From annual reviews to continuous conversations

Over the past three years, Wikia has seen the pros and cons of both annual performance reviews and continuous performance management. What all these learnings point to is the true core of the performance management experience: individual growth and development.

In the beginning, Wikia’s performance process was heavily focused on numbers. Employees were rated by each other and by their manager and executives relied on these numbers to inform decisions about the team’s overall health and success. Combined with a once-per-year schedule meant employees were stressed out about the process for 2 months of the year and had no appetite to revisit in the other 10 months of the year. What was missing was the open feedback and small improvements that can happen throughout the year. The small things didn’t make it into the annual process: they were forgotten in the early part of the year or deemed irrelevant in the annual scope. The result was employees weren’t getting the growth support they needed and executives were making decisions on stale or incomplete data. It was clear the ranking and numbers weren’t cutting it. The desire for peer-to-peer feedback grew, as did the disdain for the existing performance review process.

Strategy before technology

Wikia took a step back and analyzed whether it was a knowledge gap in the technology used to conduct reviews, or their strategic approach. The stated goal was individual growth and development but in reality employees were getting very little usable information out of the process.

“It was loud and clear that anonymity was useless and detrimental to the Wikia team culture. Everyone wanted to ask questions or follow up, but they couldn’t, yearly performance reviews left them at a dead end.

Anonymous feedback meant no one could seek clarity or have a conversation on how to improve.”

 — Ann Watson at Wikia

Taking some baby steps, they switch over ownership of gather feedback from the manager to the employee. They also de-emphasized the numerical ratings and focused more on short-answer written feedback through a stop/start/continue framework. This significantly changed the way an individual could ask for feedback, but it still wasn’t real-time or conversational.

The missing piece was access to tangible takeaways and follow-ups they could incorporate into their growth plans. The feedback was loud and clear: anonymity in feedback was nearly useless, and worse, detrimental to success of the process. Individuals has slightly more useable feedback but were still at a loss for how to carry it forward.

In late 2014, Wikia began to think about making more radical changes. They surveyed employees and asked for in-depth feedback about the process; what was working and what really wasn’t. What they learned was that the existing process just didn’t fit the culture anymore.

Scrapping the yearly assessment

In lieu of the annual reviews, Wikia embraced an on-going, conversational performance management philosophy focused on high-touch, peer-to-peer interactions. They set out to create a process that would be focused on the individual’s growth and be as focused on where they’d been as it was on where they were going. They wanted the process to be owned by the individual with guidance from management. And they wanted a way for anyone, anywhere and at anytime, to be able to give or receive feedback in multiple available formats. No longer would individuals have to wait until the next year’s end to seek formal feedback or talk about their career trajectory. Nor would they need to wait to be asked to give feedback to a peer, manager or anyone in the company. Employees would be free to recognize and be recognized for their accomplishments in real time. They would also be empowered to mindfully appreciate each other in a public setting. Armed with a new strategy that better matched the culture, it was time to adopt a tool that could support this transformation.

“We stopped thinking about reviews as a tool to inform the executive team about how people are doing. This is impossible to do from a tool and it’s not something we wanted to encourage. The point isn’t to see that they’ve ‘met expectations’ but to help our teams get better and grow, not just make numbers happen.”

— Ann Watson

Focusing on the journey, not the destination

To facilitate this radical re-imagining of the performance process, Wikia turned to 7Geese as a technology partner. 7Geese acts as a living, online repository that maps an individual’s contributions and career growth. Ongoing, peer-to-peer conversations are captured continuously and available in real time to managers and execs. An immediate win for the Wikia team was the adoption of 7Geese’s Recognition module. It was embraced from the first moment and remains a favorite.

The company even displays the thank you’s and high-five’s on dashboards throughout their offices. It’s now clear that they don’t need a scoring mechanism to help people grow. Rather, they’re focusing on more robust ways to ground their team’s’ experiences in organizational values and culture, to think about how to keep the conversation going throughout the year and to never again lose sight of the real goal of empowering each individual to own their growth and development.