDEO folk in general, I was taken aback. I asked him to explain a little more, and he gave me the spark that would fuel my approach from then until today. He described how he didn’t think it fair to give someone half-assed, quick snippets of feedback, and that doing a good job of giving helpful, high quality suggestions is a huge burden in addition to his regular work. In his opinion, it was an extreme disservice to provide feedback that was not well thought out and thorough. People would be counting on that information to learn and grow, and providing anything less than would be damaging and wrong.

I had to steep in those comments among the hundreds of other Post-its I had gathered until I found a pattern to guide my design process. The big insight is to recognize that the person who benefits most from feedback is the person receiving it. Sounds simple, but with closer consideration, it reverses the feedback dynamic from giving to gathering. In my experience, most performance management systems are designed from the perspective of the manager or the company. Seeking to “manage” limited financial resources by differentiating people based on their performance is a controlling paradigm that negates the value of feedback from the git-go.

If instead, we start from the perspective of the individual, the problem statement becomes How can I find out if I’m doing my work properly? and a separate issue of Am I getting paid fairly for the work I produce?

So while performance management is about evaluating performance over time, performance dialogue is about discussing the focus and quality of work.
Over time, I’ve clarified this into to 2 separate conversations people need to conduct at work, each with 2 driving questions:

Conversation 1: Evaluating my performance:
Is this the right work for me to do?
Is this work I’m doing good enough?

Conversation 2: Navigating my career:
Do I have the capabilities necessary to succeed in this job?
What capabilities do I need to progress in my career?

Once divided into these 2 conversations and 4 questions, building a process, tools, and procedures to help answer them looks much different than the performance review we all know and hate today. The associated design questions in the new paradigm might look like this:

Who can help me answer this question?
(Satisfies a need to identify key stakeholders like manager, peers, clients)
What are good ways to gather input from others?
(Based on deep understanding of predictable human dynamics)
How can I make giving input/perspective easy for my stakeholders?
(Places the burden on me not them)
How do a make sense of their answers?
(Leads to tools like a survey I can use to increase my skill/efficiency)
How often should I ask these questions?
(Helps me define the nature of my work)

In its most recent iteration at Thrive Market, I’ve started using a technology platform called 15Five to enable Performance Dialogue and make it scalable and efficient. 15Five provides the organizational reporting framework, a bundle of great question-building tools, and modern ways (like social media) to engage others in collaborative discussions about the focus and quality of work. But technology alone is not sufficient to make this fly. The “self-directing, self-correcting” behaviors we need to achieve personal and professional growth require refined interpersonal skills and attitudes, so we provide a basic training workshop and coaching to help people understand and engage in the process effectively.

So, How Do I Get a Raise?

Compensation is an agreement between an organization and an individual to pay a certain amount of money for a certain amount/type/scope of work. Performance Dialogue has no direct connection to compensation. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Performance Dialogue ensures work focus and work quality because it is a discussion about work not an evaluation of it.

If you want to have high performance, creativity or innovation in your organization then people need to take risks. If you tie performance conversations to compensation they get corrupted because nobody will share a mistake or challenge under the fear they will get dinged in their rating.

To determine someone’s compensation, you need to evaluate her capabilities against the market. It is a completely different conversation that you have once or twice a year, and is essentially the same process you use when you interview someone for a job in the first place. What does their experience indicate they are the able to do? What job responsibilities can they reliable accomplish? What is the evidence that they are capable of doing the job (and at what level of scope/responsibility/impact)? People with more capabilities generally earn more, so if someone grows in her capabilities, she should get a raise in accordance with what the market would pay her. The fundamental switch here is moving from evaluating performance against goals to evaluating capabilities growth. To clearly distinguish it from Performance Dialogue, I call this process Career Navigation.

Wait, what about poor performers?

Basic performance is a binary problem. Either someone is putting in the effort and making progress or she/he is not. If you determine that someone is no longer interested in putting in the effort, or is substantially unable to do the work, it’s time to part ways. This should be discovered over time via Performance Dialogue and handled long before you engage in Career Navigation discussions. Keeping someone on your team who is not able to do the work is a disservice to everyone involved. Act with care and compassion, but follow through nonetheless.

