Your startup should be doing collaborative performance reviews. Here’s why.

When I started Weever Apps, our focus was on building our product and figuring out everything we might accomplish one day. Performance review meetings and similar corporate “kruft” wasn’t on the agenda —that stuff, after all, was exactly the kind of work that made up the type of company we didn’t want to build. We wanted to be different, to be better. We were wrong.

Performance reviews have helped make Weever Apps the better place to work. So why did we start spending time on something like performance reviews?

Here’s why: performance reviews improve a team’s ability to work together and get things done. The goal of a collaborative performance review is to get honest feedback from team members, identify issues and misalignments, and develop ways to work together to create a shared actions plan for the future.

For example, in 2016, I adapted the Lean Business Model Canvas into a Collaborative performance review template and started using it with my own team.

View and download the template

Select “file” > “make a copy” to create a copy in Google Drive for your own use.

If you’re new to the process, this all might seem daunting. So I’ve compiled a simple step-by-step list of how to stage a collaborative performance review:

  1. There is a manager (the facilitator) and an interviewee (the employee or peer). Both parties have access to a [collaborative review template] well in advance and come prepared to communicate their responses with each other.
  2. After verifying that both parties have had a chance to read through the template and gather their thoughts, the meeting starts. The facilitator reminds the interviewee that money/salary discussion is a distraction and not on the agenda.
  3. The manager (or peer) interviews the team member about their work tasks and roles that they like and dislike, following Sakichi Toyoda’s “5 Why’s” method as a guide.
  4. The interviewee communicates their own self-evaluation: the wins, losses, and challenges of their role, and (most importantly) the “why” behind each.
  5. Both parties review a predefined list of skill sets and evaluate how the interviewee is performing. Skills items include communication ability, initiative, attention to detail, and more. Skill discussion, not lengthy project-driven debates, should frame the review in a context of collaborative personal and professional development.
  6. The manager provides the employee with their evaluation. Critical, pre-captured feedback from other team members is included, but not in a combative or interrogative way (g., “one concern that came up from some of your teammates was…”).
  7. The manager and employee collaborate on an action plan to address existing issues, improvement areas and employee requests. Both the manager and the employee have action items (deliverables) to which they will be held accountable at the next review in three or four months.
  8. Finally, both parties sign the action plan and are encouraged to review it for a few minutes each week, evaluating whether they are accomplishing the goals they set forward together.

People on startup teams are more likely to have serious misalignments of roles, responsibilities and goals with their teammates. Early small misalignments often manifest as serious conflicts (and failed companies) in the future. Benefits that a collaborative performance review can deliver include:

  • Getting to the root causes of what is working and not working for team members, allowing teams to address fundamental problems and not various symptoms.
  • Identifying and addressing misalignments on roles and expected responsibilities among team members before they become (more) serious issues.
  • Identifying skill and growth opportunities (g., “I’d really like to try this…”) for each interviewee. This helps keep employees engaged and provides a young company the opportunity to see who may perform well in different roles.
  • Providing team members with specific, clear requests for professional improvement and defining the support required to do so.
  • Aligning team members on priorities, needs, goals and job expectations from others. In my experience, even people who work very closely together are surprised by some of the feedback they receive (both positive and negative). The review is an opportunity to see the company and their work in it from another’s perspective.
  • Setting a documented, collaborative and “fair” basis for future evaluations where both parties can review their performance in addressing the actions plan. In a good team environment evaluation is team-driven and not based on the whims of a manager’s personal bias or recent project experience.

As I have said before, strategy is overemphasized on startup teams; it is execution that matters most.  Performance reviews improve a team’s ability to execute on opportunities and, ultimately, that is what will make any company successful.

Startups in the city

This June I enjoyed guest judging at the Spectrum Summer Startup competition with Kevin Browne of Software Hamilton and Robyn Larsen of and Normative.

Meeting 20+ startup teams in in rapid succession was quite exhilarating!  One of my favourites (and the eventual competition winner) was “Clear Roots” a startup focused on gardening inside the home.  Their product takes inspiration from the popular urban ecology movement and IoT companies like Nest.

At Weever Apps our own “internet of things” protocol, IoTA, continues to grow. We recently leveraged IoTA to deploy a web app which connects to and instructs a popular home device.  I look forward to sharing this project later in the year.

Learning to ask the right questions

On April the 211st I had the privilege of speaking to graduate students in the Walter G. Booth School of Engineering Practice at McMaster University.

The venue was the impressive McMaster Engineering Technology building at McMaster University and my host was Dr. David Potter, a Xerox alumni, which seems fitting given Weever Apps’ recent Xerox partnership announcement.

I always enjoy learning about new student startups and sharing with them my experiences as a naive entrepreneur who made quite a few assumptions in my business plan – hopefully they can avoid the mistakes I’ve made and make better ones!

All dizzying photo credit due to the MMM Group.

Hamilton’s Spectrum and LiON’s Lair business competitions

I have a new guest post up with Hamilton’s Innovation Factory: “Innovation City: Why LiON’s Lair Matters”. My company, Weever Apps, won the inaugural LiON’s Lair competition in 2011. Mentioned here.

Tt was a privilege to see one of the new ventures I’m mentoring, Start the Cycle, pitch in the Spectrum Student Startup competition earlier this month. Advising new teams like Thrive Games and Take5 has been incredibly rewarding and I plan to continue those activities through the year.

Making products worth making

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field… In a well-made book… the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles. (Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Style)

I’ve been enjoying a slow crawl through Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. The book has both the poet’s charming ability to turn a phrase and an engaging continuous theme of what Brian Zmijewski terms progressive design.  In Elements, Bringhurst states the goal of typographic design is to represent written content accessibly and accurately1.  The principal tactic to achieve this goal is by designing from the “content out”:

Read the text before designing it… Discover the outer logic of the typography in the inner logic of the text.

