5 min read

Drawn and Quartered

Drawn and Quartered
I'm not sure I've picked the right reference for a post about quarterly check-ins. The pun is good though. All credit to Paramount and 20th Century Fox

As a leader, one of the most important responsibilities you have is to grow the people around you. To help them become better than they were before they met you.

It's not an easy task, but it is a rewarding one.

An effective way to do this, to grow those around you, is to give them feedback. To observe their behaviours and results and synthesize that into meaningful observations and recommendations.

But giving good feedback is hard. If you want it to be effective and to inspire actual change, it requires a substantial amount of both time and effort.

So it's best to put aside time to do it on the regular.

I'm Going To Pick A Fight

In a perfect world, giving feedback is a continuous process.

You notice something, you talk to the person, they reflect on the situation and the job is done. It might be constructive criticism, or it might be positive reinforcement, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that the person gets a different perspective on their own actions and outcomes, which then helps then tune those same actions and outcomes moving forward.

But this is not a perfect world.

It's easy to get busy. To forget to make time for feedback. To second-guess yourself as a manager and hold back.

That's where quarterly check-ins come in.

These rituals are a scheduled opportunity for both parties to reflect on the entire quarter and then use that reflection to put together meaningful feedback and to identify opportunities for improvement.

At Atlassian, quarterly check-ins aren't necessarily mandatory, but they are heavily encouraged. The organisation provides templates to help prepare for the conversations and training on how to run them.

I bet you can guess what the next section is going to be about...

It's Our Wits That Make Us Men

Yup, it's how I go about doing quarterly check-ins.

At the end of every quarter, I carve out time to reflect on each person I'm responsible for and think about how they are tracking against my expectations. I also encourage them to do the same for themselves.

Then, we come together and compare notes.

It can be hard to do this sort of reflection completely from scratch. There is nothing more terrifying thank a blank Confluence page, so both parties have access to a bank of guiding questions that are aimed at provoking reflection.

For the manager, these questions are:

  • What were the persons key achievements for this quarter?
  • What are the top two things the person should continue doing next quarter?
  • What are two actions the person could take or key areas to focus on to be more impactful next quarter?
  • What are the persons top two strengths and how did they demonstrate them?
  • What are two skills or competencies that the person should develop to have a greater impact?

For the person getting the quarterly review, the questions are as follows:

  • What are your top two highlights from the quarter?
  • What are the bottom two lowlights from the quarter?
  • What are two key learnings that you want to remember heading into next quarter?

Typically, I have a Confluence page of my own for each person and it contains a copy of these questions for each quarter. During the preparation time, I gather together evidence of what the person has done over the quarter and accumulate a selection of random notes and thoughts. I then take those raw notes and use the information therein to answer the questions as best I can.

It's a private page, specifically for me to gather my thoughts.

Each person in turn has a page in their Confluence space, where they fill out their reflections ahead of time.

During the face-to-face session, we first go through the persons own reflections (highlights, lowlights, lessons) and talk about them. Extracting any meaningful actions or changes that the person wants to be held accountable for in the next quarter.

Then, I paste in my feedback exactly as is from my personal page and walk through it, extracting additional actions or changes as necessary.

And that's it. It's not an overly complex process, just an open and honest conversation about how the quarter went from both perspectives.

Every Man Dies

It's pretty effective.

The questions are solid and provoke meaningful thought and reflection, which in turn generally leads to good conversations and points of feedback that might not have risen to the surface organically.

In my experience, it's not always easy to get people to actually do the reflection beforehand though. Hell, even I've been guilty of this with my own manager. Everyone is always really busy, and it can be difficult to justify carving out the time to reflect when you feel like there are fires burning all around you.

I've done my best to mitigate this by specifically carving out a week at the start of every quarter, removing other distractions and dedicating it to planning and reflection. The idea is to encourage people to use this time to gather feedback from their peers and to think about and complete their own preparation for the quarterly check-in.

Honestly, if people don't get a chance to do their own reflections beforehand, it's not the end of the world though. I have the discipline to ensure that I always do my part, so there is always something to talk about.

Another thing that is less than optimal is that the format of our quarterly check-ins is entirely different the one used for the annual review process.

I wrote in detail about our annual review process here, but the long and short of it is that those reviews are focused on evaluating people across three dimensions: value, role and team. The quarterly check-ins are more casual reflections in comparison.

It's not necessarily a bad thing. Different approaches can lead to different outcomes, which might mean more opportunities for growth.

But it does mean that when annual review time rolls around you have a whole bunch of awesome information from each quarter that is not aligned with how you are expected to evaluate someone for the entire year.

It also means that you've got a tonne of practice with quarterly check-ins but very little practice with doing an annual review.

I'm going to try and experiment this year and do both every quarter. Sure, it's more work for me, but I think it will make the annual review process a hell of a lot smoother.

If it's terrible I can always stop, right?

Not Every Man Really Lives

That's about it for quarterly check-ins at Atlassian.

They are an effective mechanism of provoking and inspiring feedback, which in turn helps to grow those around you.

But they can't be the only way of generating feedback. They are just too infrequent.

You have to be constantly looking for that sort of thing and if you have something to say, you should say it. The best feedback is timely and there is little point holding on to something looking for the perfect opportunity to talk about it.

Stale feedback benefits no-one.

Interestingly enough, the quarterly check-in process at Atlassian was exactly the sort of thing I was trying to establish in my last company. I wanted something that would both serve to accumulate ratings for salary reviews, but would also encourage people to reflect and think about growth opportunities.

Knowing what I know now, I was basically a caveman hitting a rock with another rock, but at least I was on the right path.