This is really different

The paradigm shift from manager-led to individual-driven, should not be underestimated as a radical change for most people. In order to engage in Performance Dialogue and Career Navigation successfully, people involved have to operate from a growth mindset, not a fixed one and use inquiry and curiosity (not fear) as the motivation to participate. They also must interact with colleagues, supervisors and clients in a reciprocal partnership and avoid the paternalistic tendencies in most manager-employee relationships.

Behaving with reciprocity does not mean turning the dialogue into a consensus or compromised endeavor that makes everybody feel good. Managers still maintain decision making authority and have the responsibility to ensure goals and standards are met. Employees gain more explicit control over their career options.

The big difference in a reciprocal relationship is the use of questions and agreements, not directives and mandates. It rests on the power of an unconditional, positive question not a passive-aggressive statement disguised as a question. In a Performance Dialogue world, nobody should walk away feeling “tasked” to do something… that’s the old paradigm creeping back. It might take more time up front, but I think it’s better to invest in core development and enable people to become self-directing and self-correcting “creators” over designing a high control system that assumes people are pawns.

The innovation 2 step

2stepOne of the longest standing designers at IDEO, Jim Yurchenco recently retired, and they posted a great video of him sharing some of his career lessons.

Jim Yurchenco : Reflecting on 35 Years at IDEO

The part that grabbed my attention was Jim’s statement that you should “never accept done for good, or good for excellent.” He continues by encouraging us to always ask someone you respect to look at what you are doing and say, “What do you think? What could we do better? Does this make sense?”

Innovation is a team sport, never a solo endeavor

While Jim’s first statement is a pithy, memorable bit of wisdom, the second contains the secret to innovation. Innovation is a team sport, never a solo endeavor. Innovation is a creative, iterative, collaborative process that takes place over time… not a single moment of brilliant insight. Sure, there are many insightful moments punctuating each journey, but without input from others those moments drift away, wither into nothing, or fail to hatch.

Input from multiple perspectives is imperative for innovation

Put simply, input from multiple perspectives is a requirement of innovation. It’s not that “aha moment” you have in the shower that’s the key. It’s how you share that idea with others and allow it to be shaped from an insight into an actionable idea that matters.

But even that secret is not sufficient to produce innovation in a reliable manner. You know the go-and-get-feedback routine… you create a first draft, sketch a concept, or even build a working prototype. Then you run it by a bunch of people to gauge their reactions. Some provide good ideas you hadn’t thought of, some just say “cool” and others give you feedback that just doesn’t seem to fit.

Most people take the good reactions as a sign to move forward, discount the worst comments, and perhaps choose a small improvement to add to their idea so they can get on with their plans. But this process doesn’t really transform the idea––it perhaps rounds off a few rough edges, but mostly serves to keep you in your comfort zone with this new idea. The first round of feedback is like an appetizer that gets the party started, but doesn’t really fulfill your needs.

True innovation develops through sharing information and opinions

After watching hundreds of great designers and entrepreneurs go about their daily routines, I’ve noticed they dance with an idea until it becomes something wholly different than what they started with. Sharing the “thing” you’re working on to get reactions, advice, guidance, etc. is just the first of two steps of sharing. The best innovators share the knowledge they’ve gathered in the first step with another set of people to compare the input and make sense of it. Then they start over with the first step and repeat the cycle many times.

The first step is for reactions and ideas on the thing you are working on. The second step is a meta-level “input on the input” discussion where the innovator gains a much deeper level of critique and synthesis that reshapes and improves the input. Instead of just gathering a bunch of single points and comparing them, the best innovators facilitate a spiraling dialog that might look something like this:

Innovator: Why did you say it should be round, but he said it should be square?

Person A: Well, I hadn’t thought about making it square. That’s an interesting point he’s made.

Person B: Yes, I’m sure it must be square because the technology you need won’t fit otherwise. But I see how round would be more appealing now.

