Friday, September 11, 2009

Rands In Repose: No Surprises

Management What you need to do next

No Surprises

At the end of each fiscal year, companies take stock of their performance. How’d we do? Better or worse? This is a natural time to reflect upon individual performance — this is when your boss writes your review.

In my ideal management world, a review is simply a documentation of well-known facts, your performance over the year. It also contains constructive advice and insight regarding how your boss believes you can improve on that performance. My dream is that you already know all of this information because you’ve been getting year-round feedback from your boss.

I wish.

Whether your manager is consistently delivering this information or not, the feedback, written down, is completely different from receiving it verbally. The path to your brain via the written word is dramatically different than for the spoken word. Reading the highs and lows of the past year makes them permanent and makes them real.

And then there’s the surprise.

Show Me the Money

Bad news. The surprise has nothing to do with money. We’re not talking about compensation here. Yes, you did a splendid job this year and I think they should be throwing raises, bonuses, and stock your way. But it’s even better if it’s clear why you think you did a splendid job. Can you articulate it? And you might know, but does your boss? Can he explain to you, in detail, how well you kicked ass?

I didn’t think so.

See, your boss has you and a bunch of other yous who are all allegedly kicking ass, and all of that ass kickery is tricky to monitor, especially over an entire year. It gets even worse when one of your team members is not kicking ass. Legitimately or not, that’s actually where a lot of your boss’ attention is going. You read that right: someone else’s failure is distracting from your phenomenal year.

Let’s fix that.

There are three strategies I’d like you to employ when it comes to your yearly review. They are:

  1. Ignore the measures, focus on the content.
  2. Prepare for the fact a review is a discussion and, sometimes, a negotiation.
  3. Deconstruct the surprise.

Measures versus Content

I’ve experienced a lot of different review formats at different companies, but let’s boil it down to three buckets. A review describes:

  1. What you did.
  2. How you did it.
  3. What you need to do next.

This is a massive simplification of your review. Your review has all sorts of other corporate and division focus areas, but these impressive sounding labels are still just lenses through which you understand how you did versus what was expected.

For each of the buckets, there are two classes of information: the content and the measure. I want to explain how you can save yourself a lot of sleepless nights ignoring the measures, but first, a definition.

Sprinkled across your review are measures. These are words like “Needs Improvement”, “Satisfactory”, or “Excellent”. These words grab you because they’re easy to understand. They are effectively your grades, and you’ve spent a lot of your formative years waiting for grades to show up.

If I told you that you got an A on a piece of work, you’d internally translate that letter into a pleasant, “I did about as well as I could. Go me.” Grades - measures - are efficient, they do convey information, but they lack essential content. I’ll explain via example.

When I arrived at University of California, Santa Cruz in the 90s, they had no grades. Hippies. At the end of the quarter, you received a written evaluation. For each student in the class, the professor or the teaching assistant would produce a written evaluation — a plain English description of the type and quality of the work produced over the semester.

I don’t know who came up with the idea of ditching grades, but my hope was that they wanted to ditch the measures. The intent of measures are not to derive useful information, they are designed to allow for comparison and, duh, measurement. Am I higher or lower than you? How many As? Are there more As than Bs? It’s interesting data and I’m sure if you took a classroom full of data and plotted it on a graph, you’d learn something. Look! A bell curve!

A measure doesn’t help you in your career. Your performance review isn’t about comparisons to others. They’re about what you did and what you could do. What you’re looking for is the content.

Tell me which is more useful:

“You did well.”


“You finished the work on schedule, the customer was happy with the results, but there were lingering quality issues with the code. Looking at the last two releases, you had 2x the numbers of bugs than in prior releases. Focus on…”

We get hung up on grades, on measures, because they are so gosh darned digestible. They give us the illusion that they show us where we fit, but they don’t tell us what next?

At UCSC, the point of the gradeless report card was to create a vacuum where the professor would actually say something useful. You’re not going to get rid of measures — they serve a distinct purpose — but when you’re first reading your review, I want you to ignore those seductive one-word assessments of your entire year. Their simplicity, while comprehensible, is just going to obscure the complexity of your year.

