Guest Post: Using a Retrospective for Personal Performance Reviews

Introduction: This is our second guest post from Jonathan Coleman. I first working with Jonathan over a decade ago on the Land Information NZ project. His first guest post was back in February, 2011 when he wrote about “Agile @ Home – Finances which later became his talk for Agile 2011. In this post Jonathan talks about using a retrospective for personal performance reviews.

Anyone worked in a big corporate before? If so you’ve probably all had a crack at the ‘best practice’ for Performance review. These have probably included some kind of 360 degree feedback gathering session.

In our company these are usually emailed out as forms for individuals to fill in and email back to a leader, and then the feedback is distilled by the leader, and presented back to the person undergoing performance review. I’ve observed that some people aren’t entirely honest with these forms, and they kind of suck to fill in.

As a person undergoing a formal performance review – I looked at this process and thought ‘Yuk!’

I personally don’t like filling in paperwork about my performance, so why would others? 

I also think that perhaps the feedback via written word in a sterile form then distilled and fed back to me may lose some context.

I feel that a discussion would be more valuable.

I was sharing a brief collective discussion with a colleague (we’ll call her Jane) about this process … and I suggested “why don’t you hold a retrospective, on yourself?”. I thought a little more about this. I mentioned it to my own leader, and we discussed the pro’s and con’s.

Then my colleague came back to me and asked if I would facilitate her retrospective! Whilst I was debating the pro’s and con’s – she just got on and booked the retro and invited the people to give feedback! Kudos for being proactive!

Initially I was quite nervous – this could be a challenging session to facilitate because she would be there!! 
How would the group react? Would they be honest enough to give true feedback? Would they give better feedback, as the conversation clarify? I noted what was going on, put that to one side – and we ran the retrospective. We focussed on “What Jane did well” “What Jane could improve in” and “Recommendations for Jane to follow up on”.

I gave the group a time-box to fill out their post-it notes.

We then stuck these on the wall under the usual ☺ (smiley face) ☹ (sad face) and a (R) for recommendations column. We then grouped these together into groups. There were groups about soft skills, some about technical skills. This was a tricky thing to do – as it was more personal than a team’s performance. However I applaud Jane’s bravery in being present at the meeting to listen for context.

What I observed: People are happy to give good feedback. There was more “did well” than “could improve”.

There was some feedback – and some valuable feedback around what could be improved and what was recommended. However, I still felt the group was not being entirely honest with what could be improved. Either Jane was really really awesome, and nothing could be improved, or there was discomfort in coming right out and sharing this with Jane in the session.

Still, I felt it was an interesting foray – and checking with Jane she was happy she had some interesting areas to improve in that she wasn’t aware of personally. We then had a quick discussion about ‘Johari’s window’. Hopefully this was a way, for Jane to expand what was known in her ‘window’.

Pros: In this approach, there’s more discussion, more verbal than a sterile form, so the person receiving feedback gets more context than mere paper forms.

Cons: It may be harder to elicit full honesty around what could be improved depending on the group’s level of trust with each other. Especially if the person receiving feedback is present. I think this idea has merit – and could be used in conjunction with a performance review. If done well it may also give a team leader a chance to gather feedback from a disparate group of people on a tricky subject (i.e. someone’s performance).

So, how do you manage individual’s performance in an agile world in a corporate setting?

About the Author: Jonathan Coleman is an Agile enthusiast at Suncorp. Jonathan’s journey has included many and varied roles, from large scale systems integration, to small in-house development projects, to BAU maintenance, to rolling out massive systems consolidation projects. Jonathan has worked as a consultant, for himself, and as a permanent staff member for large corporate.
Jonathan began to see the light in 2006 – when Agile and Scrum were introduced to him. He took some of these concepts into managing a small pseudo-IT team within the business, and really got it humming. The next steps came in managing delivery on large projects, working closely with coaches such as Craig Smith (Suncorp), Kane Mar and James Brett (Thoughtworks).
Jonathan is also an active & dedicated father, volunteers in coaching marriage and finance workshops, and runs a blog which addresses the deeper issues in life, love and child raising!

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4 Responses to Guest Post: Using a Retrospective for Personal Performance Reviews

  1. Carl Blomberg (@calleblomberg) January 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    Using a Retrospective for Personal Performance Reviews #agilhr

  2. Justin Urbanski September 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm #

    I think Australian’s actually find personal retrospectives uncomfortable. I’ve been doing one-on-ones and the important thing is that you have taken time out of your week for them. Just let them talk and you will be surprised with what comes out. My opinion is that calling it a personal retrospective makes people uncomfortable.

    • Kane September 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

      Hi Justin,

      I don’t think it’s just Australians that find personal retrospective uncomfortable. I think it takes a great deal of maturity to put oneself in this position, and to then handle any feedback (potentially negative) in a positive way. One of the points that I should make [and that Jon alluded to] is that this is not a one-on-one … it’s a many-on-one. It’s the whole team providing feedback on an individual at the same time. Again, I don’t think this is an easy thing to do and I personally wouldn’t force anyone to do a personal retrospective unless they were completely comfortable with it.

  3. Jonathan August 2, 2011 at 1:57 am #

    Hey – I’ve been shaking the tree about this at work. There’s a lot of resonance & movement on this. I also see that Dan Pink’s validated a DIY Performance Review approach in his “Drive” Book, and challenges Bosses: Why are you not encouraging ALL your employees to do this?

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