When annual performance reviews work

There are lots of people who are skeptical about annual performance reviews. Why have save feedback for annual reviews when you can give feedback in the moment?

While that’s true, annual reviews, to me, serve a different purpose. They help us to zoom out of the day-to-day or week-to-week and help us take stock of events from the entire year. When viewed in that time frame, it is often remarkable to see how some folks have grown and changed over the course of a year. They’re not a replacement for regular, candid, feedback. Instead, they serve as a supplement.

I’ve been taking time over the last week to write reviews for teammates and I’ve finished most of them feeling very inspired. The act of writing these has reminded me how much I value working with them while also pushing me to ask myself how I can emulate what many of them bring to the table.

Annual performance reviews can work well if we do the following –

  • Encourage everyone to seek feedback from folks they worked with on meaningful projects
  • Encourage everyone to give constructive feedback to folks they had sufficient interaction
  • Have managers review all the feedback and synthesize it as part of the annual review process

If any of these aren’t done, annual reviews become a farce. If feedback is only given by managers or by a few people who don’t take the effort, the feedback is useless.

Like most good things, a solid process followed by thoughtful follow ups can make all the difference.

So, as you wind up for the year, I hope you take the time to think about annual reviews for your teammates. It matters.

PS: Notes on self reviews are coming next week. :-)

Please do not reply

I began moving my mouse toward the reply button to explain to the folks at Equifax that the link wasn’t working. That’s when I saw – Please DO NOT REPLY to this email as it is system generated and will not be read.

What if companies sent emails that said – “PLEASE REPLY if you have any questions or concerns. We care about what you have to say and your messages will be read and responded to.”

It will likely be cheaper that an expensive advertising campaign that talks about how their brand cares.

And, likely more effective too.

Results and processes when managing ourselves and others

When managing yourself, focus on process and let results simply serve as a validation for a good process.

Managing ourselves by focusing on outcomes strips all opportunity for learning and growth. Such a focus also guarantees unhappiness because, unlike our processes, results often include forces that are outside our control. And, we’re better off focusing on what we control.

But, here’s what’s interesting – when managing others, we’re better off when we focus on outcomes and let processes simply serve as a validation for good outcomes.

Why this difference? It is because we limit others’ creativity by prescribing processes. The processes we prescribe typically suffer two flaws. First, they work best for us and don’t necessarily suit everyone else’s style. And, second, they are rarely the best approach to get to the outcome we seek. That can work okay for routine work (the kind that robots will do a decade from now) but it decidedly does not work for knowledge/creative work.

Good managers set clear expectations on outcomes and leave it to the their team to figure out process.

But, as we’ve discussed above, good processes don’t always result in good outcomes.

That, in turn, is the difference between good managers and great managers. Good managers evaluate their teams based on outcomes.Great managers, on the other hand, give precedence to outcomes first. But, in the event outcomes didn’t work, they ensure every bit of effort, creativity and dedication is given due credit.

Enlightened management considers both processes and outcomes. In the absence of that, the rule of thumb we started with is the way to go. For yourself, focus on process. For others, focus on outcomes and let them figure out a process that works for them.

E-Estonia – Building a digital republic | My favorite excerpts

Wired had a powerful story about a social credit experiment in China that combines data from the equivalent of Facebook, Amazon and LinkedIn to create an Orwellian credit score. It made me wonder about the potential impact of governments armed with the power to nudge citizens based on massive amounts of data about them. As I found myself worrying about the effects of such power, I took heart in a fantastic New Yorker article about E-Estonia.

If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it. And, if you are out of time, below are my favorite excerpts.

E-Estonia is the most ambitious project in technological statecraft today, for it includes all members of the government, and alters citizens’ daily lives. The normal services that government is involved with—legislation, voting, education, justice, health care, banking, taxes, policing, and so on—have been digitally linked across one platform, wiring up the nation.

