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Continuous Performance Management Program Design

Updated: Dec 26, 2022

Get started designing a continuous performance management program that is fit the purpose of your organization.

One of the topics that you wanted to know more about is designing and implementing a continuous performance management process for your organizations. So, we're going to talk about that over the course of eight posts in the Continuous Performance Management Design series. There's just no way to squeeze that kind of juicy topic into a post or two. You want to give it time, consideration and test things out, so we'll take it one step at a time.

I've outlined the eight steps I'm recommending you take for a successful implementation. There's no magic in this plan. It's simply good old fashioned preparation with some pilot programming on the side.

8 steps to continuous performance management design

Continuous Performance Management Design

1 Design: Set your guiding principles and flesh out your idea

2 Alignment: Gain buy-in

3 Discovery: Conduct focus groups / surveys

4 Learn on the fly: Host a pilot

5 Over communicate: Build a change management plan

6 Prepare leaders: Prepare leaders to have the conversations

7 Prepare employees: Prepare employees to engage and have the conversations

8 Implement: Roll that plan out!

And while not a step in the design plan, you always want to:

9 Evaluate: Check effectiveness and make tweaks

We'll tackle each step in it's own blog post so that you have time in between to put thoughts and action to your plan.

Are you ready to jump right in? Great! Me too!

But first… why? Why continuous performance management?

You have a great idea that you know is the right move to take the performance of your organization forward. You've been herding leaders and employees through the performance appraisal process and it's stale, oh so stale. It's a futile, check-the-box exercise, where no one is really talking about performance improvement or high performers. And you're just about done with it.

You're not the only one. About six or seven years ago, we (as a talent profession) began to really look at the waste the performance management process created. Articles like this one from Harvard Business Review on "Reinventing Performance Management" shed light on the large quantity of time spent on performance reviews with little to no business reward. Edgy organizations declared they were done with performance appraisals and closed the book on appraisals and ratings… for a time. Then they were back and what began to even out from the pendulum swing was a continuous performance management process.

Performance management is not bad. It's not an evil process designed to torture employees and managers. Unfortunately, it has been doing just that since the middle of the previous century, and for some reason we've been slow to make adjustments.

Let's consider the purity of what performance management can be. Imagine that you are working hard on a project, and in the midst of meeting milestones and killing the budget you turn around to realize you've left a wake of tender relationships, bruised egos and angry partners. Peers may not want to work with you again. The support you need at this point is a leader who will kindly and with great candor tell you the truth. You need to hear that if you don't work on your influencing skills, up your emotional intelligence and mend some of those broken relationships, you likely won't be picked for that next big project or role. You need to hear that how you meet milestones and stay under-budget is just as important as the accomplishment itself. That's the neat role that performance management can play as leaders support employees in doing their best work. It's not a punitive process - it's a developing process.

I am passionate about performance management. Passionate to the point that I write about it a lot. I've shared thoughts in previous articles (like this one on introducing frequent performance conversations) about why we should ditch the traditional performance appraisal in lieu of continuous performance management. Continuous performance management is a shift from an annual appraisal about performance to a discussion throughout the year with multiple touchpoints dedicated to addressing performance.

I am thrilled that you are thinking about evolving performance management in your organization. My team used a similar process to these eight steps in implementing continuous performance management at Southwest Airlines. It worked for us, and it can work for you, as well.

It's like the adage, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." These eight steps give you a simple and methodical way to approach design, recommendation and implementation. You're doing the hard work, I'm just helping you think through it one bite at time.

woman making notes on orange and green square notes

Let's get started with step 1 - Design.

Step 1 - Design: Set your guiding principles

In the Design step you'll be tackling two important tasks:

  1. Articulating your guiding principles

  2. Taking a first pass at a design for the program

Before launching into action steps, it's important to first to identify what continuous performance management means for your organization. I know, I have a bias for action, too. But trust me. Make time for this foundational step and later steps will benefit. Plus, you need to be able to clearly articulate your recommendation and have the background knowledge to back it up.

In this step, you'll articulate answers to questions like: What goals are you trying to accomplish by implementing this process? How do we want employees and leaders to engage? Do we want to use ratings?

Getting the key components of the process thought out early, gives you room to test variances and create a program that's the right fit for your organization.

