The case study

AQA delivers feelgood factor with good listening and hard data

With Chris Mace, head of Organisational Development

Company info

The AQA is one of the UK’s awarding bodies, holding examinations at GCSE, AS and A-level and offering vocational qualifications.

  • Industry

    Not-for-profit

  • Headquarters

    Manchester, UK, with offices in London, Guildford, Harrogate and Bath

  • Company Size

    c.900 employees and c.40,000 examiners at peak season

In 2017 AQA, one of the most promi­nent exam­i­na­tion and award­ing organ­i­sa­tions in the UK, made the deci­sion to review some of its inter­nal process­es. Senior man­age­ment iden­ti­fied tal­ent man­age­ment as an area that would ben­e­fit from some fresh think­ing, and hired a new team with a back­ground in organ­i­sa­tion­al devel­op­ment to review their process­es and devel­op a new approach. 

The team, led by Chris Mace, began with a strong focus on lis­ten­ing. A cul­tur­al sur­vey, con­duct­ed in Jan­u­ary 2017, was to offer cru­cial data for their even­tu­al rec­om­men­da­tions. This lis­ten­ing work — a con­cert­ed effort to under­stand the sta­tus quo and the organisation’s feel­ings about it — was designed both to cap­ture the infor­ma­tion they need­ed and to show AQA’s employ­ees the impor­tance of the cul­tur­al change project that was to fol­low. This was not going to be a top-down impo­si­tion of a new process, but an essen­tial exer­cise in under­stand­ing the prob­lems and shap­ing their solutions. 

As part of the lis­ten­ing process, the team focused on AQA’s per­for­mance man­age­ment. Whilst a sys­tem was in place, there was a feel­ing that it was not deliv­er­ing either the results or the data the organ­i­sa­tion need­ed. It was cen­tred around an annu­al appraisal, and did include some encour­age­ment to man­agers and employ­ees to have devel­op­ment con­ver­sa­tions. Crit­i­cism cen­tred on the fact that those con­ver­sa­tions weren’t hap­pen­ing con­sis­tent­ly or fre­quent­ly enough due to a lack of clar­i­ty, frame­work and sup­port tools. 

On top of this, there was an option­al goal-set­ting and pro­gres­sion aspect to the appraisal. Peo­ple did have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to set annu­al devel­op­ment goals but — per­haps because it was option­al — only around a quar­ter of the employ­ees used it. Even though the sys­tem was detailed, it was nei­ther cap­tur­ing the data need­ed by senior lead­ers nor was it devel­op­ing the employ­ees that it was there to ben­e­fit. As Chris was to say, months lat­er, It wasn’t real­ly cap­tur­ing hearts and minds”. 

On top of that, feed­back was not deliv­ered con­sis­tent­ly across AQA. Some man­agers used feed­back as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about things the employ­ee hadn’t done rather than focussing on what had been done. In a series of work­shops, employ­ees shared feed­back expe­ri­ences that var­ied enor­mous­ly and were large­ly down to the dis­po­si­tion of the indi­vid­ual man­ag­er. Some were excel­lent by default and incor­po­rat­ed feed­back into their day-to-day rou­tine, but many oth­ers found that much hard­er to do.

The team were focussed on trans­form­ing per­for­mance man­age­ment at AQA and want­ed to do it in a way that empha­sised tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits for the organ­i­sa­tion. The team used their lis­ten­ing work — par­tic­u­lar­ly the cul­tur­al sur­vey — to iden­ti­fy the core challenges: 

  • Peo­ple tend­ed to work in silos
  • The work­ing cul­ture could feel too hierarchical 
  • There was a desire for more account­abil­i­ty, feed­back and clarity.

These find­ings — and research on the chal­lenges oth­er organ­i­sa­tions were fac­ing — formed the basis of the rec­om­men­da­tions to the board. Was an annu­al appraisal the most effec­tive way of devel­op­ing tal­ent? Could feed­back and per­for­mance devel­op­ment be done in a more con­tin­u­ous way? 

We found a gen­uine appetite for bet­ter per­for­mance man­age­ment. When we explained that we could do bet­ter than this as an organ­i­sa­tion, deliv­er­ing mea­sur­able improve­ments, bet­ter clar­i­ty and more own­er­ship, that instant­ly res­onat­ed with the lead­er­ship team,” says Chris. And then we were giv­en a chal­leng­ing tar­get to deliv­er a solu­tion — April 2018 — which is a fan­tas­tic way to focus your mind.” 

The CFO stressed the impor­tance of find­ing a soft­ware tool with no bells and whis­tles: the organ­i­sa­tion need­ed some­thing to address a spe­cif­ic issue and to do that real­ly, real­ly well. A jack-of-all-trades prod­uct sim­ply wasn’t going to work here. And it need­ed to have steel to it. This was not an exer­cise in mak­ing peo­ple feel good. It may do that as well, of course, but the aim here was to deliv­er a con­crete, mea­sur­able ben­e­fit to the busi­ness. We need­ed to see the dials mov­ing. I need­ed hard data that I could share with senior leaders.”

