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An open journal-- some of it written for you, but most of it is for me.

Quarterlies

Weekly 1 on 1s are not enough. Maybe if I did them better they would be, but mine are all on Fridays and often I’m not able to tease out anything more than the day to day updates and feelings of the past week. That’s not to say that I’m going to stop, 1 on 1s keep me connected to my reports and even if 1 out of every 5 is a breakthrough session then it is time very well spent.

The problem that I see in 1 on 1s as I run them is that it is hard to focus on the longer arching themes on a weekly basis. For whatever reason, it feels awkward to ask about career goals, work fulfillment, etc. with such regularity. Enter the quarterly. I’ve just completed my fourth attempt of quarterlies (not including the annual review). I’m happy with the conversations and the depth of the issues we discuss in those session but my attempt at this didn’t start very well.

Here were the set of questions from the first quarterly survey which I conducted using google forms:

  • How happy are you in labs?
  • I feel like I’m growing my skills
  • I get clear and frequent feedback about my performance?
  • Given the products we are building, what types of things do you want to work on?
  • What skills (on or off the keyboard) do you want to improve that you don’t see an opportunity to do in your current role?
  • I understand why we are building Learn and the related apps
  • If you answer that you get it, please summarize why we are putting so much work into Learn.
  • If you answered you don’t get it, please tell me what needs further explanation.
  • Anything else you want to discuss?
  • What is one thing that would make you happier or more productive?

This caused a lot of anxiety. Why am I doing this? What was I going to use this information for? Many of those first conversations were stilted, even confrontational. Someone actually took this time to give his two week notice. It wasn’t pretty. Even so, I was able to battle through these difficult conversations and pull out a lot of agenda topics that we were able to resolve as a group. This made it all worthwhile. Gathering the team in the room to talk about issues that were affecting all of us and re-focus our direction was incredibly fruitful. I also followed up with the individuals that took issue with the set of questions I was asking and had them help me craft a questionnaire that was easier for them to swallow.

Three month later the process went much smoother. Here were the revised questions.

  • I feel like I’m growing my skills
  • What is one thing that would make you happier or more productive?
  • In what ways would you like to grow your skills? What kind of support will you need?
  • Do you feel like you’re getting enough clear feedback?
  • How do you feel about the Lab’s processes in general?
  • Given the products we are building, what types of things do you want to work on?
  • I find the work that I do full of meaning and purpose
  • I am proud of the work that I do for my team
  • The work that I do is challenging
  • How would you rate yourself in the following 4 tenets of our “shipping culture” (circle one for each category):
  • Velocity
  • Quality
  • Ownership
  • Communication

This one clicked much better. I got great responses and we had a great team discussion. Processes changed, people were engaged and excited to debate with each other. I was able to present the group with statistics on aggregated stats on how challenged individuals felt and where we needed to improve as a group.

A year later, this is the best thing I think I do as a manager. We ask similar long form answers but have dropped the ratings of the department values in lieu of the company values (see future post on Value Based Assessments). With a young team, it isn’t uncommon for me to see career aspirations change quarter along with engagement and performance. I’ve found these quarterlies to be better discussions than the annual review. Some reasons might be, it isn’t as formal or mired in the connotations of a scary end of year process. I use google forms rather than some HR software, which seems pretty natural and lightweight for devs. I choose a venue that seems more informal but is still off-site (recently I’ve been camping out at Au Bon Pain). And yet, much of this conversation is spent on discussing performance, areas of improvement, how to grow, resetting expectations and ways to improve the team and product – all the things that I would imagine a good annual review process is supposed to do. This cycle I’ve scheduled 90 minutes for each session but not one actually was completed in time. People are talking for 2 to 2 ½ hour stretches even though it is basically the same set of questions that I’ve used for the last three rounds. This is a huge investment of time. All said and done I will have done more than 30 hours of quarterlies before preparing a deck we can discuss as a group. But this is working and the conversations have improved every quarter.

Even with its rocky start, quarterlies have served us well. I would have never known many of the team’s process pain points without these conversations and it has saved me when performance slips so that I can get on the record to address it quickly. If annual reviews are broken my first guess would be that even if they are conducted well, they are just too infrequent. Things on my team move too quickly to address on a 12-month cycle. This is my best shot at making it better.

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