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.

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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.

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How to avoid the busy trap

 

Sand trap

Humans thrive when we get stuff done. But not just any old stuff, stuff that matters. People are born to create. And to accumulate results into a body of work they can be proud of. Conversely, we get depressed when we are simply “going through the motions” with repetitive or mundane tasks that just keep us busy. You’ve probably heard of “make work” which describes pointless tasks that keep someone busy but do not result in any progress towards something valuable. While keeping busy appears a lot like working, the lack of progress on anything meaningful is dispiriting.

Progress is the single most important event leading to positive inner work life, according to the Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School. She describes a positive “inner work life” as the continuous stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that people experience throughout their workdays. And we all know that a positive attitude leads to better efforts and better results.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who get paid for being busy, meaning their output is measured by activity not by value created. Busy people come in earlier, stay later, and never have time for chit-chat in the company kitchen. They are often admired for their work ethic, and praised for their heroic commitment to the company.

But being busy is a trap… as you put more and more effort into something you steadily get less and less out of it. And as you get less out of work you get bored, overwhelmed, sick, and tired. Working a 70-hour week is an amazing feat, but it doesn’t signify any sort of progress. This is a problem that is plaguing American businesses according to a recent study by Mercer consulting that noted, “Diminished loyalty and widespread apathy can undermine business performance, particularly as companies increasingly look to their workforces to drive productivity gains and spur innovation.”

Funny, I just realized the term business, is actually busy-ness.

Business is often managed with policies that force people to work during certain hours and count their vacation days, yet don’t acknowledge the evening or weekend when the employee has dedicated “extra hours” to complete a project or prepare for a big presentation. Business requires such policies because people don’t like to perform make-work.

But much of the work businesses accomplish is not make-work; it’s real work, just not that interesting or challenging. It’s routine, mundane, and predictable. And there’s not a lot of autonomy provided in routine jobs, which is another source of frustration. So are we supposed to submit to “the man” and punch the clock, work for the weekend, and find our joy outside of work? That’s not what successful people do.

A quality frame of mind comes from vision and focus

In order to get meaning out of work, you must have vision and focus. With vision and focus, every moment becomes a quest for quality. A quality frame of mind sparks your energy to engage in the difficulties of real work. As observed by Robert M. Pirsig, in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, A person who sees quality and feels it as he works, is a person who cares.

The quality frame of mind is approached from another angle by Victor Frankel, who illustrates the power of personal choice in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. If a prisoner of war can find joy in a daily routine despite his most terrible circumstances, then I believe it’s possible for anyone to avoid the busy trap or become a victim of a bad job.

But how do you “see quality” as Pirsig suggests? First you have to know what you want from your work. Is it to pay bills? To learn something? To prove something? To fulfill an ambition or desire?

Simply “being present” in a work setting will not result in real work being accomplished. Answer this question and you will have an end in mind, which is habit #2 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. But with the end in mind, you still must have the discipline to focus on only the things that carry you toward that vision.

Despite the value I find in Covey’s Seven Habits, I think for most people there’s still something missing. Vision and focus are necessary to meaningful work, but they are not sufficient to sustain long efforts or overcome difficult circumstances. There’s another more fundamental trait involved here called grit, which I’ve described before. And Jonah Leher of Wired magazine has a similar post.

In reading that post, I discovered a point I hadn’t noticed before in the U.Penn study, which is that many people find deliberate practice not fun. They have a hard time sticking to their planned routine and suddenly find themselves bored or tired, and ready to quit.

So even with a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, and despite great focus on doing the right things to get there, most people still end up in busy mode, going through the motions of routine tasks, but not making any progress (sigh).

Play it out!

According to play expert Brian Sutton-Smith, “Play (is) a kind of transcendence. Play is not just fun, not just pleasurable for its own sake. Play makes it possible to live more fully in the world, no matter how boring or painful or even dangerous ordinary reality might seem. Play is not the opposite of work it’s essential to work.

The successful people I know always say not to do things unless you are having fun doing them. And if you look closely at successful people, they do a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem very fun. So the secret here is not in picking fun work, it’s about making work fun. A grand vision is important to spark greatness, but for many people it’s too far away, too big, and too abstract to keep them energized through routine, repetitive or physically draining activity. A playful heart to go along with your quality mindset brings fun into any routine.

Playing while working is about having small goals built into routine tasks that lift your energies and light your soul. Craftspeople take pride in the precision of a cut, the straightness of an edge, or the smoothness of a surface. This is vision and focus at work. But having the grit to complete a huge floor with hundreds of cuts and thousands of repetitive arm swings takes playful energy.

