The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

The Problem with Performance Reviews

Probably everyone accepts that a business rarely has the same priorities during an extended period when performance objectives apply, whether it’s 6 months, 12 months, or some other duration, right? Unless you’re in a very long-established business (and even then, departmental priorities can change focus over such durations), it’s likely that what priorities you understood (and negotiated with your manager) at the start of a performance period will morph over the course of that review period, and be out of date at the end of the review period.

This is all common sense. We know this. Yet we all seem to “live the lie” and pretend this is OK and fair for performance evaluation & review.

I don’t. I think performance reviews ought to reflect EXACTLY what one was asked to do, based on clear requests (delegation) and completion criteria.

I advocate instituting a system where task delegations are logged & clearly tracked, visible to all. There are many such applications that allow you to do this (SharePoint, Trac, issue trackers, Web2.0 project management apps, Project Server, etc, to name a few). Each item can document not only the specifics of the task, but also acceptance criteria and requested completion date, so that it’s clear whether the performance of that task met the conditions of the requestor.

When a task is completed, the original requestor can easily check MET EXPECTATIONS or DID NOT MEET EXPECTATIONS, a clear binary indication of how that task was performed. This would be difficult if the acceptance criteria were unclear, but an easy decision once an organization learns how to define clear acceptance criteria. (Clearly there are more nuances and details to be discussed in such a system, but the above presents my main point.)

When performance evaluation time comes, it’s now fairly easy to get objective data (evidence) whether performance has been of adequate quality and quantity. This eliminates a lot of subjectivity, by providing documented data for such performance appraisals. The nature of the delegations themselves will have captured the changing priorities of the business as they impact(ed) specific individual contributors.

This system would never eliminate judgment – you clearly want experienced managers to assess this data and how such a system (were it put into practice) is utilized. Also, you want to calibrate how this data is used, the granularity of tasking, the practice of indicating the final status (MET / DID NOT MEET), and how organizations learn to incorporate such a system into its operations.

“Selling” such a system to an organization’s management team (convincing the org to adopt this) may be a challenge, but when I’ve introduced this to organizations, team members easily and quickly see the fairness of such transparency. I contend transparency and fairness are good attributes for teams, and will also attract the kinds of people you want on your teams.


About the Author

Since graduating from Stanford University, Sam has spent over 2 decades in just about every aspect of coding, research, product definition, customer understanding, system architecture, data modeling, team building, strategy formulation, corporate startups, executive management, private equity placement, and entrepreneur mentoring. In some of these positions, he has also been responsible for product management and sales as well. Sam was the first at TRW (and possibly elsewhere) to architect systems that integrated relational database management systems, hypertext, vector and raster-based cartography, elevation data, multiple sources of intelligence data (yes this must be vague!), image processing, document management, character recognition, text indexing, search, and reasoning systems as early as the mid-80's. Sam was responsible for 4 development teams at Siebel Systems (web engine, handheld, eService, and in his 7 years there. As one of the core architects at Siebel, Sam oversaw research in presentation technology initiatives, including metadata-driven portal frameworks. Sam was co-founder, VP of Engineering, and CTO of DocuMagix (now part of, and has also held VPE positions at and Purisma. Sam is a partner at Sand Hill Angels, and now advises entrepreneurs in startup strategies and companies on effective application of Chasm and Agile thinking and practices. Attempting to live an enlightened life, he is too often tempted by sushi, Cambodian food, and white mochas with soy, only somewhat balanced by his enjoyment of tai chi. Please agree, disagree, laud, personally or professionally engage Sam via
Creative Commons License
Note: This work and all associated comments are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

One Response to “The Problem with Performance Reviews”

  1. Let’s go even farther . . . get rid of performance reviews as they currently exist! At best they leave people feeling neutral. At their worst they leave a slime trail of resentment and discontent. When I was the VP of Program Management at a 30 person company I convinced my colleagues on the executive team to replace the annual performance appraisal system with a respectful two-way dialog about expectations and performance that was not tied to compensation. After all, the bulk of compensation is tied to the job title and experience level. (Only about 10 – 20% of compensation is attributable to performance level.) Tying appraisals to pay really screws up the process! There are better ways – check out Abolish Performance Appraisals for some guidance on this. We all know that our performance has a lot to do with the work environment and the situation we find ourselves in. The famous guy who helped transform the Japanese economy in the last century from one of poor quality to the best in the world, Dr. Deming, tried to teach US businesses this, but very few listened. Stop undermining people’s confidence by having these painful annual rituals! If you work for a big company at the very least please focus on the many wonderful talents and contributions the person made, acknowledge your own contribution to any “failures” on their part, and pick only one area of development for them to address in the coming year. Stay Scrappy! – Kimberly Wiefling, Author,Scrappy Project Management

Leave a Reply