Our journey to perfecting the often dreaded biannual performance review process is underway. In my previous post, I mentioned that we’ll keep you informed. Below is an overview of what we’ve done so far, and some of the challenges we’ve encountered.

1. Rip apart the traditional performance review
If you ask your managers and staff to invest time and money in a process, it’d better be worth it. And in our opinion it wasn’t – well, not in its traditional format.

First we analysed the traditional performance review model in detail. We asked what made people perform better and what parts of the reviews worked well. We talked at length with other tech companies about their experiences and asked if the negative aspects of reviews tend to disappear after a while. After all that, we decided to:

  • Remove the unconstructive focus on ratings and get rid of the distributed curve.
  • Stop paying performance based bonuses. Instead, we gave everyone a salary bump. (We prefer to pay top market salaries rather than bonuses.)
  • Rethink the time consuming all-encompassing performance reviews

2. Create bite sized chunks
coaching model.jpg
We wanted to introduce a lightweight and continuous model of conversations designed to remind people to – every now and then – talk about topics other than daily operational stuff.

The thing with our traditional review was that, despite good intentions, it focused mainly on two sections: the manager rating and the employee’s weaknesses. This makes total sense as the first thing a person will be curious about is their rating (which also affects their bonus). Even if a person receives a “good” rating, most of the time will be consumed by justifying why the person didn’t get an “outstanding” rating. We changed the following:

  • All sections should receive equal attention. We think that the 360 review feedback can better be discussed in a separate conversation. Same goes for performance ratings, strengths, weaknesses and career development.
  • We split the sections into separate conversations with their own coaching topics. Every month we allocate one of our weekly 1:1s to a coaching topic.
  • We created conversation guides to help everyone stay on topic, and to supply tips and tricks on how to facilitate the conversations.
  • We don’t shy away from giving honest performance feedback. In two of the monthly conversations, managers will still check in with their reports to evaluate performance. However, there will be no rating on a numerical scale. Instead, during in the check-in the manager indicates (on an axis from never to always) roughly how often their report has demonstrated top-performance. We prefer people not to concentrate on the exact rating definitions, but rather on having a good and honest conversation on how they have gone in the past 6 months.

3. Sprinkle with some solutions-focused and strengths-based coaching
Management guru Peter Drucker said it ages ago: If you want to succeed, make sure you focus on your own strengths. To do that, people first need to identify what they love and loathe about their current job. It’s a pragmatic and constructive starting point for any manager when discussing non-operational things with their staff. We believe great managers should try to understand what their team members love and loathe and help find ways – to some extent – to reduce time invested in activities the person absolutely loathes and to do more of the things the person loves doing. Longer term, both the organisation and the individual win!

In engineering environments we are trained to focus on problems. There are endless post mortem discussions and retrospectives which are very valuable. However, sometimes it’s important to focus people on solutions and to build on previous successes rather than possible reasons for failure. It’s the managers’ role to guide their teams in this process.
Three problems we bumped into along the way

  1. Team sizes: One of the first problems we highlighted was when a small group of managers said they wouldn’t have enough time to discuss these topics once a month. And that highlighted a larger problem. Some teams were plainly too large for one manager to handle. This meant that, whilst the team was productive and well oiled, some people rarely met with their direct manager to discuss non-operational topics. That was one of the reasons we decided to form smaller, more agile teams and introduce a group of new team leads.
  2. Systems: To my knowledge, there is no HR system that offers an integrated approach including regular 1:1s, coaching 1:1s and performance review check-ins. There are the heavy and traditional performance review tools like Successfactors and SumTotal. Conversely, there are some cool continuous feedback tools like Rypple – who I understand are designing a more integrated solution for Facebook. But at this stage no tool really meets our needs. We’re currently trialling a new lightweight application called Resonance. I’ll write up an evaluation of the app in my next post.
  3. Coaching conversations: The managers (some very new to the role) had little to no experience in how to handle a coaching conversation. We talked Ian Adair, an executive coach working with Australian IT leaders, into training our managers in how to have a good coaching 1:1s.

We’ve learned a lot and it will probably take several iterations to get this right. But the feedback has been so encouraging and it has sparked positive and constructive chats all across Atlassian. Next post, I should be able to update you about some of the learnings regarding the check-in process and the application we’re trialling.

Atlassian’s Big Performance Review Experimen...