Categories
Coaching Leadership

Performance Reviews

Lots of you are going into the holidays with a weight hanging on your mind, the annual performance review coming up in the New Year.

The weight can be for a lot of reasons, but they mostly boil down to a well intentioned idea (look at what you did, improve next time), turning into a torturous and badly run process that ends up leaving everyone involved dissatisfied with the outcome.

I can’t save you from a badly run process, or a bad manager who has no interest in getting to a great outcome.

I can share a set of techniques that will help you get the most value from these processes, even if they are badly executed in your organisation. If you follow these, then I guarantee that this review season will be better than the last, and that you’ll be able to take this on into each year in the future.

I’m giving all my readers early access to my eBook, “Winning the Performance Review”. It’s available to download below, and through this early access period, it’s totally free.

If you find this useful, then please let me know! I very much encourage you to share it with anyone else who would benefit from it.

I’d also love feedback, I’m developing and updating this guide regularly. Drop me a note on james@jamesosborn.co.uk

Finally, if you’d like to discuss a personalised approach to winning your performance review, then book an initial conversation now, and I’ll help you set effective goals and get the recognition you deserve.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Clashing Over the Obvious

One of the most difficult situations you can get into is an argument over something that is painfully and blindingly obvious to you.

It’s difficult because you are stuck in a gap of meaning. The argument is occurring because the other party doesn’t see why it’s obvious, but because it’s obvious to you, you are unlikely to be driving forwards with compelling reasons or attempting to add to the pool of meaning.

Classic ways to recognise this situation are:

  1. You are throwing around words like “obviously”, “clearly” or “plainly”
  2. The other party “don’t understand the value”, “don’t see why that’s the right option” etc
  3. You are thinking about “them”
  4. You’ve gone deep, and are into “What are these idiots doing?”

When you spot these patterns, you are falling into the Obviously trap. It’s hard to pull back, but you can do it. You need to pause, stop telling and start listening to the concerns of the other group. Give extra context or information that will help show why this course is obvious to you, and help them come to a deeper understanding.

Train yourself out of saying “obviously”, as it’s an invitation to end dialog, which means you aren’t going to get buy-in, and if you get your way, it’ll be grudgingly at best, rather than with enthusiastic efforts to be successful.

If you can get to a point where the other party are saying that your desired outcome is the obvious one, then you’ve done great work, sharing the meaning without telling them what to do.

Categories
Leadership

Setting the Framework

It’s easy to make bad decisions, and it can be hard to make good ones. Almost always, just making the decision, implementing the outcome and correcting as you go is better than getting stuck in Analysis Paralysis and doing nothing.

Given that making the decision is a good move, how can you improve your chances of making a good one, and getting everyone bought in to that choice. We’ll tackle this from the point of view of a business decision, but you can use these approaches in any situation.

First off, get super clear about the scope and parameters of the decision. Create a statement of the problem, one that’s got enough detail to show whether the decision made successfully solved the issue.

So rather than “We need to do something about this”, prefer “We need to decide with investment option has the best chance of returning 3x on its investment inside 18 months”. Once you’ve got this, put together your options. What could you do to solve this problem? What are the pros and cons of each approach, where are the risks?

Now you are ready to take these forwards to make a decision. Get the smallest possible group with the authority to make the call, covering the groups who will be impacted by the decision. Review the problem statement, discuss the options, weigh up the tradeoffs and pick a course.

The outcome of the final conversation needs to be documented and communicated. The process should be made as visible as possible to show how the decision was made, and the outcome tracked to show how successful it was.

For a big decision, each of these stages can be a separate meeting. That allows you to bring in experts when putting together options, while keeping the decision making group small. For smaller decisions, you can use a single meeting, but make sure to split the phases of the meeting clearly. For some groups you’ll need a strong facilitator to keep the conversation moving, especially those that keep circling back to options multiple times. If that happens, don’t be afraid to pause, and regroup in a separate session.

There’s lots more reading to do about effective decision making, from traps to avoid, to emotional connections and much more, but following this simple framework and you’ll see an immediate improvement:

  1. Clearly state the problem that requires a decision
  2. Outline options with pros, cons and risks
  3. Convene a small group with authority, and make a choice
  4. Communicate the decision
  5. Measure the outcome
Categories
Coaching Leadership

Is it Better?

“Change is easy, improvement is far more difficult” – Dr. Ferdinand Porsche

When we make a change, we want to make things better. However, it’s not always easy to ensure that the change is actually positive overall. How can you increase the chances of actually making an improvement?

Good news, there’s a set of simple (not easy!) steps you can follow to vastly improve the odds on hitting that improvement you are seeking.

First, be very clear what the problem is. Write it down. State it in the simplest possible terms, which means you might need to refine it several times. Get specific, watch out specifically for weak or ambiguous terms. “We’re slow” is a very weak problem “We consistently take twice as long as our initial estimate to launch a product” is much stronger.

