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Screw annual reviews. We do One-on-Ones.

Qin EnQin En


Performance management as practiced by most organizations has become a rule-based, bureaucratic process, existing as an end in itself rather than actually shaping performance. Employees hate it. Managers hate it. Even HR departments hate it.

— Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google

Recently at our management retreat, the topic of performance management came up. First time for us (this is the year of many firsts). How should we manage, improve and optimise the performance of each and every member on our team? And correspondingly, how should we reward performance?

The traditional way of an annual (or bi-annual) performance review that most organisations use didn’t work for us. As a startup, we move fast and things change real quick. What we were doing 6 months ago is radically different from what we are doing now. Heck, 6 months ago, we haven’t even collected our first cheque that had 4-digits. Our collective revenue was 4-digits back 6 months ago. Now, it’s radically different. So if we move fast, our performance review system has to move fast too. Screw annual reviews.

The world isn’t really on an annual cycle any more for anything.

— Susan Peters, Head of Human Resources at GE



Instead of sitting down together, team lead and team member, once or twice a year, we sit down together fortnightly. We go through each team member’s progress, plans and problems. What problems are you facing at work? What’s one thing you would like to see more of? If you were in my shoes as team lead, what changes would you make? 

We aren’t too original about this. We took a leaf out of Ben Horowitz’s excellent book on The Hard Things About Hard Things.

If you are an employee, how do you get feedback from your manager on an exciting but only 20 percent formed idea that you’re not sure is relevant, without sounding like a fool? How do you point out that a colleague you do not know how to work with is blocking your progress without throwing her under the bus? How do you get help when you love your job but your personal life is melting down? Through a status report? On email? Yammer? Asana? Really? For these and other important areas of discussion, one-on-ones can be essential.

Excerpt From: Ben Horowitz. “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.”

You Set the Agenda

We initially made the mistake of setting the agenda as team leads ourselves. We sit ourselves down and have a list of topics and questions to ask. Not until we read Ben Horowitz’s words of wisdom did we realise that “the key to good one-on-one meetings is the understanding that it is the employees’ meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas, and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email, and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.”

Got it. And so, every fortnight, we sit down together with our team members (not before asking each team member to send us their one-on-one agenda prior to the meeting itself so the team leads can look through and prepare). From these one-on-ones, we have learnt many valuable lessons that we would have otherwise overlooked on. Here are a few:

Clarity on our vision

Earlier when we first started our one-on-ones, a few of our team members expressed that they were not clear on how what we were doing is aligned to our vision. They knew what our vision was (to be a career discovery & development platform), but they didn’t know how their role was contributing to our vision. What we, as team leads, thought was crystal clear wasn’t well communicated to our team members from the onset (and we’ve also improved our on-boarding to ensure that everyone knows how their role directly contributes to our vision).

Knowing what everyone in the team does

What does XXX do on a day-to-day basis? That’s a question that we also learnt that our team members were keen to know. Intra-teams, this was clear. But inter-teams, less so. Our engineers wanted to know what the new client success team member was onto (and why she was brought on). Our sales team wanted to know how the new designer we are bringing on to the product team would be contributing to a more elegant design. We responded to this by starting our fortnightly Naked Fridays with — What are you working on now? Why is it important? What challenges do you face?, so each team member is aware of what everyone in the team is doing.

Getting to know your team lead

Although we spend more than 50 hours together every week, it is surprising how each team member is still very keen to know about their team lead. Questions such as what is your favorite food? (If I’m feeling nice I will cook it for you) appear on the one-on-one agendas. What do you do to relax? What are your hobbies? It is interesting to see how these one-on-ones take form organically, transitioning from work to hobbies/fun/leisure very quickly.

Finally, from a business-building point of view, the following excerpt is an excellent encapsulation on why we do one-on-ones:

When a track team trains for a race, they first need to know the distance. Employees also need to know what they’re striving for, day in and day out. And while goal achievement shouldn’t be the only metric for measuring performance, setting regular, smaller-scale goals for employees can give managers a way to offer real-time, agile feedback that actually works.

Why The Annual Performance Review is Going Extinct by Fast Co.

In short, we don’t believe in just having annual reviews. Of course, we gather every quarter to review our progress, but it’s the notion of rapid, iterative feedback that we value and emphasise. If the concept of regular, frequent feedback sessions is part of a culture that you would like to be in, and you want to join a dynamic & fun team that is results-driven, we’re hiring! Check out our career opportunities here.

Onto the next one-on-one!


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Comments 1
  • Bryan
    Posted on

    Bryan Bryan

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    This is something that was neglected in the previous place I was working at. Delighted to learn better ways to go about the reviewing process!