#5 We're Gonna Talk About Performance Reviews
Plus, read until the end for a really good song
I hope you had a really good holiday season, whatever you celebrated, and a happy new year! I know it’s performance review season for a lot of us (yours truly excluded, we’re offset from “normal” by about three months), and so I give you: the performance review post.
If you don’t feel like reading this whole post, just read this: you and your teammates can benefit by collaborating on your peer reviews.
This time last year, my team didn’t have a manager, and we were heading into performance review season. One day, I looked at the company calendar and said “oh no, our peer reviews are due next week.” It was during a busy time of year for us, and writing peer reviews is never anyone’s favorite activity on a good day.
We had a problem, and we needed a solution: we needed our peer reviews to be informational and digestible for our skip manager, who was the one who would be representing us through the performance review process given our absence of manager. We needed to make sure we were each getting the feedback that would be useful to our growth, and representing each of our work well. And most of all, we needed to get there as quickly and as painlessly as possible, because we had a lot of other things to do.
Generally speaking, these goals aren’t unique to our team. Peer feedback is hard, and it’s also important! It (usually) is an input into compensation and promotion, it can shape what your teammates choose to focus on, and what directions they grow in the future. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on your own performance: what have you seen in your teammates that you want to emulate yourself?
The usual process for feedback at companies and teams I’ve worked on is fairly individualized. Each person is asked to provide a list of people they want feedback from. Most of the time, you construct and compose that feedback in isolation, taking an afternoon (or a few) to remember what you worked on with each person. It sometimes can be difficult to prioritize the focus that reviews need, since you’re juggling your day-to-day work with this once-in-six-months work. And even though everyone is doing them at roughly the same time, it can still feel like you’re “stealing time” away to do them.
We, frankly, didn’t have time for that. We needed a way to collapse all of the above into as little a timeframe and as small a footprint as possible. We didn’t have time to work in isolation to remember what happened over the past six months, and we didn’t have time to context-switch in and out of peer reviews more than we had to.
So what did we do? We collaborated on most of the process of writing our peer reviews. We got together and collectively talked about the past six months through the lens of each person’s work, and then each submitted individualized peer feedback to each other. We helped each other remember what they did, how we worked together, and celebrated the impact we’d each made.
Tactically, it looked like this: we set aside two blocks of two hours, and we all got in a Zoom room. One by one, we talked about each teammate’s past six months for about ten minutes each. Some people came in with a rough list of what they’d worked on to kick off the conversation, some people didn’t. We took lots of breaks, and we took notes in a big shared doc. Afterwards, we each submitted peer feedback to the people we’d worked closely with, providing our individual perspective on working with each other.
We talked about the engineers, we talked about the product manager, we talked about our outgoing manager’s contributions, we talked about the ops partners we work with. Anybody who was on our team, or who worked with our team regularly and consistently, got a slot in these meetings. After four hours, we had gotten through everyone on the team.
With about another hour-ish of individual effort, I’d submitted roughly twenty peer reviews that were tailored to what pieces of work I’d worked on with each person. I didn’t have to remember, by myself, what they’d all done, and I didn’t have to guess what they wanted feedback on. We’d taken such good notes in our sessions that I could reference what I’d said in the moment to people and submit it after the fact.
We spent less collective time remembering what happened since the last review process than we would have individually
We didn’t have to individually figure out when to do our reviews; we had dedicated focused time for it
Because of the above two points, the quality of the feedback was better, and the entire process also took less time
We were able to give feedback live. On our team, we were able to give positive and some light constructive feedback in the group, but your mileage may vary. Some folks also gave additional constructive feedback just in the written feedback.
We got to ask everyone what they wanted feedback on, so the feedback we wrote was more applicable to the person (you can do this with the individual approach, it was just easier to do it all at once)
When it came time to do self reviews, we each already had notes written down about what we’d done and why it mattered. Those went more quickly as well!
It was honestly fun. We got to reflect on our past six months, celebrate each other’s work, and all work on a less-than-favorite task together.
Things that stayed steady: the total amount of positive and constructive feedback that I gave to each person. There were concerns from managers in the company that this would/did result in only positive feedback, or more positive than constructive feedback. I have so many thoughts on how and when to give constructive feedback (I think if you wait until review season to give your team information that could help them do their job better, you’re doing them a massive disservice, but that’s not the main point here).
Another thing that stays the same here is your team’s level of psychological safety. Some teams are not prepared to do the exercise of “discuss everyone’s six months of work out in the open” so if that’s your team, don’t try this yourself (but maybe do start to attack that problem).
If you haven’t already submitted your peer reviews, and you think your team will be up for collaborating, please try this out and let me know how it goes! It’s been really positive for our team, and a few others who have adopted the practice. And if you’re going through review season right now, I wish you luck and speed.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, you might have encountered this piece’s fraternal twin, also published this week.
If you’re interested in more about the incentives behind performance reviews in general, you can find that here; I didn’t spend too much time on that aspect of review season, but it’s a great read.
Next up: you tell me! If there’s something you want to hear about, I’d love to know. Otherwise, next time might be about blameless postmortems.
So much has happened since we last talked:
The concept of a ‘Hardcore Engineer’ is dumb as hell but at least we got a good song out of it
A very good zine got released
Air travel’s been rough since the last time we talked! Between the Southwest computer meltdown around Christmas (please, if you’re at all interested in how sociotechnical systems fail, we need to talk about this at some point) and the FAA system outage, a lot went wrong. If you traveled, I hope you weren’t too affected
Microsoft Excel’s system limitations helped in catching a fraudster! Page 41, item 173
Other things I’ve enjoyed:
Popcorn made with clarified butter is better and I’m never going back
We finally finished Severance and it’s everything
We played so much Mysterium over the holiday, and it was phenomenal. Wasn’t sure it would go over well because my mom doesn’t like things that are creepy, but it was a huge hit
Pro cycling season is back, baby! The Santos Tour Down Under started over the weekend
Amelia Dimoldenberg interviewed Andrew Garfield on a red carpet again and we’re all better for it
I cannot find a good video of it but Natasha Lyonne’s Golden Globes presenter speech about time was the hardest I’ve laughed in a while
We had dinner with our upstairs neighbor last week and it was just the best. Meet your neighbors, y’all
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We also had an optional extra hour where we had a session for “friends of the team”, where we all took time to submit some extra peer feedback for folks outside the team who had worked closely with a few or all of us. Not necessary, but it was appreciated.