Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Marcus Buckingham on Performance Management at #SHRM15

Yesterday I delivered another training day on re-engineering performance management via Symposium Events.  Although actually, as one of the course participants suggested, it’s not so much training as knowledge sharing i.e. I don't train people how to do, or even design, performance management as much as provide them with the information and hopefully motivation they need to go and do something transformationally different to how most performance management is done today (and I do provide some process suggestions for making improvements too).

So we talked about Adobe, Juniper, Kelly and most of the other case studies of radical change, and we reviewed some of the key technologies eg Work.com, BetterWorks, CultureAmp, ReviewSnap, Bonusly etc which these and other organisations are using to facilitate the change.

We also talked quite a bit about the case study of Deloitte’s performance management changes in April’s Harvard Business Review, mainly as one of the participants brought it up, although I’m not a huge fan of it.  That’s mainly because some of it is based on a proprietary tool available from Marcus Buckingham and I’m not in business to promote products.  But I also don’t think organisations should get themselves tied into a proprietary approach.  In fact one of the learnings I shared with participants yesterday was that the future of performance management (if it's going to be different / effective) is probably going to be about best fit rather than best practice, and I don’t think moving from one old set of ‘best’ practices to a new set if really going to help.  Organisations need to think through their own context, challenges and opportunities, develop clear performance management objectives and principles, and then design an approach which will work for them.

I'm also unconvinced that Deloitte / Marcus Buckingham’s approach is totally sound.  So when I got home and was catching up from the tweets from SHRM’s annual conference, I was pleased to be able to review a very useful Periscope of Buckingham’s session, recorded by Joel Peterson (thank you.)


Buckingham dealt mainly with the first, more informal part of his approach to performance management.  This is mainly about moving from an ongoing update on progress to a more specific check-in.  It is a check-in, not a check-up, ie it’s not about the to do list but is designed to demonstrate attention and raise engagement and therefore performance.

It focuses on two or three key questions - what are your strengths?, what are your priorities? and how can I help?  The key differences to a more standard update are that the check-in is about coaching for the future rather than feedback on the past, and also on strengths rather than leadership competencies.  For Buckingham, the best team leaders are those who do this every week, 52 weeks of the year.

That’s all great, I like the check-in approach, and wish more organisations and managers would do something like this.  But I do need to point out that it doesn’t deal with everything performance management needs to, ie there will still need to be objective setting, development planning and probably some feedback.  And I think you can do feedback in a way that it will be accepted, for example I like Sears approach of encouraging people to ask for feedback, rather than give feedback.  Their finding is that everyone who is asked for feedback then asks several more people for feedback on themselves, creating a reinforcing cycle that creates asking for feedback as a core aspect of the organisation’s culture.

Big data / smart data

I'm also unconvinced by some of the rest of the session.  For example Buckingham suggests moving our current focus on data onto smart data.  Eg he suggests that the 9 box grid is based on logic that you can retrain a team leader to be a reliable rater of another human being, but you can’t.  And if you combine bad data and more bad data you just get big bad data, not good data.  But actually that’s not true.  Bias does average itself out, crowdsourcing feedback will result in a better, more valid view of an individual.  And 360 degree reviews are not just noise but facilitated or adopted in the right way, can also provide a signal.  Ie it absolutely can be valid and useful.  And for goodness sake, most HR functions haven’t even started the journey to using big data yet, and although the benefits of this are definitely over-hyped, we absolutely don’t want to create the impression they don’t need to get on the train.

Team leaders

In addition, Buckingham's absolute focus on team leaders makes little sense.  Team leaders are important and one team leader in Google can be very different to another team leader in Google but to suggest that there is no Google Way is quite frankly rather silly.  There are lots of reasons why two team leaders may see different levels of performance from their teams, even in retail operations (as in the graph in the Periscope screen.)  And most other sectors are even more complex than this.  

Also, people increasingly work outside Buckingham's single teams - for example Amy Edmondson has been speaking at SHRM about how increasingly people from different areas of the business need to come together and do work, and Gary Kushner suggested that attendees throw away their organisation charts (which I also don’t agree with btw) for similar reasons.  Even without this shift, not all the factors informing performance are limited to the team.  Leadership style, culture, communication, values, competencies, so many things including HR - all make an impact on performance.

For example, Buckingham asks about learning agility - what will team leaders do with this, and what is it anyway?  Well, I’d agree its a somewhat complex idea to get your head around, but if it’s important (and it is) the fact it’s complex isn’t enough of a reason to ignore it, or not to enagge team leaders around it.

Also Buckingham suggests we drop engagement survey questions if they don’t impact the performance of teams.  This, to me, is completely wrong - if the areas that these items represent are important in generating individual engagement, and you know that engagement does inform business results, then these areas are important, and you will want to ask about them. 

Buckingham is right about the value of technology and also that we need to move away from tools we have to co-erce people to use towards consumerised ones team leaders will thank us for:

"To support both people in these conversations, our system will allow individual members to understand and explore their strengths using a self- assessment tool and then to present those strengths to their teammates, their team leader, and the rest of the organization. Our reasoning is twofold. First, as we’ve seen, people’s strengths generate their highest performance today and the greatest improvement in their performance tomorrow, and so deserve to be a central focus. Second, if we want to see frequent (weekly!) use of our system, we have to think of it as a consumer technology—that is, designed to be simple, quick, and above all engaging to use. Many of the successful consumer technologies of the past several years (particularly social media) are sharing technologies, which suggests that most of us are consistently interested in ourselves—our own in- sights, achievements, and impact. So we want this new system to provide a place for people to explore and share what is best about themselves."

But the good news is there are an increasing number of these tools around (and some of which I mentioned previously) - we’re not just limited to Buckingham’s.


Buckingham dealt less with the more formal aspects of performance management but it’s this that was covered extensively in the Harvard Business Review.  I’ll come back to this tomorrow... (see here.)

However, in summary it was an entertaining and provoking session, but to me no amount of humour can compensate for some significant holes and mis-directions in the approach.

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