All is Well that Ends Bell and its Creepy Curve
There are two strategies in the world. One is scapegoat strategy. Other is ‘sail-together’ strategy. What is this scapegoat strategy? For the welfare of the whole world, a country will be sacrificed. For the welfare of the whole country, a town will be sacrificed. For the welfare of the whole town, a family will be sacrificed. For the welfare of the whole family, a member will be sacrificed.
The problem is this: if the danger persists, another member, another family, another town, and another country will be sacrificed. At the end, there will be no one to sacrifice and no one to be sacrificed. This scapegoat strategy has a modern version. It is called bell curve appraisal system.
Suppose 100 employees work in an organization. At the year end, ten worst employees are fired. Next year, 10 percent of 90 are fired. Next year, the worst eight are fired and so on. Soon the organization will be almost empty without any able employee. Even new employees will soon join the hit list of the perpetual ten percent.
The irony is this: among the worst ten percent, all are not the worst. Among the better 90 percent, all are not better. The worst employee identification is done at the departmental level, not at the company level. So, the worst employees of a department may be better than the best employees of another department.
Even if the worst employee identification is done at the company level, bell curve appraisal system is certainly a bad policy. By age, by experience and by background, a person differs from all other persons. Then, how can an employee perform like others?
Most of the sugar patients are highly abnormal if they do not take medicine. They become nearly normal if they take medicine. Every employee is abnormal without a support. All employees can become normal, with a suitable support process. Certainly bell curve will never bring that true normalization.
Echoing the Vedas, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. It implies that every saint has a dark past and every sinner has a bright future. It implies that today’s saint was a sinner yesterday and today’s sinner may become a saint tomorrow. We can say that today’s above- normal employee was a below- normal employee yesterday. Today’s below-normal employee may become an above- normal employee tomorrow. If a support system can bring that transformation, continuous feedback can be that support system.
Bell curve is a symbol of the annual appraisal system. It is not a good system .But it needs so many computer systems. When the company has heavily invested in the hardware for its annual appraisal system, why not use the same equipment for the continuous feedback system?
Many companies proceed in this direction. They shift from the annual appraisal system to continuous feedback system. General Electric, Deloitte, Microsoft, Adobe, Accenture, Kelly Services, Gap and Medtronic have abandoned the annual appraisal system. Nearly ten percent of Fortune 500 employees are now free from the forced ranking system.
Continuous feedback is also called real-time feedback. Managers and employees frequently report on the steps taken for reaching the goals. They discuss how far a project has progressed. They identify the roadblock that must be removed for completing the assignment. The managers use graphs and charts to see a day-to-day snapshot of an employee’s progress towards specific goals.
Frequent check-ins with employees take place. After every assignment, immediate feedback is available. This arrangement saves the time of the managers. Instead of the three-week annual review, it can be done in small segments regularly. It is more relevant to the employees. It is more convenient to the managers.
The managers initiate productive conversations with the employees. The managers also explain to the employees why the new approach is very important. Thus real-time conversations increase the performance, not your blood pressure. Every week a manager meets an employee. This conversation is very valuable. The manager helps the employees to set their career path. The manager provides important coaching moments. So the focus is on constant improvement through consistent communication.
During these conversations, the managers make their expectations very clear. They help the employees in finding solutions to the problems. The focus is on using the strength of the employees. They also discuss the development needs. The managers also help the employees to understand the big picture: how an employee’s day-to-day work contributes to the organization’s mission. They provide rich, positive, constructive feedback. They encourage the employees to improve their performance. They talk about the key behaviors that the employees demonstrate. They also discuss the impact of these behaviors. The managers also narrate their own experience for the employees’ development.
So, frequent real-time feedback is a simple activity. We just praise people for doing things well, right after they do them. We give them a powerful reinforcement to continue those positive behaviors. If they do not perform well, we talk to them soon afterwards. We discuss what went wrong and what they could have done differently. We give them the best chance to correct their course. We give frequent feedback to our team members, as close to real-time as possible.
The focus is on continuous improvement by addressing the problems as soon as they arise. So, they never mushroom into code red issues. As the feedback is in the moment, the recipient adapts quickly to the changing reality. This is the hallmark of doing knowledge work effectively. Specific examples and immediate feedback help us to reach understanding. There is something tangible to act on.
Short feedback loops work for any role .Creative application of skill will certainly achieve the goal. The beauty of a loop is that it is continuous: plan, act, assess and modify. This continuity facilitates a rapid increase in future capability. Short feedback cycles help us to build confidence: immediate approval of the right things and necessary modifications in needy things.
For financial leaders, there is a good return on investment. Sales leaders appreciate customer satisfaction, HR executives are happy with the involvement and engagement. So, it provides the concrete evidence for the changed environment.
Human beings value collaboration, creativity and celebration. Feedback can become part of everyday work culture; it helps the people to achieve their true potential. It also helps us to understand our collective capacity.
Sail-together is a better strategy than the scapegoat policy. Continuous feedback helps continuous sailing and collective sailing. So, let us ring out the scapegoat strategy of bell curve. The curve does not serve. Target cat can wait. We will bell it later. Let us bell the Bell Curve first. We will all bell it together. If the hardware is ready, if the process is ready, can the tool be far behind? All is well that ends bell and its creepy curve.