Guiding Principles

Guiding principles are the tenants you set out at the beginning of the project that reflect what you want the program or experience to deliver. These principles emphasize important aspects that you want to include in continuous performance management, but they do not outline "how to." Examples of guiding principles:

  • No rating scale

  • Simple ratings

  • Employee-centric

  • Development-based

  • Transparent

  • Forward-focused

The team will make calls on program design based on what is articulated in your guiding principles, so it's important to spend time on them. Shoot for three to five brief phrases or words that you can use as a filter with each decision that you make. Keep them handy throughout the process and check back often to ensure you're staying true to them.

Program Input Team

Speaking of the team… At the beginning of the project, it's a good idea to gather a small group of partners within your organization to help you ideate and articulate program principles. Let's call this group the Program Input Team. Four to five colleagues is a manageable number for the team. Choose partners who will provide well-rounded insight, challenging the program from all angles. Examples of helpful perspectives include HR business partners, HR generalists, mid-level managers within larger departments, employees from a department that tends to be highly structured, employment lawyers, leadership development facilitators, change communication pros and compensation experts.

Do your homework on performance reviews and appraisals

You've articulated your guiding principles and built a program team. Excellent work. Before you get the team together and begin designing, spend time first on research.

Research the latest articles you can find on performance management and seek out best practices. Do you have a colleague in your network who is administering continuous performance management or using it as an employee? Interview him/her. Ask your social media tribe for opinions. Read up. There are a lot of resources available to help you ideate and consider the options.

Here are options to get you started:

Take a First Pass at The Design of a New Performance Management Program

Now that you have ideas on some of the possibilities available with continuous performance management and what others have done, it's time to sketch out the performance management program that you are envisioning for your organization.

If you're having trouble with where to begin, start with these questions - they are in no particular order and not exhaustive, but they should get you thinking. Also, there are no right or wrong answers. The best process will be fit for your organization.

  • How often will leaders and employees discuss performance?

  • Will performance conversations be documented and tracked? If so, how?

  • How will you use performance management data? What decisions will it inform?

  • If you could mandate just three questions that leaders and employees discuss, what would they be?

  • What would the process look like if employees owned and initiated it?

  • Do all work groups need the same process?

  • How will performance improvement situations be handled?

  • Will your current HR or talent system handle the new process? What changes are needed?

  • Will goals play a part in performance management? If so, how will they be set?

Remember, you're going for a draft here. Don't try to nail down specifics or be too enamored with one idea over another, as things will change as you collect feedback and move into the pilot phase. The idea is for you to be really versed in continuous performance management and to have a good grasp on the options. You'll also have a solid start on your core recommendation. Plus, you'll find preparation for alignment gathering in the next step easier if you have a recommendation to "sell."

Once you have your first pass developed, gather together the Program Input Team to react to the initial proposal and brainstorm ways to improve the fit of the program to your organization and clarify any loose points. This team can help you "poke holes" in the program design before you begin sharing it with stakeholders.

Develop a Business Case for Continuous Performance Management

The final phase in the Design step is to shape your recommendation into a business case document. Each organization has a different format or best practices around business cases, so if building a business case is new to you, seek out a buddy who can help you pull together a strong one.

As a rule of thumb, most business cases I've encountered consist of:

  • Executive Summary

  • Problem Statement (what you are solving with a new approach to performance management)

  • 2-3 main points with supporting data and information

  • Recommendation (your "ask") - Why your approach is the perfect fit - Timelines - Cost analysis

  • Next steps

I am not an authority on business cases, so do some homework on the best approach for your organization. I find that colleagues who are project managers have a good approach to business cases.

Quick Summary for Design

During this step...

  • You've set key guiding principles to well articulate the experience you are looking to build

  • You've pulled together a team of partners with diverse perspectives to help build a strong program

  • You've researched the latest in performance management and talked with others to learn what's working and what's not

  • You've fleshed out an early design and gotten early feedback from the Program Input Team

  • You've developed a business case that summarizes your recommendation so that you're ready for the next step - gaining alignment.

Excellent work and an excellent beginning. In the next article on gaining alignment for continuous performance management, we'll pick up with how to gather buy-in for your idea.

As I mentioned above, performance management is one of my favorite topics. I've got a slew of articles to get you thinking. Access those articles here. I'd love to know where you're headed if you'll take a minute to share in a comment below.

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