Reviewing the Review

by: Issues: May / June 2017. Tags: IBJ Features. Categories: Features and Leadership.
Silhouette of businessmen working in office, sitting across from each other

There is irony to be found in reviews, one of the most frequent and discussed events in organizational life. Take a walk on the operational floors of a business and you hear chatter about strategic and operational reviews. Try to connect with a manager and the manager will be quick to plead preoccupation with reviews—either conducting them or undergoing one. Seek a senior leader’s time for discussion and chances are the leader is busy reviewing a manager’s key results areas. And then there are reviews to review the review process. It seems that the entire corporate world is busy in reviews. Yet, despite reviews being a widespread practice, business units still fall short of their goals.

As head of strategy for a global consulting firm, I was involved in hundreds of reviews. Based on my observations, I estimate business leaders spend an average of three to five days per month being reviewed or reviewing someone else. A typical review with any leader takes 60–90 minutes. People generally prepare 20–30 presentation slides to show during their review, and 40 per cent of the review time is spent covering what has already happened. That’s a lot of energy spent looking back when the intent is to go forward.

So, are reviews relevant, and if relevant, how can they be effective?

Failing to Look Forward

My frequent flirtations with hundreds of monthly, quarterly, mid-year, and theme-based reviews have convinced me that, typically, reviews in most organizations are a laborious, drawn-out process, spread over a number of days. Most troublesome, the process often is incorrectly focused on what has gone wrong rather than on advancing what has gone well. Leaders’ and managers’ time is frittered away on the post-mortem of “lag numbers” that have already manifested when the time should be spent, instead, on addressing and devising the ways and means of implementing the “lead numbers.”

A number of organizations use the Balanced Scorecard (BSC) method or a similar framework for their reviews. The famed strategic management framework has been consistently rated by Bain & Company as one of the top ten management tools; yet, even those using BSC are failing to meet expected outcomes. Why?

Opinions vary on the value of BSC, but there certainly isn’t much value at all if the framework is not used as intended. The framework depends not on looking back, but on using focused and incisive measures to indicate the way forward. These measures, culled from organizational goals, which are, in turn, derived from annual priorities, are designed to focus reviews and identify what needs to be done to execute strategies. In other words, the system is not meant to be a measure of past performance, but an indicator of progress along a planned path to a goal. By evaluating where you are, you can determine what needs to be done next.

Omitting Focus and Candour

I have concluded that the process of review used in most organizations also has its problems. Most reviews are unfocused. They begin and end without a concrete agenda. Operational and strategic reviews are frequently mixed and very little of either is achieved. What is reviewed typically entails glossing over long presentations, usually 20 to 30 slides, of what has already happened. Reviewers focus on financial performance, looking at numbers that manifest after the events have unfolded. Lead numbers that must be met prior to achieving an outcome are overlooked. I have rarely seen leaders or managers build intensity on key measures in customer and stakeholder satisfaction, internal business processes, or organizational knowledge and innovation.

Conversations in reviews are rarely candid. Reviews are primarily monologues between the participants; there is hardly any meaningful conversation that can ignite the sparks of creativity and curation. The discussion focuses on targets rather than initiatives. Reviewers get lost in the details and miss the story behind the data points. Those being reviewed brag about things that have already happened—and not just over the last quarter but well into the past five or six quarters. These past successes are projected and influence activity well beyond a success’s shelf life, and failures are promptly dumped to avoid their shadows over the future. The critical reasons for failing to meet a key measure rarely surface; thus, the fog of ambiguity deepens and the scope of learning narrows.

The tools used for review—key measures—are usually not structurally defined. Any information gathered when preparing for the review, if information is gathered, lacks focus and analysis. Subjectivity establishes the pace, timelines, and momentum on key measures. Managers do not leave a review with clear guidelines for going forward and leaders fail to follow up to assess progress on the review outcomes.

Missing the Purpose

Sensing that an ambiguity exists in the use of reviews, I interviewed hundreds of leaders across more than 20 industry domains, using informal but structured conversations to determine what they considered to be the purpose of reviews. I asked leaders who were either reviewing another or being reviewed, “What outcomes are you expecting this review to lead to?”

