How would you conduct an annual review?

How would you conduct an annual review?

I think we need to unpack what you mean by an annual review before I can answer that question.

Is it an annual review on your own performance? Is it something you are doing to assess how effective you have been over the course of the year with the objective of understanding where you can improve and what you can build upon?

Or is it a retrospective? Are you analysing the performance of the team over the course of the year and trying to understand what worked, what needs work and how the team can improve in the new year?

Or is it that dreaded annual performance review that comes around once a year to grade your performance against expectations set at the beginning of the year?

I’m going to start with the last one first.

Annual Performance Review

I honestly don’t believe in annual performance reviews.

I think reviews are incredibly important and there is no doubt they offer a great opportunity for the organisation to communicate what they value and would like to see more of and it’s a great opportunity to provide individuals with the valuable feedback they need to be more effective.

There is just little point in doing so once a year.

Most people are busy and have a great deal of responsibility. They cannot always remember the entire year and as such, the annual performance review simply becomes about the past 3 months rather than the entire year.

It’s also a pity that employees are only given feedback at the end of the year, after 12 months have passed, when it is too late for them to act on that feedback and make the improvements that would have resulted in a great year for both the organisation and the individual.

So, I recommend that you don’t do annual reviews and instead look at doing more frequent reviews.

For some people that may mean a quarterly review rather than an annual review, which is fine, but it would really serve the individuals on your team if you conducted a monthly or bi-monthly review.

The purpose of a review is to help the individual understand where their contribution is proving incredibly valuable and where they need to make changes to achieve their personal objectives and goals.

Once a year is simply too long. If the purpose of your performance review is to improve performance, doing so monthly empowers your team members to take the feedback they have received and apply that immediately to achieve the results that are both desired and valuable.

If I conduct a performance review, I want to understand the thinking behind the actions. I want to understand the line of reasoning. I want to understand what my team member saw and how they perceived that.

Doing a performance review frequently ensures that they can remember those elements and discuss them freely. If there are problems with the line of reasoning or the thinking, I can help them to understand what their alternatives were and how they could have done better in that situation.

If it’s a lack of skills, I could make the recommendation of training and upskilling or I could recommend that we coach the individual to create an environment where they can explore their own thinking and line of reasoning and make significant improvements through mentorship.

A frequent review also allows us to explore those changes as they are happening and make course corrections or validate that we are happy with the improvement real-time.

So, in summary, don’t do annual performance reviews. Do frequent, regular reviews that allow you to inspect and adapt on a continuous basis. It’s better for you as a manager and it’s better for the individuals in your charge.

Team Retrospectives

If we explore how we did as an organisation, looking back over the year in terms of what we wanted to achieve versus what has been achieved, that can be good.

Again, like the personal reviews, I would recommend that you do these far more frequently than on an annual basis but there certainly is a time and a place to review how things have gone over the past year in relation to our planning and goal setting.

What did we intend to achieve this year? What did we achieve? What are the differences and why do they exist? What did we learn? What do we still have to learn? What are the major reasons for impediments to progress and what are our recommendations to overcome those impediments?

This is very similar to the sprint review and the sprint retrospective combined.

You want to be exploring the gaps between what was intended versus what was achieved. You want to explore the thinking behind what happened and how that served the team achieving their sprint goals.

You want to be exploring the reasons why things didn’t work out as planned. It isn’t an opportunity to whinge or whine, it is instead an opportunity to make clear what stands in the way and what can be done to remove those impediments.

Sometimes they are organisational policies that can be addressed with product stakeholders and at other times they might be circumstantial, like Covid 19 and global lockdowns for instance.

Understanding the major impediments to progress are incredibly valuable for the team as well as the product stakeholders. It gives everyone an opportunity to be heard and for them to voice both their concerns as well as their recommendations for improvement.

You can also explore patterns. This is what we intended to achieve, this is what was achieved, and this is why there is a difference. Exploring those differences could help you make decisions around training and coaching opportunities that would help to eliminate impediments.

Last year at Agile Centre we explored what we had set out to achieve for the year. We had hoped to achieve a great deal but none of us had anticipated a global pandemic and lockdowns. We had no idea how that would impact our business and so although our annual review demonstrated that we had achieved a great deal less than planned, we could understand the reasoning for that and celebrate what we had achieved during an incredibly difficult period for our company and industry.

Talking about it helps us all understand where opportunities lie and informs the conversation about where we are going next and what we hope to achieve in the coming year.

Exploring the future is a vital part of a great retrospective because it gets us to focus on what we are going to do and why we value that specific strategy or set of objectives.

It helps everyone achieve buy-in to the vision for the coming year and helps people understand how important their role is in helping the organisation achieve those objectives and goals.

We can explore, as a team, whether we are headed in the right direction. We can understand whether we have the right tools and resources in place to make that a reality. We can explore whether we have the right skills in the organisation.

Doing this empowers us to make the kinds of decisions that will ensure that both teams and individuals are capable of achieving the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) that we value.

At Agile Centre, we also like to include the elements of a retrospective that explore how we worked together over the year and how we could improve in those areas. In organisations where there are a blend of scrum teams and non-scrum teams, this can prove incredibly important.

Understanding the differences between how we work as separate teams and how we can improve in working with other teams can help us develop strategies that ensure we work effectively within the organisation and work with each other to overcome any impediments that exist.

We explore what we can do in the coming year to ensure that 2022 is better than 2021 and have clear objectives and key results in place to help guide the team through the year. Those OKRs also ensure that we can have regular reviews of performance against those OKRs and understand what needs to be done to correct course and achieve the organisation’s goals.

It’s all about continuous improvement and continuous alignment.

Personal Reflections

Every January I sit down and conduct a personal review and reflection of what I had hoped to achieve for the year and what I did achieve.

In very much the same vein as the annual performance review and the organisational retrospective, it’s about exploring the gaps between intention and performance.

You’re taking the time to reflect on what you had hoped to achieve and understanding the impediments to achieving those objectives and goals.

It might be that you require new skills, in which case, great, now you can plan your skills development roadmap for the coming year to ensure that you achieve your new goals.

It might be that there are organisational impediments to your personal progress, in which case, great, you can now schedule a meeting with your team leaders and address those issues with them to get assistance in overcoming those impediments.

I also like to explore my lines of reasoning and thinking. What did I think would happen, what did actually happen, what is the difference and why does it exist?

What could I have done differently to overcome challenges and how would that have served me in achieving my own personal objectives and key results?

What are my OKRs for the new year and how often am I going to dedicate time to reflect on where I am versus where I want to be? How am I going to document the challenges I face and create a system or structure for addressing issues as they arise?

You should start to see that there is a consistency between reviewing performance and goals regardless of whether it’s a team or an individual. It’s the same process.

So, investing time in your own personal reviews and retrospectives is going to be great practice for the organisational and team retrospectives that you are involved in.

Scrum is built on the concept of regular inspection and adaptation. The concept of being agile and responsive.

Using these principles, we can become far more effective in our own lives by regularly inspecting and adapting how we are working.

That would be my recommendation for annual reviews. Do them, by all means, but then come back and regularly assess how you and your team are performing in relation to what you intended for the year.

That way you can correct course early and continuously to ensure that the year ahead is more successful than the year that has passed.

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author avatar
John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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