How Performance Reviews Drive Creativity and Innovation

As I continue to write on the disciplines of a learning organization I wanted to to address a very common part of organizations today: the performance review. If your organization is typical, the performance review has become a loathed necessary evil. Like many ideas, it has fallen victim to lack of understanding and incredibly poor execution which has ruined its reputation and completely distorted its true advantages. But this post isn’t about “saving the performance review”. This post is about a fundamental problem with the way we do reviews in general.

Most organizations have a formal review process these days. The good organizations have more than that, engaging in more structured and unstructured performance review secessions on a regular basis. Review is great – it’s absolutely needed it we are to have any success moving forward.  360 reviews, predictive analytics. or simple hallways meetings all lead to helpful assessment of past performance. Yet there seems to be a bit of problem with the idea now. Maybe it has just become a little distorted over time, or maybe it’s because truly implementing the idea would force us towards uncomfortable change and forward momentum. No matter the cause, we need to re-evaluate the end game of evaluation. More specifically, the need is this:

We must quite asking, “how did we do”, and start asking, “how can we do better”.

The difference between these two questions changes everything. Asking the later is an action oriented question. Focusing on doing better means that past performance becomes a learning tool, but not the end game. It means opinion doesn’t matter anymore, and it means that past success is no longer paralyzing.

For the better part of six five years I worked in outside sales. Sales may be the most results driven position out there. In most sales positions your success or failure is usually quite clear. If you’re selling stuff, you’re doing well. Of course we could argue the validity of exclusively using this measure, but that really isn’t the point here. The point is that in sales the only helpful thing I could every learn from my numbers was how to do better. My quota always went up, and my my monthly numbers where cleared about every 30 days no matter how good (or how bad) they where. If I asked myself at the end of a month, “how did I do”, there was no answer to this question that would help me achieve my quota for the coming month. If I answered “really poor”, I would just be down on myself and loose my confidence. If  I answered, “really well”, I could easily become complacent or overconfident. You see, there is simply no answer to this questions that would do me any good at all. The real question, not matter how did, was simply, “how can I get better”.

The answer to this question, no matter what is was, always helped my improvement. Keep in mind that eventually this question will lead you to ask, “how did I do”, but you’ve changed your mindset. The idea here isn’t to totally ditch out on assessment of performance. This is important. The idea is simply that we must be action oriented in our questioning. How we did the week before, though important to taking correct action, means nothing in itself. The value is in learning. The value is in having the discipline to identify how we can improve, grow, and develop when we review performance. It’s important that organizational leaders make this very clear. Whether you are in an official 360 review meeting, or just simply discussing the success of a project in the hallway with a colleague, always be biased towards action oriented questions. Never settle for simple assessment statements like, “we did well”, “we did poorly”, or even “sales are up 2.3% over projections for Q1”. In itself, this assessment information has no value. Great learning organizations ask, “how can we do better”. This is how performance review begins to drive innovation, creativity, change, and progress. It requires disciplined learning and a bias towards action.


Read all 10 Disciplines of a Learning Organization here.

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2 thoughts on “How Performance Reviews Drive Creativity and Innovation

  1. John Wenger says:

    I’m with you in your call for a re-think around performance reviews. You raise issues of confidence, complacency and the discomfort of change-all issues which are often overlooked in performance conversations, especially if they are carried out by a ‘bean counter’. Most organisations don’t think big enough about performance, and tend to devote time and energy to annual or bi-annual performance reviews, rather than ongoing performance conversations. When I am working with people in shifting behaviours, I apply a strengths-based performance analysis tool which looks at 1)What people did well, 2)What people did too much of (that got in the way of optimal performance), 3)What people didn’t do enough of (that they could do more of next time in order to achieve optimal performance).

    This way of assessing performance increases people’s sense of self-worth and confidence, as well as warming them up to being more spontaneous and creative in their work and lives. This has the result of them seeing new ways forward and getting excited about actually doing something different. If organisations are going to answer the question you pose, “How can we do better?” I reckon the starting point needs to be what is working well. From this basis, we can continue to grow better and better ways of functioning in the world.

  2. micahyost says:

    John-
    Thanks for your comments. Great stuff. I really like your second step in the strengths based performance analysis. I think it can be natural to consider what we did well and we didn’t do enough of, but I really like the idea of considering what we did TOO MUCH of. That isn’t always a natural consideration in performance review. Thanks for your input!

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