The replies, when generalized, revealed that most people believe reviews are a summation of things that happened in the previous quarter or year. A common perception was that reviews assess performance. For those being reviewed, reviews are an opportunity to create a good impression and positively influence appraisals and bonuses. Reviews are also an opportunity to justify performance, defend actions and outcomes, and divert any blame to external factors beyond a person’s control. Reviewers, however, see reviews as an opportunity to catch lackluster or poor performance, and hold individuals accountable for their inefficiencies and failures. Both reviewers and those being reviewed thought reviews reveal the challenges—bad and ugly—that are being managed to meet goals.

None of these insights reflect the behaviours of learning, creativity, discovery, realignment, and consolidation—the five primary levers for innovation and differentiation, which are necessary for growth and sustainability. Reviews as we know them need to come to an end. Time spent on the current review process needs to be spent, instead, on building capability; exploring, experimenting, and building routine practices that address operational issues; and, ultimately, on shifting the curve of execution. Once a strategy has been crafted, communicated, and cascaded effectively, a review serves as an agile tool to test and adjust practices that are in place. A review indicates where momentum needs to be accelerated, energy focused, or courses changed, swiftly but effectively.

How do we change our approach in order to achieve these key outcomes with reviews?

Reviews ought to be structured examinations of the pace and progress of an initiative or set of initiatives. Reviews should be designed to facilitate progress toward an outcome that meets or exceeds the organizational goal.

Let’s assume that an organization has used BSC to choose the right set of measures to evaluate progress toward a goal. Having done so, it is imperative that the initiatives lead to the achievement of those measures. Setting milestones, allocating resources, and tracking movement on those initiatives should be the singular focus of reviews. Without that focus, the measures are mere hopes and wishes, and the goal a mere desire.

Reviews must primarily track and assess three things: the relevance of a destination, the direction of progress toward the destination, and the pace and momentum needed to reach the destination before someone else gets there. To that end, reviews should be evaluating the following on an ongoing basis:

  • What is working and what is not? This revelation is crucial for identifying the catalysts or impediments to execution.
  • What needs to be escalated, how, and by whom if intended outcomes are not manifesting?
  • What dependencies are impeding or facilitating the outcomes needed to meet the measures and achieve the goal?

Monthly, quarterly, and half-yearly reviews are meant to build a unit’s momentum toward the achievement of annual goals. Certainly, leaders and managers must review how personal skills affect and contribute to operations and organizational goals, but a focus on an individual’s competency and development is better reserved for a separate dialogue. Rather, based on my observations, strategic reviews that improve a process or help progress toward a goal are those where leaders and managers have consciously focused on five objectives:

  • Assess the manager’s understanding of the measures used to evaluate progress toward a goal.
  • Evaluate the manager’s acumen when cascading cause and effect and linking them to the team.
  • Judge the manager’s ability to navigate market uncertainties, understand customers’ needs, and make decisions.
  • Scrutinize the operational plan, and the events the team must successfully manage to move toward the goal.
  • Consider the manager’s ability to engage in the art and science of utilizing resources amid unforeseen contingencies.

That information enables leaders to detect where slack is building and managers could be struggling.

Ask the Right Questions

The effectiveness of reviews is contingent on the quality and structure of the questions. Open-ended, logical, and thought-provoking questions are powerful. These questions cause reviewees to examine areas they had not considered. The art of asking powerful questions in reviews makes reviews objective and concrete. The process ensures that problems are supportively discovered before leaders and managers retreat to their conditioning of offering quick, topical, and symptomatic solutions that may not be sustainable.

The art of asking questions is a skill that remains undeveloped or under-developed as leaders climb the ladder of corporate hierarchy. Leaders learn by example, and poor questioning begets more poor questioning. But the skill can be developed through conscious application. Jack Welch revolutionized General Electric by fostering a spirit of strategic inquiry and asking tough, powerful, and candid questions that led to acceptance of the existing problems and solutions for solving them. Welch frequently said that management is about asking the right questions, not about finding the answers. If leaders can learn how to ask the right questions, they will surely succeed in moving the needle of execution.

