Down with the annual appraisal!

Applying agile to people management

As we near the end of the year, people managers across the world will be aware of the looming, ominous shadow of a well-known nemesis – the annual appraisal process. In a vain attempt to avoid identification, this sinister entity also goes by the name ‘end of year review’. In either case, tackling this foe is a thankless task, requiring managers to succinctly sum-up the performance of their line reports while simultaneously developing, motivating and realigning their people. Worst of all, this has to be delivered via a single formal meeting and/or tightly regulated document. Joy.

At Red Gate (my employer), we don’t do annual appraisals. As far as I’m concerned this is a good thing for two main reasons:

1. Annual appraisals don’t work. Certainly as far as them being an effective method of developing people, recognising good performance and identifying opportunities for improvement. They are destined to fail for many of the same reasons that Waterfall software development projects are destined to fail:

  • They involve up-front requirements specification (a.k.a. annual objectives) which fail to respond to the changes that happen throughout the year and don’t encourage people to take advantage of any unforeseen opportunities that may arise.
  • All parties/functions involved in the process work separately on the same project and pass documentation to each other as a means of communication. This leads to misinterpretation and misalignment.
  • They are Big Bang; involving a single, high-value release (appraisal document) that is often unsatisfactory to both parties and contains unexpected content.

2. Annual appraisals are a massive overhead; they take an age to put together. Everyone involved struggles to remember anything beyond the last few months. Additionally, setting meaningful objectives for the whole year is nigh on impossible and time-consuming.

So, at Red Gate we don’t do Annual appraisals, because they’re clearly broken. Instead, we take a more agile approach.

Agile people management

At least once a month, each employee has a “one-to-one” session with their line manager; just the two of them, catching-up, for 30 minutes to an hour. Each monthly meeting is treated like a mini-review, with the employee leading the discussion on what has gone well and what hasn’t gone well in the last few weeks (amongst other things). At the end of the session the two participants agree short term goals, changes and actions for the next month. They’ll review these at the next monthly meeting.

For the line manager, these meetings tend to require a coaching approach rather than a directive one. In any case, regular one-to-ones are an opportunity to recognise great work and give constructive feedback much closer to the actual event than a yearly appraisal allows. Problems don’t get time to grow and fester. New opportunities can be quickly taken advantage of.

Monthly one-to-one sessions work for many of the reasons agile software development works:

  • They focus on repeated, short time periods that can easily fit in your head and be reasonably planned. These iterations can be chained together to deliver a larger  changes.
  • Everyone involved works together on the task, sharing insights and quickly surfacing disagreements.
  • Work is delivered regularly, progress is clear and information is fed back into the process to improve work over the next time period.

Whilst many software development organisations encourage regular one-on-one sessions between managers and their direct reports, they still keep the annual appraisal process as a method of officially measuring performance and developing people. I’d argue they are missing a trick and should start applying the agile techniques they have honed on software projects to their people management processes too.

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