#57 - Performance communication is expectations communication
Plus: Thoughts on management; Defining meaningful key results
Hi, everyone -
Here in Toronto we’re enjoying the traditional season of “False Spring”, where a burst of warm weather and blue skies lures the unwary into putting away winter coats - but even so it’s cheering and encouraging, and spirits everywhere are notably lifted.
I’m going to write a little bit about performance management in the next three newsletters. I have a brief introduction to my preferred philosophy of performance management below; in the next issue we’ll talk a bit about short-term performance management (feedback) in the following we’ll talk about longer-term performance (goal-setting and review), and finally we’ll talk about what happens if people are or aren’t consistently meeting expectations.
When talking about performance management, especially with new managers, I generally prefer to avoid the word performance as much as possible at the beginning, instead talking about communicating expectations. I find this clarifying for a number of reasons:
It avoids unproductive framings such as worrying that these conversations is about blaming the employee for “doing a poor job” or praising them for “doing a good job”. “Good” and “bad” are highly charged words that nonetheless don’t really mean anything absent context. Efficiently and capably doing beautiful work on the wrong things is a performance problem.
It takes the focus away from the past and what was or wasn’t done in that now-immutable time, and towards expectations of the future.
It connects quite different things - immediate short-term nudges on tasks and long-term goal setting - into a framework of talking about expectations.
It provides a framework for thinking about accountability conversations between peers.
It places the burden, properly, on we managers for explicitly communicating expectations, and for having reasonable expectations in the first place.
It correctly equates not giving feedback or having other performance conversations to withholding knowledge of your expectations from the team member.
The thing is, almost all of the team members you will ever work with want to meet your expectations, and are capable or can become capable of meeting them.
New team members, or team members new to particular responsibilities, won’t know what those expectations are. Even experienced team members who do know all the relevant expectations might not know which of several competing expectations are the most important in some particular situations.
As a manager you certainly communicate expectations when assigning goal - but you won’t be able to list every single relevant expectations for every single task every single time someone does something. Those expectations are still there, though, and they need to be consistently met over time. So in addition to taking about expectations before hand it’s important to be able to talk about them afterwards too. In both cases, it’s about guiding future behaviour.
Short-term feedback, and long-term goal-setting and review, are fundamentally about describing your expectations, and recognizing team members efforts as meeting or not meeting those expectations. The resulting conversations are about helping your team members meet your expectations in the future. In some cases - especially as you find yourself working in new areas - it will also be in part about recalibrating your expectations.
Next time we’ll talk about a couple of common formulations for having those conversations around immediate and short-term expectations - giving feedback.
And now, on to the roundup!
Being a Manager
Thoughts on Engineering Management - Ben McCormick
McCormick writes a series of five articles on technical management. The broad topics won’t be a huge surprise to readers, but they’re good reads in that they’re all in a very coherent voice and philosophy:
What EMs do - focussing on facilitating information flow, driving progress forward, and building a sustainably productive team - and that all of those are time consuming
Choosing what to work on - which does a good job of separating the focus from the “rhythms” of certain kinds of routine but important work like one-on-ones, sprint rituals, etc that keep things running smoothly, and the prioritizing the rest on high-leverage work that has the most impact. “Stay Sane, Keep Your Integrity, and Remember That People Matter The Most” is probably as good a single line of management advice as any I’ve heard;
Handling Accountability as a manager, which in our first managerial jobs is very different than the kinds of accountabilities we’re used to
How to delegate - and
How to give feedback - emphasizing candor and the “situation, behaviour, impact” model.
Does it KLAPS? An OKR Rubric - Debra Roberts
You’ve almost certainly heard of SMART goals - a rubric for defining good goals for work. They’re variously defined as some combination of Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Acceptable/Assignable, Relevant/Realistic and Time-based. The fact that A and R’s meanings change from telling to telling suggest, correctly, that they’re not essential. The important thing is - is the goal specific enough that a third party could assess whether it’s met or not? Can you actually measure it, and if so, what’s the metric? And is there a deadline? A goal without a deadline and a way of checking to see if you made it is merely an aspiration.
OKRs - Objectives and Key Results - are like goals for organizations; and they cascade down, to keep sizable organizations aligned and all moving in the same direction. There’s an clearly written (Specific) Objective for the quarter or year (Time-based) with three or four quantitative (Measurable) Key Results that let the organization know if they’re getting there. Higher-ups set the OKR for the organization, and then teams below set their own OKRs so as to support the OKRs above, and so on.
Roberts suggests a rubric for OKRs similar to SMART for goals. Many of us work in teams that are small enough we don’t need OKRs for alignment, but much of what Roberts suggests is useful even for team-based metrics, which we’ve talked about before. Roberts’ rubric is:
Knowable - launching a new OKR with a newly created metric or objective that no one’s seen or used before will cause confusion, not clarity
Leading - is this a leading indicator? Does it show us where we’re going, or where we’ve been?
Autonomous - is it fully within the control of our team, or is it something that others can block our progress on?
Progressive - can we see our progress, or is it a binary where it’s no until it finally becomes yes?
Scoped - is it a tightly scoped objective/metric?
Even just for metrics for individual teams, knowable, autonomous, and progressive are important; leading is good too although lagging has its place.
Even after years doing this work, it’s always surprising how long “temporary” solutions last. MacOS’s “poof” animation was a placeholder that lasted for years.