Person C: I see how the technology won’t fit, but I really think the user will appreciate a different form. This feels like a compromise. We had this same problem on another project…

Innovation is the relentless pursuit of solving trade-offs until you reach a breakthrough. It’s not easy, and generally not efficient. It takes time, and most importantly, it takes input from others. Don’t hide your ideas and early concepts—get out there, ask for input and ask again (and again) until you refine and shape your idea into something truly excellent.

Get addicted to curiosity

Feedback is dead. Long live feedback! Here’s some feedback for you: feedback is a red herring. Feedback is an elusive, somewhat repulsive, and sometimes destructive tactic to direct employees towards higher performance. Managers have been schooled for the past 25 years to make feedback a central aspect of their people practices, under the great intention of helping workers see where their efforts are on track and where they are not. It’s often presented under the guise of “development” where employees grow and improve in their careers by knowing what they are not doing right. For the most part, I believe these efforts are intended to help people perform better, but I think the whole concept of feedback is a wild goose chase… a fallacy built on outdated concepts of people and work.

Feedback is a machine language

The root of the problem is that most companies are designed in the industrial model of work where they don’t care much about what their people think of them. Henry Ford (who will serve as our poster child) is famously attributed with the quote “Check your brains at the gate” because he supposedly wanted people to simply follow established procedures and not mess up the assembly line. This worked really well back then to get consistency, scale, and efficiency but has some serious downsides for current organizations that depend on knowledge, creativity, and communication.

We’re now clearly beyond the Industrial Age and smack in the middle of the Idea Economy. And since ideas come from people (not machines), we should adjust our language and use better terms to describe how people behave while working together.

Feedback is for robots

According to Marshall Goldsmith, the top guru of the executive coaching world, there are only two problems with feedback: 1. People don’t want to hear it, and 2. People don’t want to give it. Well, that explains why we have formal processes and lots of rules to make sure feedback is given in a typical company. In his book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Goldsmith provides lots of good advice and useful tips on how to manage feedback successfully. In it, he agrees that the term “feedback” should be changed, so he suggests we use “feed forward.” (Pardon me, and I mean no disrespect, but there’s got to be a better term.)

Feedback is not a human word—it’s a machine word. It emerged as a verb in the mid-1860s in descriptions of mechanical processes and in 1909, Physics Nobel laureate Karl Ferdinand Braun used the term “feed-back” as a noun to refer to undesired coupling between components of an electronic circuit. It jumped into the language of business organizations in the late 1970s as systems thinking began to influence management practices.

You might think it’s just semantics, but to get a more human and less robotic understanding of this situation, let’s start with the terms we use to describe key roles people play at work in a typical industrial organization: executive, manager and employee. Executives set direction, managers direct implementation, and employees accomplish tasks. This is a “top-down,” or hierarchical structure, that works exceptionally well when a market opportunity is clear, a product is established, and execution at scale is the primary function of the corporation. Feedback is what happens when a manager tells an employee that his work is not aligned with the plan. This is a method of control and mimics the operations of a mechanical process perfectly (i.e. a thermostat is a feedback mechanism for a furnace).

In business or life situations where creative output is required (i.e., direction is unknown or ambiguous, a sufficient answer has not been found to solve a problem, or existing tactics are no longer working effectively) a mechanical process is ineffective because there is nothing to control. These situations require human power to discover and invent a path forward—or create.

Curiosity is a positive addiction

So here’s another analysis of feedback. There’s only one problem with feedback: it doesn’t describe what creative people do at work. Creative people are curious. In fact, they are addicted to curiosity. They never stop asking questions and they use what they find out to explore the world, to learn and to grow. They can’t help themselves. As a direction is being laid out they get antsy and before you know it, their hands go up and a question blurts out. Growth is exciting and releases positive chemicals in your body that amp you up. Often the effect comes from a simple question like, “Why?” In a hierarchical organization, this is shut down and the person is considered a problem because they are challenging authority. In a creative organization, questions fuel forward progress.