Today, citizens can vote from their laptops and challenge parking tickets from home. They do so through the “once only” policy, which dictates that no single piece of information should be entered twice. Instead of having to “prepare” a loan application, applicants have their data—income, debt, savings—pulled from elsewhere in the system. There’s nothing to fill out in doctors’ waiting rooms, because physicians can access their patients’ medical histories. Estonia’s system is keyed to a chip-I.D. card that reduces typically onerous, integrative processes—such as doing taxes—to quick work. “If a couple in love would like to marry, they still have to visit the government location and express their will,” Andrus Kaarelson, a director at the Estonian Information Systems Authority, says. But, apart from transfers of physical property, such as buying a house, all bureaucratic processes can be done online.

Digitizing processes reportedly saves the state two per cent of its G.D.P. a year in salaries and expenses. Since that’s the same amount it pays to meet the nato threshold for protection (Estonia—which has a notably vexed relationship with Russia—has a comparatively small military), its former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves liked to joke that the country got its national security for free.

In 2014, the government launched a digital “residency” program, which allows logged-in foreigners to partake of some Estonian services, such as banking, as if they were living in the country. Other measures encourage international startups to put down virtual roots; Estonia has the lowest business-tax rates in the European Union, and has become known for liberal regulations around tech research. It is legal to test Level 3 driverless cars (in which a human driver can take control) on all Estonian roads, and the country is planning ahead for Level 5 (cars that take off on their own). “We believe that innovation happens anyway,” Viljar Lubi, Estonia’s deputy secretary for economic development, says. “If we close ourselves off, the innovation happens somewhere else.”

She pulled out her I.D. card; slid it into her laptop, which, like the walls of the room, was faced with blond wood; and typed in her secret code, one of two that went with her I.D. The other code issues her digital signature—a seal that, Estonians point out, is much harder to forge than a scribble.

Data aren’t centrally held, thus reducing the chance of Equifax-level breaches. Instead, the government’s data platform, X-Road, links individual servers through end-to-end encrypted pathways, letting information live locally. Your dentist’s practice holds its own data; so does your high school and your bank. When a user requests a piece of information, it is delivered like a boat crossing a canal via locks. (APIs)

Toomas Ilves, Estonia’s former President and a longtime driver of its digitization efforts, is currently a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford, and says he was shocked at how retrograde U.S. bureaucracy seems even in the heart of Silicon Valley. “It’s like the nineteen-fifties—I had to provide an electrical bill to prove I live here!” he exclaimed. “You can get an iPhone X, but, if you have to register your car, forget it.” (All too true)

“I’ll show you a digital health record,” she said, to explain. “A doctor from here”—a file from one clinic—“can see the research that this doctor”—she pointed to another—“does.” She’d locked a third record, from a female-medicine practice, so that no other doctor would be able to see it. A tenet of the Estonian system is that an individual owns all information recorded about him or her. Every time a doctor (or a border guard, a police officer, a banker, or a minister) glances at any of Piperal’s secure data online, that look is recorded and reported. Peeping at another person’s secure data for no reason is a criminal offense. “In Estonia, we don’t have Big Brother; we have Little Brother,” a local told me. “You can tell him what to do and maybe also beat him up.”

Traffic stops are illegal in the absence of a moving violation, because officers acquire records from a license-plate scan. Polling-place intimidation is a non-issue if people can vote—and then change their votes, up to the deadline—at home, online. And heat is taken off immigration because, in a borderless society, a resident need not even have visited Estonia in order to work and pay taxes under its dominion.

“If countries are competing not only on physical talent moving to their country but also on how to get the best virtual talent connected to their country, it becomes a disruption like the one we have seen in the music industry,” he said. “And it’s basically a zero-cost project, because we already have this infrastructure for our own people.”

In a garage where unused ambulances were parked, he took an iPad Mini from the pocket of his white coat, and opened an “e-ambulance” app, which Estonian paramedics began using in 2015. “This system had some childhood diseases,” Popov said, tapping his screen. “But now I can say that it works well.”

