Making Time for Reviews

This post originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Time Management magazine.

Back in the 1980s New York City had a mayor by the name of Ed Koch. He was generally well-liked, and was instrumental in helping clean up the city, and was a very public figure. His trademark greeting was to walk up to average people on the street and say “How am I doing?” This obvious flip-around on the normal way of greeting people symbolized his ongoing desire for feedback from constituents, tourists and anyone who happened to be in the city. It was a request for an impromptu performance review, and it had the double benefit of both an informal poll of his performance as well as a savvy piece of marketing as the mayor that cares.

Mayor Koch, and other political figures like him, take a risk, realizing that the answer will not always be positive. But knowing where dissatisfaction exists represents the first step towards fixing what needs to be fixed, and building what needs to be built. This is doubly important in situations where the source of dissatisfaction – the thing needing to be improved – is currently a total unknown.

Reviews, then, form part of the project management required to get things done. They are an essential component that appear at first glance to take time, but in the long run save much more.

Project management is filled with procedures like this, and for good reason. There is no direct path from A to B. Contingencies, learning and review are part of the single right road towards success.

Consider, for example, the need to make a Plan B and a Plan C in a project. Many impatient project managers or their stakeholders will balk at this, considering it to be a waste of time and money, as well as an admission of the possibility of failure. It is better, they think, to cross your fingers and charge ahead. But almost all projects are saved thanks to the time and effort put into contingency planning, because things always go wrong in some fashion. Failure, the word of project management, is not an emotional admission of abject defeat, it is instead an alternate outcome that if planned for, drives the project toward success a little further down the road.

So it is with reviews. They require time to plan, time to execute and time to digest the information learned. But this is time invested, not time spent. Reviews allow a manager to learn about employees while demonstrating a level of care and respect toward these employees that is in itself a tool for retention and motivation. Reviews are the essence of kaizen, the principle of continuous improvement that is a hallmark of great leadership and progress. Reviews also break down the communication wall that has been thrown up by the overuse of email – a sterile messaging medium that does nothing to establish the trust, goodwill and passion that all employees deserve to feel.

As a legitimate tool of proactive management, the time required to plan, conduct and learn from reviews must be implemented into a calendar as actual recurring items, not merely reminders on a ToDo list somewhere. These items are part of the work of the day and need to be legitimized as such. People often bristle at this concept, stating that there is already too much other work to be done, however those who choose to add essential support items to their calendar find that instead of adding to the pile, the scheduling of review periods helps define the other work zones far more easily – basically trimming from wasteful activities such as taking too much time to respond to emails or having overly long conversations.

Reviews, then, should be a weekly entity when it comes to communicating with employees, but they should also be a daily task for the individual. A simple block of ten minutes at the end of each workday is usually sufficient for individuals to accomplish three things:

1.) retroactively update their calendar to more accurately reflect the true durations of activities. This is extremely important for people who bill by the hour, as well as for a kaizen activity in its own right, quantifying activities such as meetings and e-mail returning times, travel times, and focused work times in order to assess whether too much or too little attention is being given to each;

2.) taking note of personal errors or activities in need of improvement. These items can be shared with mentors in order to learn better ways of handling them.

3.) for people tasked with giving reviews to other employees, the close of the day is the best time to take notes on their achievements or behaviour, since it is always too difficult and unfair to try and remember an event many weeks later.

Reviews, both daily and weekly, personal and interpersonal, are maintenance and improvement activities, seemingly disassociated from key tasks, but in truth they are as connected to the success of a project or team as car maintenance is to the arrival at a destination. They have to be done, and as such, they have to be made real.