Rather, look at the content behind the measures. Whatever your particular areas of focus are, does your boss do an effective job of explaining what you did, how you did, and what you could do better? It’s a simple set of requirements, but your boss is going to mess it up, which is why you need to be clear that…

A Review is a Conversation

The written word is intimidating. An assessment of a year is a big deal, so what are you going to do when you sit down with your boss and he hands you three poorly crafted paragraphs littered with the word “significant”?

No, you don’t ask about the raise. You freak out about the paragraphs. THREE PARAGRAPHS? I’VE WRITTEN MORE IN EMAIL THIS MORNING THAN YOU JUST WASTED ON MY YEAR.

Calm yourself.

Think of this pathetic piece of paper as an opening offer — a poor offer. Your job is to transform this travesty into an accurate reflection of your year and you’re not doing this just out of a sense of self-righteousness, you’re doing to set the set the record straight.

This piece of paper is one of the only official documents of your career at this company. If you move, if your boss leaves, if there’s a reorg, this is often the first document reviewed to understand the degree of your asskickery and that means you want your boss to comprehend it.

“But Rands, I was just… so pissed. Three paragraphs? I spent my entire winter on the project. I was FURIOUS.”

Again, your review will contain surprises, and they will rattle you, which is why you prepare with a self review.

Whether your company asks for it or not, the moment the mail from HR alerts you to the review season, you start cobbling together your self review. Same buckets as above. My move is to keep a yearlong log of significant work as a task in whatever task tracking system I’m currently ignoring. Even if you haven’t been paying consistent attention, you’ll be surprised by what you can dig up in a weekend of considering your year.

Take a look at your year. How’d you do? No, really, I’m not actually reading it so you can have an honest opinion. Was it a great year or did you just think it was great? Yes, your boss’ opinion about your year is key, he does sign the checks, but it’s a key surprise reducing technique to walk into the review with an opinion. This moment of personal honesty you’re having with yourself is a big deal because that’s the foundation you’re going to stand on when the three pathetic paragraphs show up. Having a justifiable opinion regarding your year is a powerful, defensible position.

While it’s important to send the self review long before your boss writes his review, it’s more important that you have this opinion, this well-defined opinion, when sitting down to read your boss’ review. Does it document what you did? Everything? Does the description of what you did match your perception? No? Why? Don’t tell me, tell your boss, and make sure he gets it because it’s these types of historical perception mismatches that form an unhealthy basis for emerging misunderstanding and resentment.

The point of a review is the debate — to align your perceptions with those of the person who signs the checks, but even with all this structured healthy debate, there’s still going to be a…


I don’t know what the surprise is. It’s your review. Some of the doozies over the years from mine include:

  • The total absence of recognition for a multi-month multi-team project that kicked ass.
  • A reversal of opinion regarding a piece of work I’d done, usually towards the negative.
  • Completely contradictory areas of improvement.

Unfortunately, the surprise is the point. A review not only forces the alignment discussion, it serves as a warning for the coming year: What do I need to do differently to avoid being blindsided when the next review arrives?

Fact is, you’re never fully going to get your boss on-board with your year. There are opinions he has which aren’t going to change, which means if you don’t want another surprise next year, you have to change.

A review’s value lies not only in the documentation of what was observed, but also what was not.

The Permanence of the Written

In many years of reviews, the only consistency I’ve noticed is that they’re getting shorter. My unsubstantiated paranoia is that lawyers apply subtle corporate pressure to retain less descriptive documentation of what actually happened in the company. But perhaps it’s just a growing professional laziness.

Whatever the reason, a brief review is just sad. If you’re staring at three useless paragraphs, you have a couple of problems. You’ve got a company that allows crappy reviews and you’ve got a boss who is unable or unwilling to articulate either the quantity or quality of work you’ve done.

That’s all sorts of screwed, but it’s only complete breakdown only occurs when you don’t react.

The first review I wrote was awful. It was three paragraphs derived from scanning status reports from the past six months. I sat in the room as she read the review and she didn’t have to say a thing for me to understand that I’d be spending the weekend actually writing the review. I got an accusing, furious glare. You didn’t even try.

So I did.

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