E-ambulance is keyed onto X-Road, and allows paramedics to access patients’ medical records, meaning that the team that arrives for your chest pains will have access to your latest cardiology report and E.C.G. Since 2011, the hospital has also run a telemedicine system—doctoring at a distance—originally for three islands off its coast. There were few medical experts on the islands, so the E.M.S. accepted volunteer paramedics. “Some of them are hotel administrators, some of them are teachers,” Popov said. At a command center at the hospital in Tallinn, a doctor reads data remotely.

The system also scans for drug interactions, so if your otolaryngologist prescribes something that clashes with the pills your cardiologist told you to take, the computer will put up a red flag.

In what may have been the seminal insight of twenty-first-century Estonia, Martens realized that whoever offered the most ubiquitous and secure platform would run the country’s digital future—and that it should be an elected leadership, not profit-seeking Big Tech.

The backbone of Estonia’s digital security is a blockchain technology called K.S.I.

If Russia comes—not when—and if our systems shut down, we will have copies,” Piret Hirv, a ministerial adviser, told me. In the event of a sudden invasion, Estonia’s elected leaders might scatter as necessary. Then, from cars leaving the capital, from hotel rooms, from seat 3A at thirty thousand feet, they will open their laptops, log into Luxembourg, and—with digital signatures to execute orders and a suite of tamper-resistant services linking global citizens to their government—continue running their country, with no interruption, from the cloud.

“Our citizens will be global soon,” she said. “We have to fly like bees from flower to flower to gather those taxes from citizens working in the morning in France, in the evening in the U.K., living half a year in Estonia and then going to Australia.”

“The idea that an algorithm can buy and sell services on your behalf is a conceptual upgrade.”

He lit several cigarettes, and talked excitedly of “building a digital society.” It struck me then how long it had been since anyone in America had spoken of society-building of any kind. It was as if, in the nineties, Estonia and the U.S. had approached a fork in the road to a digital future, and the U.S. had taken one path—personalization, anonymity, information privatization, and competitive efficiency—while Estonia had taken the other. Two decades on, these roads have led to distinct places, not just in digital culture but in public life as well.

Kaevats told me it irked him that so many Westerners saw his country as a tech haven. He thought they were missing the point. “This enthusiasm and optimism around technology is like a value of its own,” he complained. “This gadgetry that I’ve been ranting about? This is not important.” He threw up his hands, scattering ash. “It’s about the mind-set. It’s about the culture. It’s about the human relations—what it enables us to do.”

Mudbloods and Pure Bloods

Harry Potter caught on in India as I was in my eight grade. I still love those books. I have both digital and physical copies and still think of them as my ultimate source of comfort reading. If you’ve read the books, terms like mudbloods and pure bloods have powerful connotations.

When I think of the wisest books I’ve read, I don’t generally look past the Covey/7 Habits. These days, however, I’m reconsidering my stack rank a fair bit in favor of J K Rowling.  When I see all the commentary around immigration in the US, some of which affects my day-to-day, I think J K Rowling was really onto something when she taught us about mudbloods and pure bloods.

I think I understand what it means to be a mudblood – now more than ever.

Maybe JKR was preparing me for life?

Strong judgments

I’ve found a strong inverse correlation between my self awareness and my propensity to pass strong judgments.

I think that is because self awareness brings our own fallibility to light. I realize, now more than ever, that morality and the concept of “right” and “wrong” are relative, subjective and driven by circumstance.

My learning from all of this has been to strive to be clear about what matters to me and to do my best to live in a manner that is consistent with what I care about. And, to choose to be a light, not a judge.

The beauty about choosing to be a light is that you proactively spend your energy on things you control. When I see behavior that doesn’t work with what I believe in, I’ve found it simpler and better to say “That doesn’t work for me” and turn away. Life’s too short to be passing strong judgments – especially when I’m far from perfect myself.

I’d rather focus my limited energies on plugging away to become a better version of myself. Here’s to that.

Climate change counseling

Eric Holthaus, a Meteorologist and climate change writer, said the following in a tweet storm earlier this year.

I’m starting my 11th year working on climate change, including the last 4 in daily journalism. Today I went to see a counselor about it.

I’m saying this because I know many people feel deep despair about climate, especially post-election. I struggle every day. You are not alone.