Being curious is an easy thing to imagine yourself doing. Being concerned about doing a good job, helping others, and making a difference in the world comes naturally to most of us because they are fundamental desires of being human. On a more basic level, being curious about how you are perceived by others is key to social survival.

Here are some examples of questions curious people ask: What do you think? How can we make these things happen? Do you have any suggestions for how I could do this better?

Curiosity is something that is innate to everyone; it’s an attitude, a mindset, or a drive to explore and discover. However, being effectively curious does take some focus and practice.

Being effectively curious

First, recognize that you can be curious along a spectrum, from immediate to long-term, and the types of questions you might ask are different for each end of the spectrum. Immediate curiosity is “in the moment” and long-term curiosity is more reflective and periodic. In the moment, you ask very specific questions and explore options for next steps as a result of an immediate action. A question as simple as, “How does this feel to you?” will bring you new insights from others in the same moment. Or you can play a little game called “likes and wishes.” What do you like about this? What do you wish about this? The intent behind these types of questions is to explore and expand, not to confirm or deny. That’s being curious versus being defensive or obsessive.

Occasionally, you step back to see if you are making progress toward a longer-term goal by asking questions about patterns in your experience. This is the long-view about big picture things in your life or business. In this mode, you are asking, “Is this really what I should be doing with my time?”

Second, you need to make it easier for others to satisfy your curiosity. Nobody responds well to sharp inquisition or challenging questions without a little context. A question like, “Why’d you do that?” Can actually shut somebody down and provoke an answer like, “None of your business!” When you ask a question, help people answer you by expressing your goal, desire, or intent. This converts people to collaborators who are helping you solve a problem versus give you the answer. It also ensures that the advice you get is aligned with where you want to go. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Without some intention, you will get such a broad array of input from others that you can’t make sense of it.

Finally, recognize that sometimes people are shy about sharing their thoughts because they aren’t sure why you really need their advice, and there’s some social risk in their sharing critical opinions. What if you get offended and your relationship is damaged by their critique? What if they get a reputation for being a jerk? Or perhaps they haven’t noticed any issues with your approach, and they can’t think of anything to offer. So it’s very helpful to provide an invitation to the discussion. This serves as an opening in your own thinking and encourages others to offer more than a platitude like “looks good!”

You’ve probably heard someone ask, “How am I doing?” only to get a simple response like, “Fine!” This is not a valuable learning exchange, and the burden to improve it is on the asker of the question, not the provider of the answer. Curiosity drives you to a more involved exploration. If you want to know how you are doing, you have to help someone share her opinion in a sequence that leads to a meaningful exchange:

1. Express intent (I’m trying to…)

2. Disclose a concern (but I’m concerned that…)

3. Invite input (can you help with this?)

4. Explore with curiosity (how would you do it?)

Do this with several people and you’ll have a rich set of ideas to help you make good decisions and accomplish your goals, which will lead you to an ever-stronger addiction to curiosity.

Innovation is a natural result of being human

Our world is faced with a never-ending list of problems we’d all like solved. Some are massive public health and environmental issues that overwhelm us with their complexity. Some are daily nuisances that require simple adjustments in order to put things right. Big or small, complex or simple, when someone makes an improvement to a process, practice, tool or service, he/she is being innovative. Innovation is a natural result of being human. We humans are well-designed to solve problems and adapt to changes in our environment by actively “messing” with the resources we have on hand to improve our condition.

Caught in the rain (Darrell Wong/Fresno Bee)

Watch anyone adjust to an unexpected weather “situation” and you will see what I mean about innovation being core to human nature. People make hats and coats out of plastic bags or newspapers, wrap odd things around them to keep warm, and are suddenly willing to lose major style points when caught unprepared. One time my daughter came home from school and was locked out of the house. The day had been warm and sunny, so she had no coat, just a t-shirt and shorts. As the sun went down and it got colder, she got pretty uncomfortable. By the time I pulled into the driveway after work, she was huddled in a beach towel she had scrounged from the clothesline, and had buried herself under the cushions of our patio furniture. That’s making the most of the resources around you to improve your situation!

