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.”
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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.