Everyone knows goal setting is important.

For most companies goals are often part of the employee review/evaluation process.  However, when I was working on implementing a goal setting/tracking process for some of my engineering teams I went back to look at some of my old reviews and saw that the goal sections were actually pretty empty – with just a vague outline.  And furthermore if you read the reviews themselves, they actually said things like “The goals I set last review weren’t the priorities, so I actually did…” or “The goals I set last review aren’t really relevant to what my assignments were, so here is what the goals should have been…”

Since reviews typically happened once, maybe twice, per year, a lot of the time business changes and projects and initiatives adjusted accordingly – making goals older than a few months less valuable.

My key takeaway: Goals need to be set, evaluated and adjusted on a regular basis. 

But who wants to do something like the dreaded annual reviews regularly?  If you have ever gone through this process with a lot of employees, you probably know what this means: hours and hours of writing and reflection at night and on weekends, to give each person a great write-up on their performance with good tips and ideas on how to improve or supercharge their work.  Once a year is quite enough, thanks.

To solve this problem, I came up with a better, lightweight way to do regular reviews and goal setting.  I have been using this process for a few years now and it works really well and people seem to like it (and feel free to leave your opinions on the comments).  The best part about this process though, is to use it as a way to *motivate* your team – I try to focus and highlight their achievements and use the discussion as a chance to let people know what they are doing well on.  This approach tends to create meetings that people look forward to attending.

Here are the basics:
  1. Send an email out with a set of questions and some basic instructions
  2. Ask everyone to fill it out prior to their next one and one (no need for extra meetings, just use your regular weekly check-in). Ideally 24 hours in advance (more on this in the tips below)
  3. Review answers and come up with a few pieces of feedback
  4. Discuss in one and ones
  5. Follow up in writing as needed (mostly for people who have issues, or critical feedback)

This process is very easy on the manager – the employees do most of the work filling out the answers to the questions.  You just have to review and reflect so you can have some useful and thoughtful things to say in your meeting.

My main goals with this exercise are:
  • Clear expectations around performance (past and future)
  • Calibrating (making sure what people think is what you think with regards to their perf)
  • Setup clear work goals for the next few months (since anything further than that is likely to change or be too vague)
  • Identify 1-2 things that help them grow towards their personal goals (blog posts, classes, books, brown bags, etc – are all good options here).
Here is the email template I like to use:

Hi team!
It is that time again, to do our quarterly check-in meeting.
In email, at least 24 hours before our 1:1 meeting this week, I would like you to send me answers to the following questions.  You should only need to spend 10-20 minutes on these – they are mostly just a reference point for discussion.  For those of you who are new, we do these each quarter; if you aren’t sure how to answer a question feel free to ask, otherwise just do you best 🙂
1. If you were to rate yourself right now (pretend it is formal review time) what would your rating be and why?
2. What do you think is the biggest mistake you have made since our last discussion and why?
3. What do you think is your greatest achievement since our last discussion and why?
4. How did you do on your goals from a few months ago?  Are you happy with your progress?  Why or why not? (Obviously new people without goals are exempt from this question)
5. What are you goals for the next 3 months?
6.  What do you think you need to do differently (or continuing doing) to have a rating of outstanding?
8. What could the company or your manager have done differently to support you better?
(Here is a link to documents with our rating system for those who are new and need a refresher – [insert link here])
Thanks all!
Let me know if you have questions.

Here are some tips I have learned over the last few years worth considering if you adopt this process:

  • Get the answers to questions in writing.  This helps you create a paper trail for historical reason or future reference.  I used to just ask the questions in person, but I found that the answers were much more thoughtful and the discussion more useful for both parties when the reviewee and reviewer had time to reflect on the answers.
  • Request the answers are delivered 24 hours prior to the meeting.  If the answers aren’t done in time I move the meeting.  I used to let people just bring their answers to the meeting to discuss, or some people would email them right beforehand. One big problem with this approach was when the answers were surprising or I didn’t agree (and this will happen) I came off as surprised or shocked – which didn’t lead to a productive discussion (what can I say, I don’t have a very good poker face).  The other upside of this approach though, is that if you receive the answers ahead of time you can think through them and that allows you to deliver much more useful feedback and use the time productively (yay!).
  • Set a regular calendar reminder for you to send out your email.   I put a recurring appointment every 3 months so I am sure not to forget in the day to day craziness – in the past it was often too easy for weeks to go by before I would remember to do this, and the reminder really helps.  The regularity and predictability is part of what makes this process work.
  • Create a template of your questions.  This makes it faster for you to send it out, and it also helps all of your directs know what to expect so as the months go by they can be making mental notes on these things.
  • Make sure you talk about personal goals too!  Just because the questions are mostly focused on day to day projects and performance, make sure you take the time to understand where people want to grow and develop and set those goals/objectives accordingly; it doesn’t have to be just business.
  • Ask for feedback on your performance.  Don’t just make the review about them (although definitely prioritize discussing their stuff first, since it is their meeting), but ask them what you could be doing better.  This is a great way to get valuable feedback and gives employees the change to turn the tables and feel heard.
  • Go over the results with *your* manager.   This is a great way to highlight people’s accomplishes and be sure that your feedback and goals are aligned in the organization.  In terms of the rating this also helps you be sure you are calibrating people correctly.  For those in big companies, this step can also help you tremendously in stack rankings, since your manager will have input and buy off into the intermediate reviews, making sure that any yearly review you assign to your employees reflects the entire year of intermediate reviews.
  • Try to use a format/prose that is aligned with your annual review forms.  If you do this, then hopefully a lot of the prose and effort can be reused (read cut and pasted) into the annual review form – making everyone’s life better!

Hope this was helpful!  Definitely let me know if you have other suggestions or ideas since this process is still evolving for me  🙂

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