Chapter 2

Chapter 2 - Engage first or measure first?

Buyer's Guide to Performance Management Software
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Chap­ter 2 - Engage first or mea­sure first? 

The User Expe­ri­ence Problem

For decades, per­for­mance tech has had a prob­lem: no one wants to use it. The sys­tems designed to improve people’s out­comes in the work­place do exact­ly the oppo­site. Why? Because they were based on the creaky, crum­bling foun­da­tions of annu­al appraisals. No one wor­ried about user expe­ri­ence: the focus was on get­ting as much data from the users as possible.

This sem­i­nal CEB Report breaks down why rat­ings, rank­ings and mea­sure­ment first” approach­es not only fail to improve per­for­mance, but actu­al­ly make things worse. The sys­tem uses impen­e­tra­ble forms — first paper, then dig­i­tal — with no thought for the employ­ees expect­ed to deal with them. Is it any sur­prise that peo­ple got tired of all this? 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a lot of tech on the mar­ket is still based on this think­ing. You’ve prob­a­bly seen the sort of thing we’re talk­ing about. Slick screen­shots packed with pie charts. Per­cent­age met­rics and boxed-out insights”. And you can see why some find it appeal­ing. Who doesn’t like the idea of data all neat­ly pack­aged in one place? 

The prob­lem is that the data all needs to come from the users. All the info pack­ing those pret­ty charts needs to be input by employ­ees and man­agers (unless, of course, you’re plan­ning on doing it all your­self). And here’s where the ele­phant comes lum­ber­ing into the room and sits on your nicest cof­fee table. 

Peo­ple hate doing it. And because they hate doing it, they don’t. They either ignore it com­plete­ly or they do it in a cur­so­ry, let’s not get into trou­ble with HR” sort of way. So you either get no data or bad data, and either of those makes the whole approach meaningless. 

Sim­plic­i­ty & the New User Experience

So much for the old mod­el. Wel­come to the new one. 

We’re all used to slick and low-fric­tion tech­nol­o­gy in our per­son­al lives, from smart­phones to fit­ness bands. Why should our work tech be different? 

Big brands like Microsoft and Adobe have turned their mod­els com­plete­ly upside down. When we sat down with a key project leader from Gen­er­al Electric’s own per­for­mance rev­o­lu­tion, she went into great detail about the impor­tance of sim­plic­i­ty and clar­i­ty. Rather than start­ing with mea­sure­ment as the goal, GE have pri­ori­tised a sim­ple user expe­ri­ence. Why? To enable the only thing that makes a dif­fer­ence: qual­i­ty per­for­mance conversations. 

They use soft­ware that sup­ports that think­ing: tools which are easy to use and designed to sup­port those fre­quent, high­er qual­i­ty inter­ac­tions. And this gives you three price­less benefits:

  1. Peo­ple recog­nise the sim­plic­i­ty and val­ue, which means they actu­al­ly use the software;
  2. High­er adop­tion means per­for­mance engage­ment, and engage­ment leads to tan­gi­ble per­for­mance improvement;
  3. Now that data is actu­al­ly flow­ing into the sys­tem HR and Tal­ent lead­ers have, for the first time, real infor­ma­tion to work with. This means you get gen­uine insight based on human inter­ac­tions, not con­trived rat­ing scores based on poor data. 

You can’t tru­ly to get to grips with what the mar­ket is offer­ing unless you have an idea of what your per­fect world looks like. 

That doesn’t mean you have to have every­thing nailed down in a neat Pow­er­Point and signed off by the chair­man. Before you even start meet­ing with ven­dors, there’s plen­ty you can bor­row and steal from them to inform your strat­e­gy. Every ven­dor out there is cre­at­ing con­tent — some great, some less so — that you can down­load and review. There are online prod­uct demos, videos and webi­na­rs to give you an excel­lent starter for ten. Ven­dors and ana­lysts are the ones at the coal­face, remem­ber: to thrive, they need to under­stand what their cus­tomers’ chal­lenges are, deliv­er the solu­tions to fix them and work hand in hand with those cus­tomers to help them make that cul­tur­al change. 

