Just checking in

The dreaded performance review?
Not at Adobe.

It’s the bane of managers’ and employees’ existence at corporations around the world — the annual performance review. It’s the time of year when managers burn the midnight oil to write assessments of all their direct reports — and employees stress out over how they’ll be rated, where they’ll be ranked, and what it will mean for their future.

Unless you work at Adobe

In 2012, Adobe abolished its performance review system in favor of ongoing “check-ins.” The story of how it came about and the way it works is a perfect example of how Adobe does what makes sense regardless of trends — and winds up setting some new trends in the process.


A growing unease

In early 2012, Donna Morris, senior vice president of global people resources at Adobe, was feeling frustrated. The company’s annual review process, facilitated by her team, wasn’t delivering on its goals. If performance reviews were supposed to provide employees with valuable feedback, why did voluntary attrition always spike in the months after review time? If reviews were supposed to help managers mold a more effective team, why were they distracting managers from their most meaningful work for weeks at a time?

We just weren’t seeing positive results from the way we had been addressing performance.

“As a company, we were continuing to evolve from box software that takes 12 to 18 months to release to cloud-based software, real-time services, and cutting-edge digital marketing,” Donna says. “But on the people resources side, a lot of our core processes had stayed the same. We just weren’t seeing positive results from the way we had been addressing performance.”

As these thoughts brewed in Donna’s mind, she took a trip to one of Adobe’s India offices. Then, during an interview with an Indian newspaper reporter, her thoughts bubbled over.

The reporter asked, “What is new or innovative in human resources these days?”

“Well,” Donna offered, “we plan to abolish the performance review format.” That off-the-cuff revelation wound up on the newspaper’s front page the next day — and the course was set.

“I blurted out something that I really wanted to be changed,” Donna says. “It was an intentional catalyst.” So Donna and her team got to work.

A fairer system makes a more effective system

Our goal should be to inspire people to do their best work.

In most corporations, managers must divide employees into groups — for example, maybe 15 percent of people can be assigned the highest rating. Those ratings then determine salary increases. Employees are also typically ranked, meaning that every interaction with a teammate could be viewed as a competition rather than a collaboration.

But what if a manager feels that 20 percent of her people deserve the highest rating? What if nobody deserves to come in last place in the rankings because everybody is performing well? Traditionally, there’s no room for those decisions.

“That goes against our core value of being genuine,” says Ellie Gates, director of management effectiveness at Adobe. “Our goal should be to inspire people to do their best work.”

After months of brainstorming and soliciting feedback from employees, Donna and her team landed on a solution — check-ins. Adobe’s new check-in culture revolves around clear expectations, frequent feedback — both positive and constructive — and no ratings or rankings. No more late nights for managers scrambling to write detailed reviews for the record, and no more competitive motives underlying teammate interactions. Different parts of the business can even determine when they should hold check-in conversations. For example, if engineering is on a schedule of eight-week development sprints, managers might decide to hold check-ins every eight weeks.

“It’s liberating people,” Donna says. “It has really helped to create teamwork instead of individualism, which is critical in a creative company.”

A new leaf

This is an opportunity for us to not just say that our people are our most important asset, but to actually live those words.

Voluntary attrition has decreased substantially, suggesting that employees who are performing at the top of their game feel valued, and employees who have room to improve feel supported and encouraged. Managers can make their own decisions about salary increases and are trained on the most effective ways to make those decisions.

Since unveiling the check-in approach, various consulting organizations have reached out to learn from Adobe’s example. Other companies have begun to test the waters by eliminating written reviews or ratings. Adobe is setting the standard for innovation in performance management, and it’s likely a matter of time before the company’s common-sense approach catches on.

“We are trailblazers in this area,” Donna says. “This is an opportunity for us to not just say that our people are our most important asset, but to actually live those words.”

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