When you have a strongly stated problem, you can then work on what that improvement would look like. Do you want to improve your estimates, reduce the actual shipping time even if the estimates are still bad, or do something else entirely?

Next up, get explicit about what you are willing to spend to seek improvement. Are you going to invest more resources? Drop something that’s not important or high value? Maybe even make something else harder or not as great as it used to be?

Now you get to start trying things. You’ve got a framework to know if you are going in the right direction, and the guardrails to correct if it’s not going well. This is where the change gets to be implemented. Be as brave or incremental as needed for your problem and constraints, but be ready to measure and correct as you go.

Before making each change, record your hypothesis. “By doing this, I believe that we will move X to Y”. Take the actions, measure the impact and review against the hypothesis. If it’s going well, then keep it up! If not, don’t be afraid to cut the initiative and return to the status quo to try again.

Put in the effort to bring clarity to your proposed change, add the effort to measure as you go, and you are much more likely to find that improvement you seek.

Categories
Leadership

Building to Schedule

There’s a common mistake in the thinking of people outside the immediate world of software, and that’s in thinking that it’s a predictable and repeatable process that should be easy to plan.

The comparison that is made is usually towards building houses or something similar. We’ve spoken before about the creative endeavour of software, and about how house building might not be as easy as it seems from the outside. Today I’ll look a little bit more at that.

Across the road from me is a brand new theatre. It’s probably about 60-70% complete, and I’ve been able to watch it take shape over the last year or so. In it, I can see a lot of familiar activity from software development, writ large on the physical world.

It’s particularly relevant as it’s a unique construction. It’s following a plan, but it’s clear that there’s learning and refinement going on all the time. I’ve watched walls go up to be covered in insulation, that’s been inspected, taken down and redone. I’ve seen windows being put in whilst other trades are forced to stop their work to let the glazers past.

There have been days when the main activity is inspecting what’s been put-up, which has again led to rework and changes.

It’s not a simple linear progression of steps, it’s a cycle of work, review, pass / fail and rework or move on.

It’s clear that this distance from the linear progression is even more pronounced due to the unique nature of the building. It’s big and complex, and it’s not the same as anything that’s gone before.

That’s exactly what we get in a software product. Big and complex, a unique creation and something that needs to show learning as you go.

So if you are struggling with someone who thinks it should be an easy task of following a plan step by step, show them someone putting up a complex landmark building to open their eyes to reality.

Categories
Harvard Business Review Leadership

Strength of No

There are lots of articles online teaching you about how and when to say “No” to a request. It’s a common problem, especially for those of us who want to be seen as a team player or go-to person.

However, getting your “No” right is a super powerful way of building up this perception. It’s really bad if you say “Yes” to every single request, and end up delivering badly on most of them. The reputation for being flaky or unreliable is definitely not where you want to be.

Recently I had a classic opportunity to say “No” in a constructive way. One of my teams were racing to finish a high profile project with a fixed deadline. In the tech world, that equates to a big “Do Not Disturb” sign flashing over their heads. Another department had an idea for a short term initiative, with a desired start date that would impact the team and risk the high profile project.

First up, I did some fact finding. Pulling in some domain experts to confirm my understanding of the new initiative, and the impact it would have. Then I looked at options. Were there other people available with the skills to help out? What was the actual impact of the current work, and who cared about it being successful. If we left the team alone, when could they pick-up the fresh initiative, and what date could it launch by?

All this came together to present a strong “No” to the other department, backed up by the reasons for that answer. “We cannot support the new initiative by date X, as the required team are fully committed to Project Y in support of one of our major company objectives. They will be available in two weeks time, meaning we could launch the new initiative before the end of the year if that would still provide value.”

Even with the strength of the answer, I was able to present options for the other department, giving them an expectation of when we’d be able to support them, even though it didn’t meet their initially desired dates. This slight softening helps to maintain the long term relationship with the rest of the business.

If the project had been lower profile, there had been more lead time or the team was less committed, then I could have used a different approach. I’d use these for times where I’d prefer not to distract the team, but to keep the conversation open.

The lighter forms are statements like “Yes we can do that if …” or “Yes, but it’ll need …”. These are particularly useful approaches if the person requesting work is also the stakeholder for the existing work. You give them options on what to pursue, whilst being very clear that not everything will keep happening at the same pace.

Saying “No” effectively is a vital skill, so find opportunities to practice it whilst leaving a positive impression as a result.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Artisan or Inventor

Do you prefer to create brand new things, or to refine a craft?

Having just told you not to box yourself in, I thought I’d explore a preference that divides up a lot of creative people (which includes pretty much anyone, but should be relevant to the people in my audience who are building software products ).

