As a freelance, I often face the request to report on my delivery, to assess the effect of my actions and suggestions. During my years spent as an employee, though, I learned to ask my colleagues for an assessment with the aim of becoming more valuable to them. If we all agree business must be user-centered, then why not be user-centered when working as an employee too?
Feedback is paramount
I have been a developer and then an entrepreneur well fond of agile methods since 2004. Through the practices described in Extreme Programming, I have learned that feedback is a value. All the agile body of knowledge is based on this: no matter where you want to go, to get there, you need to know where you are. Without exception.
Net Promoter Score
A few years ago I started a pleasant working experience in eBay Classifieds, working with the regional Italian team based in Milan. During those years, I learned a user research technique called Net Promoter Score (NPS), a surveying technique that I ended up appreciating a lot.
Basically, the NPS is one single end-to-end, strongly value-oriented question asked the customers about the service or the product you are selling to them:
How likely are you going to suggest [our product/service] to friends and relatives?
Katia, the product manager which was at that time on her way to move and join the Canadian eBay Classifieds team in Toronto, left her handbook about NPS to me, and I got the chance to deepen my understanding of the technique. I immediately loved it because it doesn’t start the analysis of the user experience through a pre-packaged mindset – embedded in a number of questions. It leaves instead the first feedback to be gathered by a single, all-comprehensive, all-round question which allows for structures, for the mindset of customers to emerge.
When I started working as an employee, I expected to meet some yearly performance appraisal procedures and I was not wrong. Neither was I wrong about one thing I already thought: performance appraisal is flawed.
If performance appraisals were themselves subject of a performance appraisal, they would be fired on the spot, for complete lack of results.
— Jurgen Appelo (@jurgenappelo) 29 Novembre 2013
Assuming that it should be measured at all, individual performance always ends up being measured on a subjective basis. Everywhere I saw it measured, I regularly saw rational and objective criteria being spoiled by subjective and personal judgment. Let me be clear: I am not saying evil managers systematically and intentionally spoiled it. I am just saying that even the best intentions of the mildest person fail to deliver a good evaluation if they are just driven by an evaluation grid, no matter how sophisticated the grid is.
- A grid must be decided upfront, which is hard to do, especially with newcomers.
- A grid hardly fits all the profiles a company has to cope with, no matter how fine is the grain of its parameters.
- A grid defined upfront is not robust against reality checks: what if an employee starts delivering lots of value in a direction and in a way initially not expected?
These flaws, no matter the company and no matter the good intentions of the managers involved, always lead back to a late guts-based reshaping of the performance appraisal parameters, goals, and procedure. What was built to describe people’s performance with distance and democratic coolness becomes dominated by gossip, confirmation bias, and backward-looking metrics again. Fail.
Working around performance appraisal
Flash forward, left eBay but still working as an employee in the spring of 2014, I asked myself: “Do I want to know more about how my colleagues perceive my value?”. Yes. “May I consider myself a service provider within a company? Do I know any nice way to evaluate the value perceived by service or product users?” Yes and yes. If my performance appraisal must be necessarily biased, I thought, then why not include and integrate those biases once and for all in a single end-to-end user-oriented question meant to catch all the nuances of my value delivery within the company? Sure, the answers will still be subjective, tainted by prejudice and altered by fondness, but at least they will be cheap to get, open to unknown serendipitous implications, and continuously matching the shape of the real value delivery.
Asking THE question to your colleagues
All in all, how much could I be sure of being of any real value to all the colleagues I was working with month by month? This was the question, the only one worth asking, and I decided to ask it every 30 days to all the people I had worked with.
I created a Google Form with the very basic question:
How likely are you to recommend me as a person to work with?
and I started sending the link to the form every month to all the people who I had had the chance to work with during the previous month, no matter the role, no matter the task. The people contributing with their answers were asked for no name, no further data, and no further details. They could sharply assess my value contribution with a very short question while protected by anonymity.
At first, it was only the bare minimal question, but very soon, I added an optional second question only asked in case the main rating was below 7. This question was expressed more or less this way:
What could I do differently to bring your answer to 10?
My aim was to play a perfection game upon myself. Being focused on my “customers and users” feedback, I decided to shape my improvement as an employee around the feedback coming from my colleagues. Later on, I realized that giving them no chance to provide me with open feedback in case of a high rating was keeping an important set of information hidden from my eyes. I realized I needed to know what I was doing right as well as what I was doing wrong. So I made the second open question available to all the people who answered the first one, no matter the rating given. The second question became:
What’s the rationale for your rating?
[Here you find all the ratings and comments, except for confidential excerpts and data.]
What I learned
I have run this exercise for almost one year, and I learned a lot about my colleagues, about organizations, and, you guessed it, about myself.
Continuous improvement of value delivery
Every month I had the chance to question my own status quo, assessing in a very simple way whether I was truly helping people around me. Simple requests like:
more concreteness in the followup after being engaged in some activities
Help me to receive the strategies of the company, decisions, and be more involved not only if I ask […]
were very helpful in shaping my work, month by month, day by day.
