How to Simply and Effectively Review Progress and Performance

how to review progress and performance
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The Traffic Light Approach to Personal, Team and Project Review Processes

What do you need to improve? You might be learning a musical instrument, trying to practice your sport, working on a personal habit, or reviewing a work project but all these diverse pursuits have a common need if you want to get better. You need to review what you have done and work out how to progress.

This is the simple premise behind the concept of continuous improvement, a critical element of deliberate practice and fundamental to having a growth mindset. And it is not just on the individual level. High-performing teams achieve their level through the pursuit of better. And we all know that right? So why is the process often so difficult?

Well, we will come on to some of the challenges later but my experience as a leadership coach, a senior manager and from competing in high-level sports is that there are three powerful questions that can unlock high performance in individuals and teams. 

The challenge with reviews 

I know how important it is to review and improve performance, but my heart often sinks when I see a review session in my diary. And, if I get a pop-up message on my screen or an email in my inbox asking me to fill out a questionnaire, it is rare for me to engage with it. Why is that?

The main challenge is time. Often requests to fill in questionnaires will try to be reassuring by saying “it will only take 10-15 minutes to complete” whereas I am thinking of a million other things I could be doing with that time. Then there is the problem of review overload. Everyone wants feedback and online systems make it much easier for businesses to ask. Whatever product or service you purchase, no matter how small, is likely to prompt a request for your opinion. This bombardment can instil a negative association with the feedback process, and that’s a problem. 

The challenge is that we can feel that way with things that really matter to us, such as our personal development or our performance at work. This challenge is multiplied even further if you are a manager or trying to lead a team through a review process.

When you should hold a review

So, when it comes to things that do matter to us and that we should review then we must be smart about it. The timing and the time involved are both vital. The timing is critical because a review should be conducted as soon as feasible after the event so that the details – including the feelings – are still fresh. The time is important as it needs to be concise. The exact amount of time will be dependent – and largely relative to – the importance and size of the thing we are reviewing. For example, we might only need a few seconds to review our choice of coffee in the morning, but we would probably want a larger amount of time set aside for that six-month work project.

It is worth mentioning that as well as these post-event reviews it is also worth planning for periodic times of reflection. At the micro level these can happen daily (and this is where journaling can really help) but I also find it helpful to do personal reviews about every six months, and I usually do these on vacation or on a specific retreat.

At work, it is usual to have some sort of annual review but as an employee or line manager, you don’t want to wait a whole year to work out whether your performance is up to scratch. Little and often is generally a better approach with a more formal and in-depth review (usually backed up with a written report) in the 6 and 12 monthly timeframes. 

The simplest way to run a review session

When it comes to a review process, I like to take Einstein’s principle of:

“Make things as simple as possible but no simpler.”

In other words, it should be concise, and to the point, but still provide the feedback we need. If the process is too complicated or long, then it is hard to get the engagement required for quality criticism.

I have led or been involved with many review processes, from taking large organisations through strategic overhauls to coaching individuals on achieving personal goals. At either end of the spectrum, I find that the process largely boils down to three important questions:

  • What should we stop doing?
  • What should we continue doing?
  • What should we start doing?

Continuing with the ‘Rule of 3’, I equate the process to a set of traffic lights. The red, amber, and green lights become:

  • Red – What should we stop?
  • Amber – What should we maintain?
  • Green – What should we start?

The great thing about this system is it is simple to remember and largely self-explanatory but let’s look at some examples under each heading.

Simple Continual Development Using the Traffic Light Method

Red – What should we stop?

If we want to improve then there are always things that we need to stop doing, whether as a team or an individual. 

Sometimes these are obviously negative things. For example, if our personal goal is to lose weight then we probably need to stop eating those sweet treats. If a team culture is poor then we might need to stop negative behaviour such as talking negatively about people rather than having the necessary challenging conversation.

But not all things that we need to stop are wrong in themselves. As highlighted earlier, time is vital. It is the one finite resource, so sometimes we need to stop good things to allow us to concentrate on the most important thing. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, famously put it:

“Don’t let the good be the enemy of the great.”

This concept is critical to good prioritisation. Thus, work out what you need to stop, in order to put first things first.

Amber – What should we maintain?

The amber light prompts us to think, should we keep going or not? In the review process, it allows us to identify the things we should keep doing, at least for now. A lot of things generally fall into this category, so it is worth concentrating on the things that generate the most progress overall.

Therefore ask, what are the activities that have the greatest effect? Which behaviours are creating the optimum culture? Which habits are building towards success? 

Use these questions to identify the things that are giving you positive momentum. Referring back to Jim Collins again, these are the actions that become the fly-wheel; small activities that can build momentum and eventually drive you forward. Or as Darren Hardy, author of The Compound Effect puts it:

“Consistency is the key to achieving and maintaining momentum.” 

So, what are the things that if you keep doing them consistently will help you achieve your aim?

Green – What should we start?

Finally, the green light is to highlight new things to start. This can sometimes be related to red and amber issues. For example, you might want to stop something (a red issue) to allow more time to do something you already know to be positive (in the amber).

This green zone is also a place for creativity. Active experimentation is one of the vital steps in Kolb’s learning cycle, in other words, without experimenting we don’t actually progress. Hence, it is important to brainstorm new ways to approach the challenge, give it a go, and fail if necessary. 

It’s worth noting that this principle is also key to the lean start-up methodology of buildmeasurelearn or the agile approach where trying, testing, and reviewing are fundamental to the process. Therefore, keep trying new things until you find the ones that work. Or as Thomas Edison (oh yes, he of the lightbulb legend) exclaimed:

“There is a way to do it better — find it!”

Failing is fine, but review what you have done if you want to fail forwards

Leadership guru John Maxwell agreed with Edison when he suggested:

“Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward”

Having an effective review process allows us to do just that. We need to act, we need to experiment, but we need to reflect on what we have done if we don’t want failure to undermine our progress.

So, use the traffic light system to focus on the most important questions to consider. Ask yourself or your team:

  • Red – What should stop?
  • Amber – What should keep happening?
  • Green – What could be started?

You can take a few seconds even now to think about your day. Ask yourself these three questions and see if you need to adapt your priorities. It’s a great exercise, even if just to confirm you are on the right track!

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