There are days where I literally can’t work. I’ll read a story and shut down for rest of the day. Not much helps besides exercise and time.

The counselor said: “Do what you can”, which I think is simple and powerful advice. I’m going to start working a lot more on mindfulness.

Despair is natural when there’s objective evidence of a shared existential problem we’re not addressing adequately. You feel alone.

You feel powerless. You feel like nothing matters. Your relationships suffer. You feel guilty for “not doing more”.

But what the hell am I supposed to do? Write another blog post?

Last year we lost a huge chunk of the Great Barrier Reef. We are literally ending existence of animals that were here for millions of years.

We don’t deserve this planet. There are (many) days when I think it would be better off without us.

How am I supposed to do my job—literally to chronicle planetary suicide—without experiencing deep existential despair myself? Impossible.

To me, our emotional/psychological response is *the* story on climate change. It defines how (and if) we will solve the problem.

The number one comment I get is “we’re fucked”. That’s not totally true. In order to “save the planet” we have to confront this despair.

Climate despair, on its own, isn’t bad. It’s a sign you care. It’s just hard to function when you feel weight of the world crashing down.

The more I talk about my despair, the more I realize other people feel same thing. That makes me hopeful—we are more powerful than we think.

I don’t have an answer for where to go from here. That’s why I’m in counseling. But part of the answer is: don’t be afraid to talk.

It is a poignant note. I’ve just begun thinking about and writing about climate change over the past months and it resonates. Our current state of progress is woeful. If I were to be working on it every day, I’d enroll myself in counseling too.

And, yet, despair doesn’t help. Action does. And, learning and awareness precedes action. So, here’s to learning more and sharing it to build awareness in the meanwhile.

Lessons from my first year as a parent

My favorite passage on parenting from Kahlil Gibran says this on the subject of learning – “Strive to be like them. Seek not to make them like you.”

In that vein, here are the top five lessons I’ve learnt from watching our infant become a walking, babbling one year old.

  1. Be clear about what you are optimizing for and be engaged when you’re pursuing it. Babies have a high level of clarity about what matters to them at any given moment. Sleep matters most. If sleep isn’t taken care of, all else is futile. Food comes next. Again, if their stomachs aren’t full, they pursue that single mindedly. And, if they’re playing, they’re fully engaged in doing so.

    I’ve found that clarity and engagement to be very inspiring. This is coincidentally the year I decided to engage on my engagement with life. I didn’t realize then that my role model for engagement was right at home. “Strive to be like them” rings very true.

  2. The natural thing to do after a fall is to get back up. When kids learn a new skill like pulling up or walking, they’re extremely comfortable with falling. They expect to fall and pick themselves up each time. When our daughter learned to pull herself up, she’d do it 300 times a day. It was mind blowing. A great reminder that failure is not the falling down, it is the staying down.
  3. Find delight in simple things. The bar for delight is low. If it isn’t a simple game of peek-a-boo, it could just be a bunch of stacking cups. I’ve become more aware that our happiness is simply a measure of our reality compared to our expectations. If our expectations are low, it is really easy to be happy.
  4. Be ready to smile, love and trust – if people prove themselves worthy of it. In a wonderful post about parenthood, Jeff Atwood wrote –

    I wasn’t sure how to explain meeting new people to Henry, so I decided to just tell him we’ve met a new “friend” every time. Now, understand that this is not at all the way I view the world. I’m extremely wary of strangers, and of new people in general with their agendas and biases and opinions. I’ve been burned too many times. But Henry is open to every person he meets by default. Each new person is worth greeting, worth meeting as a new experience, as a fellow human being. Henry taught me, without even trying to, that I’ve been doing it all wrong. I realized that I’m afraid of other people, and it’s only my own fear preventing me from opening up, even a little, to new people that I meet. I really should view every new person I meet as a potential friend. I’m not quite there yet; it’s still a work in progress. But with Henry’s help, I think I can. I had absolutely no idea my child would end up teaching me as much as I’m teaching him.

    So. True.