But you do need some­where to start, if only to prove your­self wrong lat­er. So… how to get started?

What does good look like? 

There’s a lot of research out there. A daunt­ing amount, in fact. In the last few years, it’s become accept­ed as fact that annu­al appraisals are a bro­ken, clunky mess and that shift­ing to a con­tin­u­ous mod­el with real-time feed­back is far more valu­able. But it doesn’t hurt to under­stand the gen­er­al themes before you get to the specifics. Start with the heavy hit­ters: Bersin by Deloitte , this CEB report, and our very own Stu­art Hearn’s eBook.

Aim for a list of bul­let points cap­tur­ing the proofs and research that seem to match your own sit­u­a­tion. You’ll get a) a hand­ful of killer facts to drop non­cha­lant­ly into the right meet­ing and b) the build­ing blocks of a strat­e­gy. We all know that a bit of sci­ence is a pow­er­ful ally: it will help with key stake­hold­ers and it’ll be a handy resource to have when you do start meet­ing with salespeople. 

Our own take on this, after digest­ing more arti­cles and whitepa­pers than any human should rea­son­ably be asked to get through, boils down to two key points: 

  • Per­for­mance man­age­ment mod­els need to be extreme­ly sim­ple.
  • The most pow­er­ful dri­ver of per­for­mance improve­ment is qual­i­ty con­ver­sa­tion and clear goals sup­ple­ment­ed by real-time feed­back.

What are man­agers and employ­ees telling me they need? 

There’s more detail on this in Chap­ter 2, but it’s worth stat­ing and restat­ing: the most impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion with soft­ware is adop­tion. Will peo­ple actu­al­ly use it? 

Try to spend some time talk­ing to future users about what they need, what they’d like and what they hat­ed about sys­tems in the past. You can do this face-to-face but a quick sur­vey (Sur­vey­Mon­key, for exam­ple, is free to use) will make the whole process much eas­i­er and quick­er. You’ll prob­a­bly end up with a whole messy pile of I wants” and I hates” but you should be able to detect the com­mon themes and mes­sages. These can feed into your strat­e­gy and give a bit of shape to things. 

Can I artic­u­late what we need? 

Time to start writ­ing. Again, bul­let points or a one-pager are enough at this stage, but you need to start shap­ing your mod­el. What vision am I build­ing for per­for­mance man­age­ment at my organ­i­sa­tion? What real­ly came out in my sur­vey? This can real­ly help to crys­tallise your own thoughts. You may find that you’re start­ing to get an idea of a core need and be able to dis­tin­guish between that and the nice to haves. Remem­ber: this isn’t about func­tion­al­i­ty so much as what you want to achieve with this. And yes, of course effec­tive per­for­mance man­age­ment” is what we ulti­mate­ly want to achieve: that’s the end goal. This is about explor­ing the how” that sits below the what”. This is about find­ing the pil­lars that will prop up the house. 

It’s also a real­ly use­ful way to start build­ing out a deck for key stake­hold­ers. Some of our cus­tomers need­ed absolute­ly no sell-in to senior lead­er­ship. Most did. We do have some resources, includ­ing unbrand­ed slides, that can help with this.

To give you some con­text, the core needs we hear about most often are: 

  • The require­ment for mean­ing­ful per­for­mance conversations’; 
  • Vis­i­bil­i­ty and insight into per­for­mance man­age­ment across the organisation’;
  • A sim­ple, agile way of doing per­for­mance man­age­ment in the flow of work’; 
  • Dri­ving a cul­ture of real-time feedback’. 

Once you have a core need estab­lished, you’ll have a defin­i­tive way to judge the strengths and weak­ness­es of the soft­ware you see.