Artisans love to refine things, to build the perfect example of their craft. Think of really well put together pieces of furniture, excellently shaped vases or refined and complex mechanical watches. They practice, they get better. The artisan will create many things, and probably never acknowledge a single completed item as perfect.

Inventors go all out. They may have a stunning success or a miserable failure, but they’ll go for it anyway. They probably only enjoy getting to the end of a project and creating the first thing. They don’t go back around to improve, they pickup a new idea and go again.

It’s a preference, so sometimes you’ll flick between the two approaches. If you’re in artisan mode and work with an inventor, then sparks can fly (and vice versa!). A great collaboration can come into being if you recognise this early. Let the inventor rip up the rule book, create a wild prototype and then the artisan can refine towards perfection.

You might think that an artisan is just siphoning energy from their flywheel of change while the inventor is draining it rapidly. That might be true in some situations, but the effort and focus required by a master artisan to strive for perfection is just as significant and draining.

So what’s your preference?

Categories
Coaching

Don’t Box Yourself In

Personality tests are all about putting yourself into a nice little box. They are designed to sort everyone into a small set of groups, so you can describe them, describe yourself and get an idea of how those two types might interact.

The most valuable piece of advice I can give you is to only take what’s valuable from these tests, don’t let them define you. They might show you a preference, or behaviours that you lean towards in certain situations, but they don’t outline your whole being.

Meyers-Briggs is a very famous example of the type. It can be very helpful to put labels of Thinking or Feeling to your general preference, but it’s almost certainly unhelpful to state “I’m an INFP, so I can’t do that well”.

If you do feel boxed in, try breaking out. Think about a time or situation where you’ve done the opposite of what a personality test suggests. What was the scenario? How did it feel? When might you do it again? Did this let you round off a weakness or maybe balance out an overuse of a strength?

Taking the valuable parts lets you continue to grow and drive towards your goals. Pushing past the box means you aren’t limited by the strictures of the test but are able to achieve powerful outcomes that matter to you.

Categories
Coaching

This or That?

A few days ago, I was observing a coaching practice session. The coachee was very generous, they would answer any question with a long and extremely complete answer. The coach was keen to probe into these answers and focus on the areas that were most important to the coachee.

“Do you want to do this or that?” – A common mistake from a novice coach trying to bring focus to the conversation.

When you use this approach, you are limiting the coachee to a couple of options that you have selected, and you are using your words to channel the conversation.

Imagine you ask the coachee “Do you want to go left or right?”. You have closed off the possibility of them continuing straight ahead, pausing for a while or maybe even turning around and taking another route!

When you present a binary choice, then the usual answer is one of those options, even if that wasn’t the best choice for the coachee, or it loses a lot of nuance in the answer.

Instead, gain the focus you seek by asking the coachee to tell you what’s most important to them. You can summarise back the various options they’ve provided, and use words like specific or one to build the focused response.

  • Which one of these is most important to you?
  • What specifically is the area you’d like to focus on?
  • You’ve mentioned five things, which of those is your top concern?
  • If you could only change one of these, which would it be?

All of these questions leave the power with the coachee to choose and provide the focus. You haven’t forced them to a particular channel, but you will move the conversation forwards!

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Follow Through

When you agree on an action, you need to make sure you put in the follow through to be sure it actually happens.

It’s especially important to remember this if responsibility is one of your key strengths. It’s very easy to assume that because you will always do everything you say you will, that everyone else will always hold themselves to that standard.

The follow throughs will be different depending on the person, the actions, the length of time to complete and the importance of completing them. You need to make sure that you balance the need for follow through against the tendency towards micromanagement.

I like to use a model of “trust but verify”. Your default position is that the action will be completed as agreed, but as the person eventually accountable, you will check-in on progress.

If you are going to use a formal check-in model, then agree it up front with the actions. I’ve worked with people who want to improve their public speaking skills, in that sort of long lived objective, I’ve then agreed monthly check-ins, to find out what sort of presentations they’ve been giving, the feedback they’ve had and what they are doing based on it. This formal agreement is super useful to make sure the goal is not forgotten, or people try and leave any activity until right before the final review.

For shorter term follow throughs, they can be more informal. Ask “How is X progressing?”, dig in a little bit more with “What’s left to do?”. By asking what’s left, you get a real view on the final 20%, which is a lot more useful than a brief “all on track” or similar.

If it makes sense, grab a demo or draft view, that makes the progress concrete. Give some warning on this, so it’s not a surprise. That’ll also give the person a chance to get the draft together if they’ve not picked it up yet.

Finally, make sure that your check-in is not left until just before a deadline. Reviewing the day before doesn’t give much chance to make any corrections or complete actions, it’s no fun doing homework on the bus, so avoid that feeling by making sure good progress is made early.

Following through is an important leadership skill, so practice until it’s natural and you’ll really drive the effectiveness of everyone you are working with.