Chris had done a lot of work to cre­ate a clear list of require­ments based on the sur­veys they’d done. We got an 80% response rate with sev­er­al of our sur­veys. There was a gen­uine desire to see some­thing bet­ter.” When Clear Review pre­sent­ed their plat­form, the AQA team saw the ben­e­fits straight away. 

Clear Review stood out imme­di­ate­ly,” says Chris. We’d seen oth­er con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance solu­tions, includ­ing sev­er­al from US-based ven­dors, but they all seemed rather com­plex. I instant­ly felt that peo­ple would get’ Clear Review. It was sim­ple and intu­itive, but it did all the things we need­ed it to do.”

We could give feed­back in the moment and track that in the sys­tem. We could devel­op col­lab­o­ra­tive goals and put them in the con­text of the wider organisation’s suc­cess. And it allowed us to cre­ate real­ly high-lev­el report­ing on goals, feed­back and check-ins.”.

Clear Review worked close­ly with the team at AQA to pro­vide anonymised bench­mark data on organ­i­sa­tions of a sim­i­lar size and pur­pose. The AQA team used this to encour­age and pro­mote the suc­cess of the project. 

It’s made it real­ly reward­ing to see our progress. We had a senior lead­er­ship meet­ing, some time into the project, and were able to show what great buy-in the sys­tem had, that well over two-thirds of peo­ple were hav­ing goals set, that thou­sands of pieces of feed­back had been given.”

That prompt­ed a real debate about what suc­cess should look like: we talked about goal-set­ting and tried to agree a per­cent­age of adop­tion that felt right. Some­one said 80%, and so we queried that: does that mean you’re hap­py with 20% of peo­ple not hav­ing goals set? And actu­al­ly, that stim­u­lat­ed the appetite of senior peo­ple. Senior lead­ers agreed that only 100% was good enough. They set the bar: we can use Clear Review to get absolute clar­i­ty on how we’re doing against that target.”

The most sat­is­fy­ing thing is that we don’t use it as a stick to beat peo­ple with: this is about good data, doing things in a rig­or­ous way to ben­e­fit every­one. The board and man­age­ment are bought into this: they want to encour­age teams to be involved, to share feed­back, to set these goals. So we real­ly are get­ting buy-in across the organ­i­sa­tion and we in HR/OD are no longer the per­for­mance police’ but rather the enablers of best practice.”

One of the first things we did was adapt some of the ter­mi­nol­o­gy to reflect the changes we want­ed to make with­in AQA,” says Chris. We don’t call it Per­for­mance Man­age­ment’: we call it My Per­for­mance’. It’s about the indi­vid­ual. It’s about tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for your own devel­op­ment. We ask that the employ­ee sets the check-in, not the man­ag­er. This is about you, it’s not some­thing your man­ag­er impos­es on you.”.

At the same time we devel­oped a new set of val­ues and behav­iours as well as a set of lead­er­ship habits’. When you set a devel­op­ment goal or add a piece of feed­back, you tag it to one of our lead­er­ship habits or one of our new behav­iours. We want this to close the loop between the indi­vid­ual and the wider con­text of the organisation’s goals.”

AQA has seen more than 6,500 pieces of feed­back shared over the last 12 months, and cites the con­ve­nience and sim­plic­i­ty of the plat­form as the key dri­ver of this. 

The CFO is a huge fan and often gets on at the end of the day, par­tic­u­lar­ly when he’s trav­el­ling, and real­ly thinks about whether he can offer use­ful feed­back. It’s warm­ing, it’s moti­va­tion­al. It touch­es the emo­tion as well as the intellect.”. 

Clear Review has also inspired some longer-term ambi­tions with­in AQA. The organ­i­sa­tion is using its suc­cess in per­for­mance man­age­ment to iden­ti­fy oth­er areas, like tal­ent man­age­ment, where they can make fur­ther mea­sur­able gains.

Clear Review have helped us realise clear prin­ci­ples: things like peo­ple tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for their own per­for­mance. In the con­text of the wider debate around per­for­mance man­age­ment, you cut through the com­plex­i­ty. In our meet­ings with you, you’re always look­ing to improve. You deliv­er sub­tle but strong enhance­ments and we love that you’re look­ing to learn from cus­tomers and devel­op your own tech­nol­o­gy. And you have a great vari­ety of peo­ple work­ing across sep­a­rate dis­ci­plines: I always come away from meet­ings with the Clear Review team feel­ing incred­i­bly positive.”

AQA’s Chris Mace — lessons for deliv­er­ing organ­i­sa­tion­al change

  • Talk to peo­ple to under­stand the prob­lem. Engage up front and explore the pos­si­bil­i­ties with the peo­ple who will be the end users. 
  • Keep ask­ing your­self: what’s in it for both the busi­ness and the individuals? 
  • Have clear prin­ci­ples in mind for what you want from a system
  • Keep focused after you’ve made the change: give your­self the best chance to realise the full pos­si­bil­i­ties of the plat­form you’re using


If you’d like to dis­cov­er more about Clear Review’s unique plat­form, and talk about how it could work to trans­form per­for­mance devel­op­ment at your own organ­i­sa­tion, get in touch with us or book a demo.

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