  5. Change is the only constant – so, be willing to adapt. There’s a certain amount of flexibility that comes with having a baby around the house.  They have a rough schedule but they may or may not stick with it. The good news is they’re just as open to changes in your plans as well – change is expected.

    This has been the toughest learning for me. I wrote about this a few weeks ago in a post titled “It giveth and it taketh.” From that post –
    There are these moments of sheer awesomeness interspersed with moments of “Oh god – there goes another one of my well laid plans.”

    That’s the interesting thing about what “it taketh” – it says a lot about me and my expectations of the process. The more I plan and I expect, the more I feel “it taketh” and the more I find myself needing to learn to let go and grow.

    In that sense, parenting is a lot like other great journeys (school, challenging projects, engaging jobs, marriage, etc.)  – it is what you make of it. The more you give, the more it takes out of you and the more you grow in the process.

Year one has been a fascinating learning journey. Looking forward to many more.

The day Amazon stopped being Amazon

Benedict Evans, Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, had a great post today on “The Amazon machine.” He is one of the best technology analysts out there and the post demonstrates that.

Amazon is an awe inspiring company in many ways led by an all-conquering, thoughtful CEO who seems to have cracked innovation at scale. As Ben puts it –

Amazon at its core is two platforms – the physical logistics platform and the ecommerce platform. Sitting on top of those, there is radical decentralization. Amazon is hundreds of small, decentralized, atomized teams sitting on top of standardised common internal systems. If Amazon decides that it’s going to do (say) shoes in Germany, it hires half a dozen people from very different backgrounds, maybe with none of them having anything to do with shoes or ecommerce, and it gives them those platforms, with internal transparency of the metrics of every other team, and of course, other people (and Jeff) have internal transparency to their metrics.

Amazon is on its way to become the world’s most valuable company. It is only a matter of time its market cap reaches one trillion dollars. I am bullish on Amazon in the short term.

However, when we look back at Amazon’s rise and fall (and there will be a fall) three decades later, it is likely we’ll find it hard to pinpoint when Amazon began planting the seeds for its eventual demise. Amazon’s rise was based on everything they did to become the most customer centric company on the planet. And, for two decades, they definitely were.

But, over time, cracks have been appearing. And, their recent fight with Google shows that those cracks are very real. In a weird ego fuelled battle with Google, Amazon’s decisions to pull Google products have put the customer last every step of the way. They’re clearly feeling invincible.

The question today, then, is – Can Jeff Bezos stop this rot?

Or, will hubris win the day?

If it does, it will be the day that Amazon stopped being Amazon.

Stuck users

Getting user experience design right is all about getting user flows right.

The first question when it comes to optimizing flows is asking – how would a user make it from one end of the process to the other? This is important because every added step or inconsistency results in drop offs.

An oft-overlooked second question is – where do users get stuck? Or, put differently – where are user dead ends?

User dead ends typically happen due to two reasons –

  1. No “escape” button
  2. Poor error notifications

No “escape” Button

The early version of Windows got the “escape” button idea right. If you weren’t used to computers, you had a way out of whatever hole you had dug yourself into. Apple did this well in their first decade with the iPhone. You were never stuck on an iPhone because the button always offered you a way out.

The lack of an escape button is all too common in customer service processes. For example, I keep getting stuck at this screen when trying to get to the results of a case dispute I filed with Equifax. The only escape here is “Please try again later” because there is no easy link to contact them directly.

Poor error notifications

The first iterations of Windows were legendary for poor error notifications. An error on Windows might say something like – “X000snjksfn9843940 – Bad command.”

Of course, this meant nothing to a user. Luckily, Google searches and forums helped solve these problems. But, if you weren’t internet search literate back then, you were in trouble.

I experienced a version of this issue today thanks to our HP Laserjet printer. It is cliche to say you are troubleshooting printer issues at your parents’ place. But, that is exactly what I was doing. The error, it turned out, was, well, “Error – Printing.”

That’s helpful.

We solved the issue by unplugging and re-plugging the printer. While it amazing how many problems that solves, an error notification that says nothing is a recipe for stuck users.