I came to love the end-to-end nature of the question. It encapsulates all the aspects of value delivery: was I using the right skill in the right place? Maybe. Was I skilled enough to be helpful? Maybe. Was I communicating achievements thoroughly and clearly? Maybe. Was I conceiving value itself in a way compatible with the company’s values? Maybe. The assessment I was performing more or less every four weeks was taking care of the whole pipeline, and this was returning a dramatic insight.
Walking the talk
I have developed software for years, for more than 2 decades. Since 2004 I have practiced agile software development, and I have always faced the problem of bringing people with me along this path: friends, business partners, colleagues, and audiences, not to mention coachees and customers. As always, trying to change people’s behavior induces some amount of resistance, and I learned that doing in the first person what you ask to do is one of the key change enablers. Thus I have always asked people to start writing automated tests, but I wrote them first. I proposed to practice Test Driven Development, but I have always coded this way on my own. I started questioning the way we write contracts, and in the face of skepticism, I experimented with my own company first.
So it felt perfectly natural to me now to start asking for different feedback about myself as an employee to directly challenge the status quo of performance appraisal. Once privately deployed this kind of informal, anonymous, and comprehensive assessment about myself, no one anymore could argue it was a request made with no skin in the game. Performance appraisal could suddenly be discussed on a wider level with no protections from ivory towers.
Improved peer-to-peer reputation
When I started and continued to ask for my NPS, people saw I was exposing myself to their own judgment. I had everything to lose. Anonymous colleagues could vandalize my reputation on the mere basis of aversion, but this simply didn’t happen. All the colleagues participating month by month provided me with honest feedback, not always positive, but never violent and never unnecessary.
It is amazing how raising the stakes about yourself and showing that you are playing with your skin in the game makes everyone more respectful and explicitly aware of your presence in the same company. That made me feel good for sure, relying on a network of ongoing real human relationships instead of being just a set of numbers in a goal grid. Even my boss, who would have later expressed doubts about the value of our collaboration, had to score this as a point on my side. This leads to my next point.
Stronger position in negotiations
When the first six months had passed, I could rely on the first bunch of collected feedback to extract some information about my trend. Was I improving? Was I not? Along with my personal NPS data, the company was going on evaluating my performance as usual, and everything was under control, with a clear demand for value and a “good” performance – according to their metrics.
After another six months, things had changed. The layout of the organization had changed, and my role became less defined, spread on too many fronts, and my value less evident to my boss and his boss. It was unclear what the demand from the higher levels of the hierarchy was and I started to feel uncomfortable with the situation. I eventually decided to negotiate an exit from the company.
Still, though, my NPS kept on rocking, stating loud and clear that people working with me side by side, no matter the formal hierarchy, were all acknowledging the benefit of working together. Sometimes they were expressing some legitimate criticisms, but not absolutely denying I was a valuable colleague. Indeed, those real-time critics were validating my whole NPS thing.
That result, more than the official appraisal metrics—according to which, by the way, I was still a good performer—was the key to negotiating a good exit from the company. Once again, collecting data, even just gathering opinions in some structured and continued way, proved its amazing effectiveness for providing arguments in tricky times.
What I’d do differently now
I have asked myself what I’d do differently if I was to repeat this experience or better when I will repeat this experience. This is what I thought:
- Maybe I’d let the chance to sign the feedback. Sometimes I would have loved to ask to someone for deeper insight, for a more articulated opinion, to make me better understand their point of view. I don’t know what I would exactly lose with this. Maybe people would feel forced to provide their name anyway, in spite of the optional choice, and this would cause a drop in participation. Maybe people would be afraid to be the only one not signing, eventually exposing them anyway. I don’t know and I won’t without trying for real. If I will ever do it, I will let you know 🙂
- I would publish the collected answers month by month in order to raise awareness of this operation as a whole team. I think it would have induced more people to join me and would also have reinforced the open culture I was instead fostering alone this way.
- Public or not, I would allow my boss to read my NPS data, maybe even upper managers. I think it would have provided them with some real-time ideas on how to fine-tune their demand instead of waiting for an entire six months before starting to discuss my delivery. When the official appraisal arrived, it was too late. Having my colleagues’ feedback in their hands would not have necessarily meant they agreed, but at least it would have triggered the meaningful conversation that was needed to fix the collaboration before it was too late.
In the end
Please beware: I am not saying that NPS is enough to prove the absolute quality of your work. I am just saying that it is cheaper and better shaped than any other mainstream performance appraisal technique I met. It triggers good conversations because it focuses on how you contribute to the team action with the least assumptions upfront. When proper conversations are in place, the need for assessing performance vanishes away. If you really can’t stay away from performance reviews, if you really have to perform regular appraisals, this is my proposal for a better way.
What I would not do any differently? Gathering feedback. A lot. Always.
Whenever I talk about feedback systems with a new team, usually someone exposes her concern about two aspects:
- Won’t the feedback gathered be too much and overwhelm us?
- Won’t gathering feedback be too costly?
Both concerns deserve the same answer: if you try and learn from your experiment, you also learn how to keep the feedback data cheap to collect and meaningful to read. If feedback is cheap, then it will never be too much.
How are you going to improve the feedback about yourself starting tomorrow morning?
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