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The Effectiveness-Lab

Employee performance optimisation – Series 1

Don’t all modern firms grapple with individual employee productivity issues? The modern firm wants to squeeze every bit of productivity out of its individual employee. Armed with an array of digital tools for email and calendar management, giant-sized cloud-based shared drives, collaborative tools like Trello and Evernote, and Virtual Private Network’s (VPNs), the modern firm is equipped to trail what the average employee does during a typical day at work. Yet, the modern firm continues to rely on the annual performance appraisal cycle to manage and optimise employee performance.

You find a plethora of staff types at the modern firm:

  1. The extremely smart yet not productive enough
  2. The average smart but very productive
  3. The extremely smart and productive
  4. The not smart and productive
Staff performance optimisation = identifying the type of egg early
Staff performance optimisation = identifying the type of egg early

Now, firms that have cutting edge staff recruitment and selection systems will search and identify staff types two and three above. They should be able to avoid category one and four.

However, the truth is that employee recruitment and selection at the modern firm is like a game of Russian roulette. While their aim is to target and recruit extremely smart and productive staff, firms at times end up recruiting extremely smart but unproductive staff or even the not smart and productive.

With the mixed-calibre staff cadre above, the modern firm needs to have the equivalent of the ‘chemical litmus test’ for staff, to identify staff that are not productive and those that are. We ought to remind all of you reading this blog that this discourse is not about IQ (smartness) of employee per se, but productivity – we at the Effectiveness Lab believe that one may not be extremely smart, but still achieve high levels of productivity.

If the challenge is to identify from the above pool of staff, productive and not productive staff, we know where the modern firm will look for a solution – the annual performance evaluation tool. Despite the many shortcomings of the orthodox performance evaluation tool, it continues to enjoy its darling status among HR practitioners.

Sadly, in this fast-moving digital age, the annual performance appraisal ritual at the modern firm leaves a lot to be desired:

  • It catches staff productivity issues late and the results are fire fighting, disagreement, organisational climate issues, etc
  • It is not real-time; effective performance evaluation has to be Just In Time (JIT)
  • It is mostly sparring between juniors and seniors
  • It is simply not realistic to evaluate a whole year’s performance, let alone six months, in a one to three-hour conversation

The speed at which organisational value-chains are moving at is mind boggling. Archaic performance management tools can no longer do the job. Such tools are constantly playing catch-up, in the new and fast-moving productivity environment at the modern firm. Can you imagine tools like the dreaded annual appraisal, effectively evaluating individual performance goals? Moreover, goals that could have changed four times before the annual ritual. In other words, by the time the supervisor and the employee meet to review performance goals at the end of the performance cycle, the goals in themselves will have metamorphosed multiple times, making the whole evaluation process a sham

Performance evaluations have failed to evolve with the times – the modern firm has gone digital. The Internet of Things IOT’s is driving firms to previously unthought of digital collaboration and management. Archaic annual appraisal tools can no longer cope with the digital work tool-box, its application, and monitoring of intended outcomes at work. It simply is too squeaky to do the job

READ ALSO: The top 50 problems with performance appraisals 

Individual performance optimisation in the digital age?

In this digital age, we have to flip the performance management paradigm at the modern firm. Individual performance management has to shift from the familiar and age-old pattern:

  • Multi-year organisational strategy definition
  • Annual business plan development
  • Individual staff business plan and annual performance goals definition
  • Midterm check-in
  • and finally, end of year individual staff performance review

The above is a fallacy that can no longer work at valuable modern firms. Value at such organisations is delivered effectively when management recognise and accept the flipped paradigm:

  • Constant turbulence in the organisational atmosphere
  • Staff managed via short span project assignments – done in a task eco-system; this as opposed to the orthodox functional departments. It is a cob-web task order we are talking about her
  • Short-term assignments (we are no longer given open-ended contracts – are we?)
  • Work with and through multiple teams to contribute individual and ’S.M.A.R.T’ly defined ‘bits’ to an outcome that forms the whole – i.e. we can no longer take credit for doing projects alone. Project success accolades are shared with many and your individual contribution may be difficult to identify in the grand scheme of things

So what?

While HR systems at the modern organisation are known for their ‘complexising’ and business-as-usual habits, it is about time organisations considered what is practical, obvious, and with them 24/7, as the solution to performance management in this digital age.

Yes, we support a kind of goal-defining approach for individual staff performance evaluation; but goals are only an end in themselves. It is about time organisations identified proxies for performance goals, which while not goals in themselves, are at the very early stages of a performance cycle, indicative of ultimate goal end-points.

In effect, we are saying that as opposed to waiting six months or one year to evaluate whether an individual employee has achieved agreed performance goals for the year or not, goal-proxies should be used in real time and corrective action, including employee dismissal, taken.