In other words, Bringhurst argues that to make something well, you must first understand its core meaning, purpose and character (aka. “the text”). Only after this first step is taken should considerations like fonts, margins, and layout, come into consideration.

This is sage advice for any typographer; I think it applies to business too. Thousands of people make millions of new products every year. Staff are hired, plans drafted, monies spent and then most of these products fail.

So how does a company avoid making products that are not worth making at all? Budget excuses aside, a common element of unsuccessful products (and startups) is that they fail to deliver significant value to customers.  This is a good place to start! To illustrate the point of value, let me replace a few of Bringhurst’s wise words with my own:

Understand the customer before designing a solution… Discover the outer logic of the product in the inner logic of the customer.

“Reading the text” when creating a product, then, is the process by which we can better understand the inner logic of the customer,2 that is, to anticipate their wants and needs. Here are a few questions I’ve found useful:

  • What are some important motivations for the person(s) involved?
  • What job is the product being hired to do by each person involved?
  • What actions allow us to validate that the product/idea is significant3 in addressing those motivations with a minimum of effort?

In my experience if an entrepreneur addresses each of these questions, the processes of drafting a new product, a pitch, a startup company strategy, or a marketing campaign becomes much less challenging.

Ultimately we make products for other people. When we work directly, honestly and sympathetically to help others achieve their motivations, we’re more likely to create a product that, like a well-designed book, feels meaningful and alive.  These are the products that are worth making.  As Jason Fried of 37 Signals has put it:

“Here’s what our product can do” and “Here’s what you can do with our product” sound similar, but they are completely different approaches.

1. Bringhurst’s Elements tells us that the purpose of typography is “to honour and elucidate the character of the text”.

2. By “customer” I mean anyone who decides on an investment of time, effort or money.

3. A good way to measure the significance (value) of a product to a customer is by determining how much they will pay (to make it, to buy it, to rent it, to keep it, etc.)

The photo is of Jitterbug dancers in NYC by Alan Fisher in 1938. The dance was controversial in multiple contexts. Events featuring the Jitterbug filled seats and dance floors (and sometimes the aisles too). The coloration is anachronistic and entirely my fault.

Strategy, tactics and diversity

I’ve started off 2015 thinking about the interplay of strategy, tactics and diversity in new business efforts. This quotation from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been stuck in my head:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Breaking this passage down, I’ll define tactics here as “doing things right” (management) and strategy as “doing the right things” (leadership).

In my experience new companies prioritize questions of strategy (what will we do?) and not tactical execution (how will we do it well?).  I think the focus on strategy over execution is a mistake and I agree with Mike Roach’s sentiment:

Strategy without execution is hallucination.

In my experience:

  • Planning to do things is easy
  • Doing things well is difficult
  • Doing new things well is more difficult
  • Groups of people doing new things well is even more difficult
  • New groups of people doing new things well is almost impossible

So the question remains: How does a new team (a startup) doing something new (an innovation) learn to execute well?  Here are a few informal principles I’ve identified:

1. Plan to learn from failure

We all make mistakes when trying something new, we should keep in mind that failure can be an invaluable instructor.  The privilege to make mistakes, learn and improve should inform (not detract from) timelines, product schedules and project leadership.

This means giving people the opportunity to fail at achieving a goal and allowing them to try again (but differently!). I’ve come to prefer this approach of “fail, learn and re-try” over one of the popular alternatives: hire ambitious recent MBA from established company internship and/or well-branded school with a specialization in X.

2. Encourage critical team reviews

I’ve witnessed (and delivered) some truly terrible investment pitches, product launches and marketing efforts.  Usually the story goes something like this:

  1. A person or team ignores or does not engage with diverse critical feedback
  2. Wider examination reveals an important flaw and a pitch / product / company fails

When we ignore critical examination by others it becomes more likely that what we don’t know, in fact, will hurt us.  Giving priority to early, constructive and critical reviews from different people with different skills and viewpoints helps us to:

  • Identify risks early (when we are best able to change things)
  • Reduce overconfidence and over-planning
  • Better prepare to deal with dissenting viewpoints
  • Distinguish strategic errors from tactical problems when they do occur (“was our product wrong for the market or did we market it wrong?”)

We don’t know what we don’t know but we can ask. So how do we ensure that we’re asking the right people?  This brings me to the third principle:

3.  Encourage significant diversity

A significant number of business studies have concluded that groups that look more alike, act more alike, and think more alike are less likely to succeed in innovative contexts.  Why?  In the words of Scientific American editor Fred Guterl (summarizing the research findings of Katherine W. Phillips, Vice Dean of Columbia Business School):

When we have to work with people who are not like ourselves, we tend to prepare more thoroughly and work harder to marshal our arguments, and we do better work as a result.

Significant diversity prevents the assumption that team members, investors or customers will perceive things the same way you do.  It is important to remember:

  • When we make assumptions, we guess
  • When we examine our ideas, products, and methods, we still guess but we make better, more educated guesses

In this way, diversity* better prepares “new people doing new things” for the unorthodox, always-changing and impermanent world, which, in our corner, is the business market.

Final thoughts

So “how does a team without much experience in a given area learn to execute well?” My short answer:

  • By planning to learn from failure
  • By encouraging critical team reviews
  • By encouraging significant diversity

* I define diversity broadly here as a condition in which any person will not assume that another person shares their perspective.  

The painting in the header of this post is by the artist Au Ho-Nien. His work acknowledges arts from many periods of historic China including the ink wash styles of the Song Dynasty. Sun Tzu has been required reading for military strategists since at least the Song, so a match with the topic of this article felt appropriate. The subject of the painting reminds me a popular idiom about birds which isn’t entirely true.