Why it's Time to Ditch the Annual Performance Review

Performance-review

News came at the end of last month that Accenture were killing off performance reviews and rankings for their employees. They're not the first (Deloitte, Microsoft and Adobe have apparently done so too) but this was notable in being one of the largest companies by headcount (330,000) to do so.

Good riddance I say. Performance reviews that are conducted infrequently (many companies are still seemingly locked into an annual frequency) can do more harm than good. I'm not the only one to think so. This piece by Samuel Cuthbert (Professor in the Anderson School of Management at UCLA) articulates well how easily PDRs can become an intimidating, ineffective, overly subjective, truth inhibiting, and often demotivating experience. And there's quite a bit of research around that shows how dissatisfied employees and even HR managers are with the quality of the process. Worse, in my experience PDRs are often not rigidly enforced anyway meaning that many managers ignore the need to do them, which in turn (ironically) leads to staff feeling that their contribution is not valued at all.

No. Performance should be reviewed, but reviewed differently. Instead of a performance review being built up into this huge, high pressure annual event that then becomes soul-suckingly demotivating, it should be a far more embedded into every day working. 

When Deloitte got rid of them they seemingly replaced them with an evaluation process that unfolded incrementally throughout the year and was based on four simple questions. The workplace is becoming a far more fluid environment with adaptive structures and ways of working, and an increasing amount of work being conducted iteratively or on a project basis. When you're working in this way, there should be plenty of opportunity for more regular feedback and also built-in reflection time. If there's not, you're not doing it right. Combine this with a strong vision of where the employee wants to go and you have something that enables us all to see progress, see it more regularly, course-correct where necessary, and recognise great work more frequently. That sounds a whole bunch more motivating to me.


On The End of Apps (as we know them)

Apple-proactive

A while back Tom Goodwin wrote a great Techcrunch piece (the one with that opening line about Uber, Facebook, Alibaba and AirBnB that has been so frequently copied/quoted ever since), talking about how our relationship is increasingly shifting from the creators of products and even services to software interfaces that have become the new mediators.  A new breed of rapidly growing company (like those mentioned above) that are 'indescribably thin layers that sit on top of vast supply systems (where the costs are) and interface with a huge number of people (where the money is)'.  This means, says Tom, a non-stop battle for the interface, for the best customer experience, to leap ahead as the gateway of choice, and to gain scale and breadth in this context.

I think a good example of the kind of shift that Tom is talking about is the change that is starting to happen in how we interact with mobile apps. As Android and iOS develop, more and more interaction is happening in the notifications layer rather than in the apps themselves, increasingly removing the need to open up apps at all. Paul Adams described this trend nicely in his post on the end of apps as we know them:

'How we experience content via connected devices – laptops, phones, tablets, wearables – is undergoing a dramatic change. The idea of an app as an independent destination is becoming less important, and the idea of an app as a publishing tool, with related notifications that contain content and actions, is becoming more important.'

The concept of apps sitting in the background pushing content into a central experience, says Paul, is making more and more sense. The growing popularity of cards, as an increasingly dominant design pattern, and as containers for content that can come from any app is facilitating this. It means designing for systems rather than destination, for content that might be broken down into atomic units that can work agnostic of device, platform or screen size.

Something else is happening here. The growing integration into operating systems of the capability to reach inside apps to extract relevant functionality or data. As Wired pointed out earlier this month“Our dumb, silo’d apps are slowly but steadily becoming smart, context-aware services that link, share, and talk to each other without us having to necessarily see or touch those little squares.”

Google recently debuted Now on Tap - effectively an update of Google Now that makes it smarter, meaning that it can be activated without leaving other apps, examine what's happening on your screen and surface other relevant content (e.g. from other apps), effectively fusing it into the Android OS. Similarly, with iOS9, Apple announced an upgrade to Siri and Spotlight called Proactive, that allows users to reach inside apps to surface their data and link their functionality without having to open them from their home screen.

The existing mobile experience, dominated by a bank of icons for apps that lead to separate destinations is changing. And as experiences become more frictionless they may have more points of contact but potentially fewer options for control. As Google Now and Siri become more active at mining apps for functionality and data, the interface shifts from one controlled by app creators to one controlled by the maker of the operating system.

This is not necessarily a bad thing (from a UX point of view it can make our interactions more seamless) but it is a big shift, the implications of which are pretty huge for how we design services.


The Future of Agencies

Future

I'm currently conducting a major research project focusing on the future of agencies, working with Econsultancy. It's a revamp of the report I did three years ago on the same subject. As part of it I've been interviewing a large number of senior agency-side personnel from around the world working in all types of agency from the big management consultancies to traditional above the line creative agencies, from digital and technology focused agencies to major media agencies to newer content marketing focused outfits. Some truly compelling and (dareisayit) potentially transformative stuff has already come out of it. It seems as though a LOT has changed over the past two years. 

I'll be giving a first take on our findings in a webinar on 22nd of July. If you'd like to sign up for that, and get an early preview of the key findings you can do so here:

22nd July 9.00AM London time
22nd July 5.00PM London time


Organisational Structures from Scratch

Starting-line

Ashley Freidlein, CEO and Co-Founder of Econsultancy wrote a recent post on the Econsultancy blog as a first take answer to the question: 'With a blank sheet, what organisational structure would you choose for marketing and digital?'. It's an interesting question, and the answer he came up with incorporated a structure that brought improved customer focus to the organisation, and integrated marketing and digital to a far greater extent with other other customer facing and support functions and roles.