Another kid might have been curious about “alternative home entry methods” and found that the second floor porch door was unlocked. But in order to implement that strategy, she would have to be confident in her climbing abilities and weigh the discomfort of being cold against the risk of falling and getting seriously hurt. Given the low threat of hypothermia (her condition was uncomfortable, but not life threatening) I think she made a wise choice with the cushions and towel approach.

Innovation is not about making wild bets on the future or being a whacky creative who dreams fanciful ideas. It’s a careful assessment of where you are versus where you want to be, followed by a series of actions to close that gap. It doesn’t hurt to inject fanciful imagination (I’m sure my daughter was dreaming about a big warm fire or a fluffy comforter wrapped around her), because in those dreams we find the seeds of ideas we can actually implement.  Check out my previous post for a definition of these core skills.

Children are a great source of insight on our natural propensity for innovation. With less concern for negative social consequences, they are built to imagine and explore, and they do it all the time. My son plays with LEGOs on a near constant basis, and it’s amazing to watch his deep level of engagement as he sorts through hundreds of tiny plastic pieces to find just the right one for his latest project.

He’s built many LEGO models by following the prescribed approach in the instructions (he calls the booklets “maps”). His experience with those pre-built models has given him many core components to build on as he invents new structures. He knows how wheels go together, where a driver might sit, how to build a wing from scratch, and how to make a tower that won’t fall down. Mixing and matching these underlying components is a great way to jump-start a new idea or accidentally discover that there are more ways to build a spaceship than the “maps” tell you.

The keys in his natural innovativeness are his willingness to explore and his quick adjustment and continued effort when things don’t work out as imagined. When a structure is not built to handle real play, the feedback is immediate… it falls apart! His natural desire to play out-weighs his frustration with poor construction, so he keeps going.  But there are many times when he gets stuck, and in those moments the “magic” ingredient of innovation comes into play.  Humans are social, and we have a natural desire to help each other, so it’s not surprising that he asks for help almost immediately when he is stuck or frustrated.

The magic ingredient of innovation: asking for help

Sharing your problem with someone else when you are “stuck” brings new ideas and a renewed sense of excitement about what “could be”. When my son can’t figure out how to connect two awkward structures he asks his older sister (or basically anyone who’s within his vocal range) for help. At this moment he is ripe for coaching (motivated to complete his vision, frustrated by his own abilities to pull it off). I call “asking for help” the magic ingredient of innovation because it contradicts the dominant belief that invention (and subsequently innovation) result from a “lone genius” focusing on a problem nobody can solve. Surely, intense focus is a necessary component of complex problem solving, but it is rare that the answer comes from an isolated person devoid of input, discussion, or coaching.

The really big problems in our world require us to work together, applying our different perspectives, styles and modes of thinking to overcome their complexity.

Focus your feedback

There’s one thing I’ve found that separates good feedback from bad.  Really!  Just one: more focused questions generate higher quality responses. Usually you get dead air and blank stares when you ask a generic question like, “Does anyone have any feedback for me?” The typical response, “Uh, fine… uh, really great… yeah, good job!”

Typical response to a generic request for feedback. From: photo.net/photos/zbbrox

It’s a lot of work to give someone good feedback, and most people simply aren’t prepared when you spring it on them like that. Remember, the burden of gathering feedback falls on you, not the provider. So make it easier for others to help you out by asking more focused questions. After you ask a focused question, behave like a curious four-year-old and ask, “Why, why, why, why?” to get underneath surface level generalities to real opinions that help you grow.

Of course if you really don’t want to know how you can grow, and are just asking so you can say you did, you need to return to GO (do not collect your $200) and start over with why it’s important to get feedback in the first place.  See more on that in my post Get Some Grit. Don’t waste your time (or other people’s energy) by asking generic, open ended questions. They don’t work.  For more on why, see my post Ambiguity kills feedback.