Jumping_2

Play can simply be about practicing fundamental skills that will help you be a better person. Or it can be more like a game you play with yourself or a work mate to see who can “one up” the other. With a quality mindset and a playful heart, you can dig a hole for no other reason than to dig straighter walls and move bigger shovel loads at a faster pace. When you set parameters and add constraints to challenge yourself, boring work feels like fun a game.

Personal growth is a natural result of meaningful work

When you zoom in to the moment with a quality mindset and play it out during deliberate practice, even the dullest of activities becomes fully engaging, as every new cycle is slightly better than the previous one. You feel real progress and get better results. As I learned through my experience at IDEO, working in this way is a form of prototyping. And prototyping is a great method for discovering breakthrough ideas.

Prototyping yourself leads you to discover things about yourself you’ve never noticed before. These new discoveries are what I learned to call “Blinding Flashes of the Obvious” (BFO’s ) when I worked the ropes course circuit. In these unexpected moments, you catch yourself being yourself, which is the first step in personal growth.

This is an added bonus to avoiding the busy trap. You get better results in your work, but you also get a better self. And it’s fun along the way? What are you waiting for?!

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

Work:
English Wircan “to operate and to function.” Action involving effort or exertion…negative connotation has stuck with the word throughout the history of the word.

Also: a noun describing good deeds, a literary or musical composition.

Play:
Dutch Pleien “to dance, leap for joy, rejoice”… English plegian, “to exercise/frolic”
Amuse or divert. Carry out or practice, perform or execute a movement.

Fun:
Middle English fonnen “befool”… trick, cheat, hoax

Main point: Focus + Vision + Play = Meaningful Work

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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.

 

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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.

 

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It’s a thin line

It’s a thin line between love and hate. This is a great quote to underscore the inherent challenge of delivering excellence or managing to very high quality standards. Recall this great song by Annie Lennox in case you need a soundtrack in your head while reading this.  It’s easy to point out what’s wrong with something, but a much bigger challenge to make it better.

Walking the Tightrope, source: unknown

It’s like walking a tight rope… if you believe high quality is essential to achieving your goal.  On the one hand, you can take the demanding boss or snooty patron approach and simply demand better/more.  This might get you an immediate response, but often elicits such a negative reaction from the people around you that you lose their authentic trust, loyalty, and commitment.

One the other hand, if you tip towards forgiveness and understanding, you actually get less in the moment and hope that next time things will be better.  This might engender fonder feelings from those around you, but fails to set a higher bar, push the envelope, surprise and delight.  It is simply fine (given the circumstances).  Unfortunately, over time, “simply fine” leads to mediocrity.  Eeew.

It’s a difficult competing commitment: be a kind generous human being (like Jesus Christ) or be an innovative bearer of high standards (like Steve Jobs).  Can’t you be both? Sure, and to do so, vision, vigilance, and veracity come to mind.  Introducing the V-3 method of leading for quality!  It helps you walk the line of pushing for mo’ betta, while accepting the inevitable influence of variables, unexpected interruptions, and, well reality taking things back to the lowest common denominator.

  1. Vision: paint a compelling picture of what could be, so others are inspired to act.  In fact, paint is insufficient, you must craft it in Technicolor, no THX.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Powerful imagery has proven impact on individual motivation by “priming” people with impressions about what is possible and how it will make a difference.  More importantly, a great vision helps clarify a choice and “allows” others to achieve versus forcing them to respond to a command.  A clear and compelling vision attracts people who desire the same things as you, making achievement at very high levels of quality more sustainable.
  2. Vigilance: don’t let there be exceptions and don’t let there be distractions from the highest priority aspects of your quality mission.  Allowing exceptions and distractions lets people off the hook before they achieve mastery, and may negatively effect their desire to try next time. See more on this concept in Why Chinese Mothers are Superior by Amy Chua.
  3. Veracity: use facts and present them in ways that inspire continued efforts to try harder.  Providing feedback on progress is essential in support of persistance and high achievement.  But the facts must be relevant and presented in appropriate scales.  One study on goal achievement compared weight loss on a wide scale of 25 pounds versus a narrow scale of 5 pounds and found that participants needing to lose 4 pounds were more likely to slack off in the wide scale (because 4 is small compared to 25 while it’s huge compared to 5).

It’s a thin line between engagement and overwhelm.  One last tip:  if you tell someone something is “not good enough” the next action on your part is to pitch in and help make the situation better.  This is a doubly-good thing because mimicry is a powerful social motivator and it’s energizing to have fresh legs in the face of a difficult challenge!

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