Performance goal-proxies used in real-time:

At times, we look too far out of boundary for indications of low staff productivity at work – we should not always jump to evaluating individual progress on annual performance goals. From my personal experience, I have observed two factors that are early signs of low staff productivity at work. They may be the place to start, when looking at employee performance optimisation:

  1. The dreaded e-mail inbox – look out for the tale-tell signs below in poorly performing staff
  • Failure to clear inbox to zero or a bare minimum
  • Hundreds of unread emails (over the years I have worked with direct reports that have over 1000 unread emails in their inboxes and they have proven themselves to be pretty inefficient at work + fail to achieve performance goals)
  • Not responding to email directly addressed to the staff (even if it is to delete the e-mail)
  • Non-SMART in-box management approaches – no ‘rules-regime’ to manage inbox ’noise’; it is surprising that many staff, manage all their emails (and for senior staff in the thousands) in three folders only – Inbox; Sent; Deleted

2. Doesn’t notice/manage digital meeting management tools

  • Appearing unprepared and blank at meetings – main reason: behind on email that provided background info. to the meeting or simply can’t manage their calendar
  • Not recognising meeting start times and having to be reminded of meetings

We are sure that you have many more examples from your unique organisational contexts, to add to the above – please do

READ ALSO: Email – the ‘task courier’ and devil

READ ALSO: Are you an effective and efficient task manager?

Takeaway: While the above two performance goal-proxies aren’t performance goals in themselves, in a digital work environment, they can be used to identify staff that will ultimately not accomplish agreed annual performance goals.


7 responses to “Employee performance optimisation – Series 1”

  1. […] week’s blog discussed individual employee performance optimisation.  This week’s blog continues the […]


  2. Wow, managing performance and its value chain has always been a mind blogging management activity. I personally don’t enjoy sitting with a direct report discussing issues 12 months or so ago in the name of annual performance appraisal (APA). All this is history and cannot help the future. Matter of fact, if not handled well, it has a potential to end up into an argument (some disrespectful staff do argue with supervisors during the exercise).

    To avoid arguments, some supervisors tend to sandwich negative feedback. The moment feedback is not given in its original flavor, it serves no purpose!

    What I do with my direct reports (my approach….) is to give immediate feedback onto each assignment, task or breakthrough. Have a 121 with staff and share steps taken, challenges met and achievements. Then it becomes important to link these achievements or failures to either individual, departmental or companywide goals. To do this effectively, you need to have a routine performance log. Record every individual staff’s performance on a daily basis – if possible. Use the log to discuss performance for the week or so. That way you will find immediate solutions to performance bottlenecks (skills, attitude, altitude, morale, tools, support, environment, culture, ethics etc.) in a JIT approach.

    My approach, as described above may work well for a Finance or Audit department, where staff have defined key tasks like budgeting, reporting, procurement, etc. If my Accountant produces an error free budget in/or before dateline – why not say thank you?

    ABG, I’m not sure about your suggested early signs of low staff productivity at work. These may be rather signs of individual levels of organization not performance indicators.


    1. Dear Seddu – thanks for reading the blog and providing insightful comments

      Let me start with your last point as it has attracted quite some attention from readers of the blog; the so called goal-proxies – we have been careful not to call them goals, but process substitutes that indicate, at least from my experience, early signs of individual goal delivery failure. There are indeed many other goal-proxies like discussing too much process during performance checkin meetings and nothing about the actual goal/ etc but at the digital workplace, pls. watch out for goal-proxie 1 – it’s subtle, but a powerful early sign of failure

      I agree with you that performance feedback has to be a seamless part of our work – and not this dreadful end of year exercise where the boss fights the suoervisee


  3. I hear you Apollo- the goal ‘proxies’. The examples you give are subtle but very effective…and now back to my emails(…smile)!


  4. Thanks Apollo. Evaluation is a BIG topic. In my opinion for two reasons- a: it is an idea (many times subjective) of the value that the individual, team, organisation add to the overall objective. B: each of the individuals, teams and organisations have variances that have to be considered as well in the evaluation. Systemic evaluation, which is my understanding of your proposal, is certainly the way to keep a performance evaluation of an individual, team or organisation, authentic. Breaking down a long-term contract to smaller projects that can be evaluated in real time is beneficial, efficient and effective. It is the process of defining, selecting, designing, collecting, analysing, interpreting, and using regular objectives and goals to increase congruence between the leaders expectations and the employees’ performance. This gives the leader and employee an opportunity to change course, if necessary. This increases accountability on both ends and a high performing culture


    1. Overall – in agreement with your analysis Christine. The other big one for us though is the whole idea of performance goal proxies: and this is the hypothesis:

      ‘As opposed to waiting for the perf. goals to be evaluated every six months or one year and having to deal with the fall out from failed delivery that late; managers identify special factors that they can monitor in order to catch early those that won’t deliver on performance targets’

      Two such factors for me has been inbox management and management of meetings – preparation, content at meetings etc

      Just In Time – preemptive approaches is the new paradigm to performance mgt. in this digital age


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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