Here are some tips for getting focused feedback:

Focused questions generate more complex (valuable) answers

1. Use good manners:
Be curious, persistent, patient, and grateful.  Feedback is a gift, but you have to wrap it yourself.  When you ask one question, follow it up with a deeper, probing question to help the person in his/her thinking.  Something like: “Thanks for that. Do you think if I try that next time I’ll get better results?”  Followed by, “Okay, sounds good.  Has that worked for you?”

2. Focus on priority and purpose:
Ask high level questions that help you determine if you are working on the right things.  For example: “If I do these three things well, do you think I’ll be successful?  Or: “Which of these five things would you do first?”

3. Seek advice before you act:
Sometimes it’s easier to give an opinion before an action has occurred because there’s no implication of judgment. Use questions like, “How would you approach this project?” After you gather advice from several perspectives, review for patterns of agreement and disagreement. Follow up with another round of questions to get advice on the patterns you’ve found.  “I have two opposing ideas on how to approach this.  Which one do you like better?”

4. Invite critique on approach and impact:
Cue feedback by asking for direct opinions that leave no room for one word replies. Bad: Do you like this? Better: How could this presentation be more clear? Best: On slide three, how could I present this concept better?  For critique on the value of your efforts, ask about your impact on the person, team, or organization.  Questions like: “Was my contribution what you expected?”  “How could I have helped our team accomplish more?”  Or, “What could I have done to increase our results by 10%”

5. Cross-pollinate good ideas: Share what someone else has told you to jump-start their thinking and generate discussion.  “I was talking with Dave about this and he said…”  This helps the person you ask learn something about another colleague too.

Final thought: even when you ask a very precise opening question, you are still likely to get a simple answer.  Successful learners ask several polite follow up questions to help those around them warm up to their situation and be more helpful.  Don’t be satisfied with someone’s first answer.

 

Goals are a natural part of work

You can’t score without a goal.  But, compared to other high performance environments (like sports), typical work environments don’t provide enough clarity or focus.  This ambiguity causes people to conserve effort and/or waste energy on the wrong things, leading to lower engagement and lower performance.

 

GOAL! (from wikimedia commons)

Psychologists have discovered much about how our brain handles goals.  One of the defining traits of the human species is our ability to choose what we will do and how we will do it… that is, to create goals.  Goals are central to grit, which leads to greater happiness, which in turn is a source of high performance.

Goals are simply a way to clarify expectations and keep track of agreements about your work, and can help answer these critical performance questions:

  • Am I doing the right work?
  • Is the work I’m doing good enough?

You should use goals to discuss the potential of your work and the progress you are making (or not) towards them.  In their best form, goals are not administrative or bureaucratic processes.  Rather, they are vehicles that help you carry work forward.  An individual or a leader may initiate a goal, but in either case, both people should be invited into the discussion.  In fact, goals can serve as a “boundary object” to engage several people with different perspectives as your advisors, creating the basis for a continual 360 degree dialog.

You can increase transparency and efficiency in your organization by sharing goals, and you might gather them together for a “roll-up” to create a big picture of how everyone is working together.  But keep them lightweight and flexible, as they are most useful in the form of a natural conversation about what you are doing and how you are doing it.

Don’t let goal processes and templates (like SMART goals) overcome the natural simplicity of goals.  They can be written on post-its, scribbled on a napkin, or entered into a web service like Rypple.  The key is that you think about and discuss what’s important in your work and capture it in a very simple statement that has meaning to you.

Key questions for generating goals:

  • What is needed by the business/client?
  • What am I prepared (ready and able) to do?
  • What will I need to accomplish this work properly?
  • Who is impacted by this work and what are their needs?
  • How will I know it is complete?

Goals make it easier to gather feedback:

Think of goals as a “prototype” of the future you can use to gather feedback.  You can ask three kinds of questions about a goal to help you deliver high quality work that others value:

1. Focus- use one or more goals to ask your boss, client, and colleagues if they think you are working on the right things.  Compare them to expectations set out for you by company level mission/vision statements and job level requirements like a job description.

2. Advice- use a goal to ask others for input on how they would approach the task.  When you do this before you act, you make it easier for others to give their full opinion about the “right way” to do something.