Follow a Process

The successful outcome of a review depends on structuring and following a review process, and developing leaders’ skills in navigating the process. For success, I recommend starting with the following three-stage process:

1. Prepare and sensitize people for the review.

People are prepared for the review by providing them with a familiar process, recorded in a familiar way. If an organization has implemented or is trying to implement BSC or an equivalent, then it is logical that the review should use the framework and its measures in a structured format.

Use clear, precise communication to set the context, scope, and duration of the review. The communication must establish and define the measures that will be used in the review.

Gather the measures showing the business unit’s progress against the goals. (Gathering this evidence is typically the job of a strategy office, project management office, or equivalent in the organization.) Before the review, the manager should analyze the information to expose misalignment between expectations, practice, and outcomes. Consider each metric by asking the following questions:

  • What is the aspirational goal, and what is the baseline measure that establishes progress on this goal?
  • Why do you think this measure is critical to meeting your unit’s goals?
  • How much has the measure changed?
  • What initiatives have been planned to advance the measure?
  • Which of these initiatives are in your control and which are outside your influence?
  • Who are the critical stakeholders influencing implementation of the initiatives?
  • Which of these initiatives have been implemented and what impact are they making?
  • Which of these initiatives have stalled or been delayed, and for what reasons?
  • What is the cost of delaying implementation of those initiatives?
  • How do you intend to escalate initiatives that are stalled or have not yet been implemented?

2. Conduct the review.

Time is money. Adhering to timelines, schedules, and closure are integral elements of a successful review. The review process must be focused and informative; this is not a time for exploring feelings and thoughts, holding aimless discussions, engaging in unending arguments, or embracing inconclusive silence.

The review process should be used systemically, although some adjustments may be required in the implementation of a new review process.

  • Establish the current position on each measure and define the milestones for the subsequent review.
  • Initiatives are rarely standalone. Most are interconnected and dependent on multiple stakeholders. As a result, the bottlenecks and impediments must be identified for discussion to iron out the inefficiencies.
  • Establish expected changes and outcomes. Identify subsequent actions, changes in approach, and new interventions. The individual reviewed must take away direction about what needs to be changed and how, and what measures will be used to assess those milestones.

3. Follow up.

Observing people as they exit from their review is eye-opening. Many of those being reviewed exit with a sigh of relief: “One more review done. Move on.” Few will show expressions of reflection that indicate that they have been meaningfully provoked to think. If reviews remain inconclusive, nothing really changes. If a review doesn’t lead to capability building and productivity, then the status quo is maintained. Even if a review has been done well and objectively, effectiveness depends on how the next steps have been noted and new milestones and deadlines established.

A review must generate fresh insight with executables and deliverables that will decide the sustain–maintain–reimagine cycle of initiatives. The key points of the discussion and expected changes and outcomes must be objectively documented. The individual reviewed takes away direction about what needs to be changed and how, and what measures will be used to assess those milestones. Proactive follow-up is essential to support managers in making the expected changes, and is perhaps the only way to ensure that initiatives advance and are productive.

Reviews are important instruments of execution, but to be effective, they must be something more than rituals of documenting past events and mundane details. They must bring the reality of operations to the plans and ideals of senior leaders. To get precise and useful outcomes, reviews must be incisive—intense conversations that trigger leaders’ and managers’ thinking and create discovery moments. The reviews must link measures of performance to initiatives in a structured manner.

If leaders wish to attain the intended results, they must be prepared for the significant reforms that may be necessary to institute an effective review process in their organization. People do not change easily and will test commitment to the rigour of implementing a new methodology. There is no harm in cancelling the reviews of one or two such people if they do not make an attempt to align with the new process. This is essential to set an example and build critical skills in articulating and expressing problems, powerfully and effectively. Learning to say a lot in a few words is a trademark of high-performance leaders.

Creative, constructive, and incisive reviews will facilitate the route to victory.