Approach Performance Management like a Product Designer

We geek out over performance management process. For us, and many other HR professionals, it is what we get paid to think about. But! that is not the case for most (almost all) employees at your organization.

For most employees performance management is a distraction. And worse it doesn’t do anything for them. Employees are paid to do their job, and HR asks them to stop doing their job for this other thing they feel has no value.

There’s no use arguing it, this is the reality every HR department faces when they try to introduce new performance management initiatives. Most employee’s first thought will be, “how big of a waste of time is this going to be?”

It is our job, HR’s job, to change this narrative, to prove people wrong, to justify our initiatives. We can’t lean on the fact that we’ve been given authority, we should be winning over employees, not forcing things on them.

The Product Designer Mindset

The first step is taking on a new mindset. We should be designing our performance management processes for our employees. We should start thinking of them as customers we want to win over, and start thinking of ourselves like product designers.

The product designer framework is helpful because there is a tremendous amount of existing research into product design, customer experience, and service design that we can lean on. Even if it isn’t a perfect analogy we think it’s a valuable one and we think it’s always a good idea to learn new lessons from experts in other fields.

Relevant Principles from Product Design

Solve real problems | Start with needs

It’s amazing how many organizations have only a vague understanding of why they’re running a performance management process. Start by understanding the needs of the organization and the needs of your employees.

Print them out, put them on the wall, read them out at the start of each meeting. If you stay true to these needs it will bring great clarity to the design process.

Do less | Simplify | Choose better over more

Focus your efforts on one thing. It is better to do one thing really well than to do many things poorly. Even if your ultimate goal is the most far-reaching performance management process in history, start small.

HR needs to build up trust and buy in from the organization, and you do that by knocking each new thing out of the park. Impress your employees with the first thing you introduce and they’ll be ready to jump on board with the next thing.

Be easily understood | Be intuitive | Minimize cognitive load

Have you ever heard this in a meeting? - “oh they’ll be able to figure it out…”

Expecting someone to “figure it out,” is a huge taboo in product design, but it is extremely common everywhere else. Yes, it’s true that employees will mostly be able to figure out how to navigate that cumbersome process. The problem is that they’ll be frustrated, uncertain, tired and just “over it” by the time they get there.

Making it easy matters.

Good design is as little design as possible | Be unobtrusive

The process should almost disappear. Employees should spend all their time on the value creating aspects of the initiative, and none of their time on the administrative/process aspects.

One classic example of this is when review forms contain a section where the employee just copies down their personal information, like name, ID number, job title etc. The organization already has this information! Why are they wasting the employee’s time to copy it down again?

Stay thorough to the last detail | The last 10% is the hardest | Fit and finish matter

Details matter. Getting this right is about more than the questions on your forms, choosing quarterly vs annual check-ins, or deciding the number of peer reviews to include. A great performance management system is about all the little details.

How clear and concise are your emails? When and how will you remind employees to complete reviews? Where will employees see what is expected of them/left to do? How do you encourage managers to leave more feedback? How do employees know what an effective goal looks like?

The Takeaway

Changing the narrative around performance management, and getting buy-in from employees should be HR’s responsibility.

We can’t rely on our authority we need to win employees over with great design. Let’s learn something from the product design community and start wowing our employees.

If you’re interested in further reading, here are two fun product and experience design books to get you started:

The Design of Everyday Things by Dan Norman

The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary by Joseph Michelli

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