Earlier this year, we revamped how we run the semiannual performance reviews for engineers at MindTouch. The first change was getting rid of the name! Let’s face it: if you employ smart, passionate engineers, it’s not a matter of performance, but aligning interests! The other bothersome term is review. It puts focus on the past instead of the future. So, we settled on the term career sprint. I don’t know if this term will stick, but it’s certainly better than its predecessor.
A career sprint is split up into three parts: retroperspective, focus, and a personal goal. It takes about an hour and is conducted as a 1-on-1.
1) Retroperspective: The objective of the retroperspective is to have an open, candid, and emotional connection about past successes and failures. Any praise or grievances should be shared. I regularly get watery eyed during the retroperspective as I share how grateful and inspired I am by the team member. It’s a great opportunity to create a true, personal connection. It is also an opportunity for me to learn where I can do better for the team in general. By the end of the retroperspective, the past should be settled, and all attention can now be directed towards the future.
2) Focus: I truly believe that everyone performs best when they can work on what they are most passionate about. This should be an obvious statement, but managers need to embrace it and make it part of their process. The career sprint acts as an opportunity to advance the team by giving members new challenges or moving them into new roles. An essential component to achieving a high performance team is to understand where everyone wants to be. While this might sound chaotic, in my experience, the desires of the individual are often inline with those of the manager. This may have to do with people tending to veer towards their strengths to begin with. When that is not the case, it’s an opportunity for the manager to coach and recommend alternatives, to create a learning opportunity and explore an area the individual may not have realized they are strong at. By the end of the focus discussion, the manager should understand what challenges and opportunities, if any, the team member wants to be exposed to. No commitment can be done yet, but this information will be essential in planning the team’s trajectory for the following six months.
3) Personal Goal: The work experience should transcend work. My personal wish is for everyone to experience professional and personal growth while they work at MindTouch. In addition to coaching team members how to succeed at work, managers must also make themselves available to help them achieve personal objectives outside of work. These can range from learning to sail, visiting historical sites, competing in a sports event, and so on. When needed, the manager makes time available during the week for the activity, so that the individual can accomplish their goal. I have no evidence that this is advantageous to the company, but I believe it to be the right thing to do. When you expect the best from your team, you should give them an opportunity to become their own best!
Shortly after completing of the career sprints, we conduct a team meeting to introduce the new roles of team members to the entire team. Good collaboration is only possible when everyone knows who is responsible for what. We also do individual follow-ups for those who get promotions or option grants. Finally, the manager sets up a regular 1-on-1 to help with the personal goal and mentor the team member on their work.
You may have noticed that there are no performance objectives defined during the career sprint (not counting the personal goal). In my opinion, they don’t make sense for agile teams. Nobody can predict what will be valuable in six months, nor should one be beholden to a decision made six months ago. Agile teams operate in sprints and each sprint is about doing what is most important now. Believe in the process and always look out for distractions!