2. Critique- use a goal to ask others their opinion on your results.  It’s easier to get feedback if you show what you were hoping to accomplish (with a goal), as it allows people to focus their opinions on the gaps between your intent and the actual results.

For more on this topic see my post Set homerun goals.

 

Simple rules of good feedback

Signal to others you are open to feedback by asking for it.

Based on 3 years of close observation at IDEO and Hulu; and with perspective from my friends at other companies like Rypple, Facebook, Pixar, Mozilla, and Lucas Film; I have distilled these simple rules of good feedback.

1. Ask, don’t tell. Feedback works best when it is delivered to someone who asks for it.  Being invited reduces the social risk of the giver being viewed as too critical or harsh.  And reduces the challenge of finding the right time to deliver it.  Asking for feedback is like putting out a welcome mat that signals you are open to input from others.

2. Focus on the work not the person. People are complex and very difficult (and resistant!) to label with statements like “high performer” or “lags peers.” Add in specifics about a work product/outcome and the context surrounding it, and it’s much more valuable.

3. Cast a wide net. Successful people manage a broad and diverse set of perspectives to discover patterns and develop insights about their own behavior.  If you ask a small set of people who know you well, you will probably get a biased and less trustworthy answer.

4. Don’t believe the first answer. Even with an invitation, remember that good feedback requires the giver to think deeply, and work a bit to provide something useful.  Press the first response, with further invitations like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or similar open ended probes.  If you receive generic responses like, “fine” or “I love working with you” don’t be satisfied.

5. Synthesize and iterate. Once you gather broad and diverse perspective, look at the set of opinions and find patterns across the set.  Then share the whole set with a close advisor and discuss it together.  It may prompt you to ask a more targeted question to get more actionable or focused feedback.

6. Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This works both ways for the giver and the receiver.  You are simply wasting time if you don’t share your whole perspective as a giver or disclose that you know there are areas to explore as a receiver.  Being open and honest is what divides successful players from posers and wannabes.

Remember the whole point of feedback is personal growth, higher performance, and living a more fulfilling life!  Have fun with it.

Make better decisions

There are some people who are naturally gifted at understanding a group vibe. These folks always seem to know the “right thing to do” and are often rewarded well for their savvy. And, kind of like the old LIFE cereal commercial, other people begin to depend on the few that have a sense of right and wrong for decisions.  When pondering a difficult decision they say, “Let’s get Mikey!” and run off to seek direction as if that one person really knows the answer by some divine right.

In this manner, many people rely on their boss for direction.  “We’d better get Jim’s input on this before we proceed!”  While Supervisor Jim may have a good sense of what won’t work, it’s doubtful that he will be able to provide much insight on some new idea or direction.  Of course his opinion matters and his experience helps, but he probably has no more perspective on a new situation than you (sometimes less).   This is a huge threat to innovation, because most controversial decisions are “kicked upstairs” and new ideas are almost always killed.

In reality, great decisions come from being connected to an appropriate set of stakeholders who provide diverse and independent input on a situation.

The magic 8-ball says…

A great boss should say, “Well, I’m not sure about this… who else have you asked?”  This attitude leads people to check things out more broadly before coming to a conclusion.  You’re probably thinking, sure I can ask a lot of people and get 20 different opinions, but I’ll still have 20 opinions… there’s no way to please everyone.  That might be true, but it’s no reason not to proceed.  Since we already know that deciding in a vacuum leads to bad decisions, how might we overcome the problem of having too many opinions?

Ask the Magic 8-ball! (this is a very retro post)  Not that Magic 8-Ball… create a new kind of organization chart that helps you magically determine who to ask and what to ask in order to get better decisions.  It works like this:

1. Clarify your question  (anything can be decided this way, from small to large issues).

2. Determine who cares about this issue (think broadly) or will be impacted by your decision (commonly known as stakeholders).

3. Gather their thoughts on the issue via a series of short 1-1 discussions (build an evolving, proposed solution as you move from person to person, and share it as you go).  This approach is better than a group meeting because it avoids group think or an information cascade that bias the outcome.