I think that there are some big questions around how we design our organisations in response to the ever changing environment in which we find ourselves, and so I built on Ashley's post with a response of my own which you can read here. As you'll hopefully see, asking ourselves what it would look like if we started with a blank sheet leads to some interesting possibilities, but also the question of whether it isn't time to have a more challenging debate about how we structure organisations (particularly functions like marketing, customer experience and digital) for a digitally-empowered world. I'm interested to know what you think.


Google Firestarters Austin - Engineering Strategy - The Event

Google-Firestarters-SXSW

Saturday saw our first ever Firestarters event in Austin, held in the Google Fiber space during SXSWi. We'd themed the event around the intersection of user experience design and strategy which, judging from the audience feedback and debate on the night is rich territory for discussion right now. Perhaps unsurprising given the growth in importance of UX within both clients and agencies, and more generally how tech-savvy design resourcing, expertise and practice is in ever increasing demand (as encapsulated nicely by John Maeda's Design in Tech Report that was launched at SXSW).

Our first speaker was the brilliant Oonie Chase, Director of Experience at Wieden & Kennedy, who talked about how UX was influencing briefs in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways at W & K, but also how the two disciplines will likely start start from a different place - planning from the lens of the brand, UX from the customer perspective, and what they can teach each other. She used a quote by Dave Terry at W & K ("It's entirely wrong, but it's golden in its wrongness.") about UX:

Oonie-Google-Firestarters

User Experience practice challenges the idea that you need scale immediately - you might start small to acquire learnings, whilst advertising has a ‘need for glory’. UX is something that is co-created over time so not necessarily perfect. It doesn't worship creative and 'doneness' in the same way as planners do. But whilst UX can be overly focused on getting from A to B, planning can teach UX about not losing sight of the ‘soul’ and emotion of what you do. Rather than aiming for a Minimum Viable Product, perhaps it's more about achieving a 'Minimum Lovable Product'.

Chloe Gottlieb, SVP Exec Creative Director, R/GA, complimented that nicely by focusing on where planning and UX (or rather Experience Design, which is the term they prefer at R/GA) overlap. Great planners, said Chloe, are inherently creative and great Experience Designers are inherently strategic, but it's how they work together (as opposed to working in parallel) inside the agency that is becoming increasingly important. Both planners and experience designers are pattern seekers, consumed by consumers, and obsessed with culture and behaviour, but:

"While UX folk might veer more toward architecture, engineering and design - closely observing customer needs and how to add value to them over time - planners are more like poets, anthropologists, psychicians – finding tensions in culture and bringing them to light."

UX insights might lead to products, services and platforms (systems), planning insights lead to brand stories, content, comms. R/GA's own progression has amplified the overlap, growing into making more branded interactions and systems for campaigns, becoming more strategic (e.g. thinking about functionally integrated services that tied products and services together), just as planning comes from brand and storytelling towards having to create strategies that could lead to products, services or communications, and is evolving to find ways to stay involved as work is made, tested, evolved over time. 

Chloe-gottlieb-Firestarters

So it is far from binary, there is plenty of overlap, and planning and UX need each other more than ever. The intersection is where the magic happens, particularly now that most brands are primarily experienced through interfaces (in fact 'Brand is Interface'), product and message are integrated more than ever, and experiences are not separated into silos. Strategy becomes 'truth over time', requiring more system thinking, experimentation, tweaking, QA than ever before. At R/GA, getting to insights involves multidisciplinary teams working together on the problem, looking for patterns and collisions, and briefs are the crystallisation after the ideas are baked. The way they know they have a great insight is when it enables creatives to take giant leaps.

Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, added a third unique perspective. Moving to a tech company from an agency background, said Ian, meant coming to a place where big ideas are not as important as big releases, where impact is more important than inspiration, and from an environment run on creative disciplines, to one dominated by engineering. His tool set and collaborators have also changed (he counts algorithms amongst his new set of collaborators). Planners dig for insights, and uncover or manufacture a truth, and creatives make fictions (through stories and designs). So the flow of the process is that from an insight you get a big idea, and from that big idea you tell or make a story, and in software especially you create an experience for the customer. But in software the distance between creating a story and creating an experience can be a long and winding road. But increasingly both marketing and product now focus on the essentials of the experience they are trying to create at the end. This may be in a story like form, but stories illustrate a promise, and all promises are lies until we keep them. So 'planners tell awesome lies', lies we can believe in.

Ianspalter

And whilst software companies understand their customer’s behaviour, they rarely understand their customer.

Russell Davies (Creative Director, UK Government Digital Service) built on his Firestarters UK talk by focusing in on how usability increasingly trumps persuasion. In a pleasingly controversial talk, he talked about how the product is the service is the marketing, and why this meant that experience design was the future. A brilliant product will always be better than a parity product with marketing. It was once hard to produce brilliant products, but as everything becomes increasingly digitised it's easier than ever. So companies that are still set up around persuasion need to design around the needs of the user, and be set up to deliver the best experience possible. This means no new ideas until everything works ('fix the basics'). And that user experience is killing marketing since if the product is good enough there is no need to over sell it. And about how everyone should be concerned about making user experience better.

Google_Firestarters-SXSW-image

The questions and debate afterwards picked up on just how topical a subject this is right now for strategists and agencies, and we had no lack of interesting (and sometimes controversial) opinion on the night. You can see a Storify of some of the feedback and conversation here

My thanks as always to Ben Malbon and Google for hosting, to our amazing speakers who made our first Google Firestarters in Austin such a success.

Thanks to DDB Worldwide and ImageThink for images used in this post.