agile

ADJECTIVE

1 Able to move quickly and easily

2 Relating to or denoting a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterised by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans  (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

The word ‘agility’ is used frequently in discussions these days to describe desired characteristics of leaders, team members and organisations.  And that’s appropriate, as the environment in which organisations and their people now operate is increasingly dynamic, complex and volatile. 

Yet despite this acknowledged imperative for individual and organisational agility, so many HR processes are the antithesis of agile.

Let’s focus on employee performance management. Its purpose should be to help an organisation’s people maximise their contribution to achieving the organisation’s strategy while at the same time building their capability for both their current and future roles – but this purpose sometimes gets lost in the focus on process.

Most formal performance management frameworks and processes are designed around the lowest common denominator, to try and ensure that at least managers do a minimum level of ‘people work’ with their people each year. 

Also, by explicitly linking performance to pay, organisations often tie themselves into very rigid performance management processes based around an annual cycle that are anything but agile. 

Now of course, formal performance management processes are not intended to limit manager-team member interaction, but by prescribing a formal process this is what often happens.  Excellent leaders, will however, only use the formal process as a guide, and will instead focus on day-to-day leadership that helps drive engagement and performance.

Calls for abolishing performance reviews are of course now ubiquitous, so I won’t rehash those arguments in this article.  However, the question that I’m often left pondering after reading such blog posts is “so if we stop doing performance reviews, what do we do instead?”

Well, I’m not sure exactly what you would call it or if that even matters. But I do know that it should be agile and about performance, and that it is not management but leadership.

We need to move ‘performance management’ away from being about process and inputs, to outcomes. Leaders actually doing their people work and making it a priority and team members taking personal accountability for their performance and development.  When the culture supports this an organisation doesn’t need restrictive, mediocre processes. 

What does an outcomes focused approach look like?  At all times, a team member would be clear about their role, what they’re accountable for and behavioural expectations.  They would know how they are performing and would be working to a plan on developing their capability.  They are receiving regular feedback from a range of people, not just their manager, and furthermore, are seeking out feedback rather than waiting for it or avoiding it.

How is that actually achieved? Well, that’s up to each team member and their manager. What steps, arrangements, forms or lack thereof work best for them in their unique circumstances? Some people will work better with some structure provided (i.e. some traditional performance management forms) while others will be better suited to their own unique and self-designed approach.

How often you meet, how formal versus informal the discussions should be, how often goals are updated, and whether you use existing forms or a blank piece of paper are all up for grabs.  

This approach becomes less about pushing something on to managers and team members but rather having them take ownership and most importantly, derive value from it.

It is critical in doing so that managers and team members are fully supported and equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence to operate in such an environment.  HR and L&D’s role as coach, rather than police or administrator, is critical and adds enormous value to the business.

The success of such an approach isn’t measured by inputs such as whether a performance agreement is in place or whether a performance review conversation was completed.  No, it’s a qualitative measure. Is a team member really clear about their performance expectations?  Do they feel they are receiving regular and effective feedback? 

But how would an organisation ensure that this is happening without a more structured input based approach, some people ask?  Well let’s be honest and admit that’s its probably not all happening right now anyway under a structured and centralised process, so what do you have to lose?

But the key to success of an agile, outcomes-based approach to performance is managers of managers. Ultimately, a manager should be held accountable for the quality of their leadership by their own manager, and rewarded accordingly.

If, as we espouse, we want our people and organisations to be agile in order to deliver business results, then the way that we set the foundations for people’s performance must reflect that.  How agile is your organisation’s approach to performance?