4. Test your proposal as you gather input (i.e. ask what they like/don’t like, how they would change it and assure them that you’ll share the “final” proposal before you move forward).

There are two valuable benefits of this approach:

1. You get better insight based on the various perspectives and independent reactions.

2. You build support for your issue as the stakeholders get better context and understand your constraints more deeply by participating in the process.

Here’s one way to chart your stakeholders.  Each “orbit” around you is an existing group (e.g. “sales team” or “senior leaders” or “women in our company”).  Use the orbit to help you identify specific individuals in each stakeholder group and test your breadth and diversity of input.  Tap the wisdom of this crowd by sampling a small set (2-3) of people from each orbit, for a total stakeholder group of  12-20 people.

An atomic organization chart

Feedback starts with you

For the past several months I’ve been closely observing situations where people give and receive feedback, and I’m starting to get some good insights.  It’s still a puzzle to me why feedback feels like a punch in the gut to so many people, when it is an essential component of learning and growth.  So we’re still keeping an eye on that.  In the mean time, here’s some of the latest musings and suggestions:

1. ) You First! People who ask for feedback by disclosing a concern get better results.  Let your providers know that you know you are not perfect and give them an opening like, “I think I talked way too much in the meeting today, do you think I was effective?”  Disclosure reduces the social risk that others feel when asked to tell you something could be better about your performance.  Without disclosure people will take the safe route and give you very little useful advice.

flickr image by redcrashpad

flickr image by redcrashpad

2.) Ask for Help. It is human nature to help each other, and this natural desire seems present at a very early age.  Framing your request for feedback as a need for assistance makes it easier for others to jump in.  It also signals that you are on an authentic mission of growth, which inspires others to act on your behalf.

3.) Be Persistent. Most opening requests for feedback go unanswered or get a generic response like, “Oh, you were fine.” This could be because the person has not formed a useful opinion, or because they aren’t sure you really want to know what they think (the real truth).  So you have to ask again (and again) and help your providers develop their advice for you in the process.

4.) Be Ready! You know feedback is good for you, but so far as I can tell, nobody really likes hearing the specifics of how they could do better.  So you have to be ready when someone uncovers a blind spot or gives you a critical opinion.  Take deep breaths, respect their perspective, and include it in a larger pattern of input you are receiving from several other people, over time.  It’s just their opinion, don’t over react.

Growth is a process, it takes time, and learning how you could be better at anything isn’t usually the easy way out.  Take a cue from elite athletes who have direct, specific, and repetitive feedback on every move they make.  After awhile, it’s just part of your routine and you realize you’re not going to lose your job, friends, and family just because you got some room to grow.

Get some grit

“Setbacks don’t discourage me” is the best single sentence I’ve read in a long time to describe why people succeed.  This quote comes from an article about Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is studying grit. It comes from extensive research exploring traits other than intelligence that are good predictors of future success.  Despite much evidence to the contrary, we are culturally stuck on the idea that intelligence is critical to success (it’s not really that important!).

I don’t know about you, but I associate the word grit with John Wayne, and the movie True Grit.  Grit, according to the University of Pennsylvania “grit study” is defined as passion and perseverance for long term goals. Gritty individuals have consistent interests over time and pursue goals even in the face of failure.  I guess the long term goal in the movie was justice, but John Wayne is surely the epitome of “set backs don’t discourage me.”

The persona of grit

The popular persona of grit

Grit isn’t just about stubborn perseverance – it’s also about finding a goal that can sustain your interest for years at a time.  According to the UPenn study, grittier people are more satisfied with their lives. The article mentioned above goes on to connect grit with the work of Carol Dweck describing the importance of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset as it relates to one’s own talent.

After many years fumbling around with leadership development, learning & development, organization development, and early childhood development, I can say that I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that growth is a critical component of success. Growth is not magic, it’s a process that takes time, energy, and support.

Keys to Grit:

  • Commitment to clear, long-term goals/vision/future state.
  • Constant connection with other people for ideas/input (to overcome setbacks).  That’s right we’re back to feedback again!