The Hard Truth About Performance — A Guide for CTOs

Poor performance in the workplace isn’t as simple as lazy employees, it can also indicate problems with management at both mid and senior levels, particularly with the way a team or an organisation as a whole is being led. And while it’s a common problem, tracking performance is often something that is overlooked, with a 2014 Virgin Pulse survey reporting that 53% of employers don’t actually track productivity.

‘Performance measuring is killer of creativity… so a delicate balance is needed among both.’ — E. Arain

With this in mind, we spoke to a number of CTOs and tech leads from the CTO Craft community to find out what works, what doesn’t and why it’s important to implement a system that measures and boosts performance levels while efficiently and effectively addressing any drop both individual and team level.

Great Expectations

Once called the ‘Mother of all frustration’, expectation can also breed disappointment if not communicated correctly. It feeds into every part of business operation and problems arise when they’re are too general, unreasonable or unrealistic. When it comes to performance, setting out expectations early is crucial because it sets the minimum standards bar.

There are several effective ways to do this:

  • Define roles — Many hiring managers avoid completing a job specification due to time constraints, inexperience, it being a new position with an unclear scope or they don’t wish to be overly prescribed. However, a specification should identify the minimum tasks associated with the role and the structure in which it operates. This way it will be clear to everyone (including the engineer) when they aren’t performing the basic functions required to be doing the job properly.
  • Set a structure — Not simply who reports to whom, but also who is responsible for whose performance. When execution drops, without clear ownership it can go one of two ways: finger-pointing and absolvement of responsibility or denial that there’s a problem. Neither lead to resolution and can damage a team, the product and even a company. Be clear to engineers that at one level, they are responsible for their output, but that this is supported by line managers and senior leaders where possible, so they know who to turn to if there is a problem or they’ve identified training and development needs.
  • Incorporate performance into culture — Make it second nature so that it doesn’t take too much time (especially when for startups, time costs much-needed money). Don’t wait until someone is performing poorly to address the situation; making delivery a priority from the beginning sets a positive, forward-thinking agenda and will be treated as such. Remember a company’s reputation can rest on its performance both internally and externally, and the best ones often attract the best people.

Measure for Measure

For those that do make the effort to measure output, it can be a matter of trial and error to find what works for their team. The temptation can be to use ubiquitous estimation tools such as story points, but these don’t always easily translate outside the technical side of a business, and their use should be limited to sizing work by the team themselves. While the metrics used will vary depending on the stage of the company, tracking the deliverables of engineering teams can require a more tailored approach and one that allows for:

  • Smart quantitative and qualitative metrics that track objective and key results (OKRs);
  • Training and development of your team members; and
  • Full analysis in terms of risk, succession, motivators and the ability for engineers to produce their best work.

So when is the best time to measure? Answer: all of the time. And these are some good ways of doing so:

  • Probation periods — Once you’ve hired an engineer, supervise them for three-to-six months and watch their performance. Being on probation often motivates people to perform better and this way you’ll know what they’re capable of. If it doesn’t work out, then either extend the period if the issue is fixable, or let them know that you won’t be keeping them on and agree an amicable parting of ways.
  • Performance reviews — Rather than wait until the end of the year, schedule regular 1:1s and make performance — both past and future — the focus. Use it as an opportunity to give 360 degree feedback after the information has been collected through your own observations, self-assessment and reports from fellow managers and peers that have worked with the engineer on a particular project. This helps eliminate bias and ensures the feedback is adequately objective.
  • Progress reports — Progress, Plans, Problems (PPP) is a best practice management technique used by companies such as EBay, Facebook and Skype for team progress and status reporting:
  • Progress — Asking ‘What have you done?’ should identify key accomplishments during the reporting period;
  • Plans — ‘What are you going to do next?’ should contain goals, objectives and tasks to be completed for the period ahead, broken down into day/week/month achievements; and
  • Problems — ‘What is stopping you from delivering?’ should address anything that can’t be completed or is preventing an individual or team from achieving what has been set out for them. It should be solution-led so there is time to both identify and overcome the obstacle, or if necessary, change the course of action.
  • Ask cultural questions — A person’s output can be viewed as an iceberg — the part that shows above the water is the visible manifestation of their values. Asking the right questions such as, ‘What do you think about they way we do X’ or ‘How do you feel Y impacts your work?’ can help you understand an engineer’s motivators and assess how you can help them to perform to the best of their ability.
  • Professional development plan and trackable objectives — Setting career milestones for employees to reach gives you and them, opportunities to improve any aspect of their working life that’s specific to them, and build on professional knowledge, skills and effective working practices. The concept of SMART objectives provides a way to ensure the goals are trackable, relevant, that there are enough resources to achieve them and there is a definite delivery deadline. Some private sector firms such as Deloitte now publicise their career ladders, detailing the expectations of the various levels of seniority for members of the team.
  • Remuneration scales — The public service sector is known for utilising salary grades and it has a number of benefits: consistency, flexibility, and competitive analysis for companies and employees. It also creates transparency and demonstrates to engineers what they need to deliver in order to progress through the band.

And because we want to cover all bases, here are some not-so-good ways of measuring performance from those in the know:

  • Pit people against one another — While peer feedback can be useful, asking team members to only identify issues with one another will affect collaboration and they shouldn’t be relied on to ‘dish the dirt’ in favour of other, more objective measures.
  • Use solely monetary rewards — Financial incentives will of course drive some, but not everyone as others will have other motivators. This type of reward system can also lead to unethical behaviour and cut corners, both of which will cost more in the long run. If bonuses are used, they need to be company-wide because nothing creates disengagement quicker than discovering monetary inequality between teams and can sub-optimise performance.
  • Allow bias to dictate your actions — Performance reviews are not a personality test — remove who they are and focus on what they do. If the right cultural / value questions have been asked, and they’ve been assessed in accordance with this, the review should be objective, comparable and easily followed-up.
  • Fail to deal with a problem in good time — Flagging poor performance should not come as a shock to anyone, least of all the engineer, and coming down heavy handed when things have gone too far and without any warning is counter-productive.

While being able to spot and help poor performers and keep track of changing conditions is key, the most important thing is to retain a focus on constant delivery of value to the business and to customers. Most technical challenges are projecting underlying issues with collaboration, and a culture of safety to the team is vital for trust and teamwork.


Want to hear even more about strategy and alignment? We’ll be covering all this and other great topics at our forthcoming CTO Craft Con Winter 2021, 8th – 11th November. Get your ticket here now!

If you or your CTO / technology lead would benefit from any of the services offered by the CTO Craft community, use the Contact Us button at the top or email us here and we’ll be in touch!

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