Management What you need to do next

No Surprises

At the end of each fiscal year, companies take stock of their performance. How’d we do? Better or worse? This is a natural time to reflect upon individual performance — this is when your boss writes your review.

In my ideal management world, a review is simply a documentation of well-known facts, your performance over the year. It also contains constructive advice and insight regarding how your boss believes you can improve on that performance. My dream is that you already know all of this information because you’ve been getting year-round feedback from your boss.

I wish.

Whether your manager is consistently delivering this information or not, the feedback, written down, is completely different from receiving it verbally. The path to your brain via the written word is dramatically different than for the spoken word. Reading the highs and lows of the past year makes them permanent and makes them real.

And then there’s the surprise.

Show Me the Money

Bad news. The surprise has nothing to do with money. We’re not talking about compensation here. Yes, you did a splendid job this year and I think they should be throwing raises, bonuses, and stock your way. But it’s even better if it’s clear why you think you did a splendid job. Can you articulate it? And you might know, but does your boss? Can he explain to you, in detail, how well you kicked ass?

I didn’t think so.

See, your boss has you and a bunch of other yous who are all allegedly kicking ass, and all of that ass kickery is tricky to monitor, especially over an entire year. It gets even worse when one of your team members is not kicking ass. Legitimately or not, that’s actually where a lot of your boss’ attention is going. You read that right: someone else’s failure is distracting from your phenomenal year.

Let’s fix that.

There are three strategies I’d like you to employ when it comes to your yearly review. They are:

  1. Ignore the measures, focus on the content.
  2. Prepare for the fact a review is a discussion and, sometimes, a negotiation.
  3. Deconstruct the surprise.

Measures versus Content

I’ve experienced a lot of different review formats at different companies, but let’s boil it down to three buckets. A review describes:

  1. What you did.
  2. How you did it.
  3. What you need to do next.

This is a massive simplification of your review. Your review has all sorts of other corporate and division focus areas, but these impressive sounding labels are still just lenses through which you understand how you did versus what was expected.

For each of the buckets, there are two classes of information: the content and the measure. I want to explain how you can save yourself a lot of sleepless nights ignoring the measures, but first, a definition.

Sprinkled across your review are measures. These are words like “Needs Improvement”, “Satisfactory”, or “Excellent”. These words grab you because they’re easy to understand. They are effectively your grades, and you’ve spent a lot of your formative years waiting for grades to show up.

If I told you that you got an A on a piece of work, you’d internally translate that letter into a pleasant, “I did about as well as I could. Go me.” Grades – measures – are efficient, they do convey information, but they lack essential content. I’ll explain via example.

When I arrived at University of California, Santa Cruz in the 90s, they had no grades. Hippies. At the end of the quarter, you received a written evaluation. For each student in the class, the professor or the teaching assistant would produce a written evaluation — a plain English description of the type and quality of the work produced over the semester.

I don’t know who came up with the idea of ditching grades, but my hope was that they wanted to ditch the measures. The intent of measures are not to derive useful information, they are designed to allow for comparison and, duh, measurement. Am I higher or lower than you? How many As? Are there more As than Bs? It’s interesting data and I’m sure if you took a classroom full of data and plotted it on a graph, you’d learn something. Look! A bell curve!

A measure doesn’t help you in your career. Your performance review isn’t about comparisons to others. They’re about what you did and what you could do. What you’re looking for is the content.

Tell me which is more useful:

“You did well.”


“You finished the work on schedule, the customer was happy with the results, but there were lingering quality issues with the code. Looking at the last two releases, you had 2x the numbers of bugs than in prior releases. Focus on…”

We get hung up on grades, on measures, because they are so gosh darned digestible. They give us the illusion that they show us where we fit, but they don’t tell us what next?

At UCSC, the point of the gradeless report card was to create a vacuum where the professor would actually say something useful. You’re not going to get rid of measures — they serve a distinct purpose — but when you’re first reading your review, I want you to ignore those seductive one-word assessments of your entire year. Their simplicity, while comprehensible, is just going to obscure the complexity of your year.

Rather, look at the content behind the measures. Whatever your particular areas of focus are, does your boss do an effective job of explaining what you did, how you did, and what you could do better? It’s a simple set of requirements, but your boss is going to mess it up, which is why you need to be clear that…

A Review is a Conversation

The written word is intimidating. An assessment of a year is a big deal, so what are you going to do when you sit down with your boss and he hands you three poorly crafted paragraphs littered with the word “significant”?

No, you don’t ask about the raise. You freak out about the paragraphs. THREE PARAGRAPHS? I’VE WRITTEN MORE IN EMAIL THIS MORNING THAN YOU JUST WASTED ON MY YEAR.

Calm yourself.

Think of this pathetic piece of paper as an opening offer — a poor offer. Your job is to transform this travesty into an accurate reflection of your year and you’re not doing this just out of a sense of self-righteousness, you’re doing to set the set the record straight.

This piece of paper is one of the only official documents of your career at this company. If you move, if your boss leaves, if there’s a reorg, this is often the first document reviewed to understand the degree of your asskickery and that means you want your boss to comprehend it.

“But Rands, I was just… so pissed. Three paragraphs? I spent my entire winter on the project. I was FURIOUS.”

Again, your review will contain surprises, and they will rattle you, which is why you prepare with a self review.

Whether your company asks for it or not, the moment the mail from HR alerts you to the review season, you start cobbling together your self review. Same buckets as above. My move is to keep a yearlong log of significant work as a task in whatever task tracking system I’m currently ignoring. Even if you haven’t been paying consistent attention, you’ll be surprised by what you can dig up in a weekend of considering your year.

Take a look at your year. How’d you do? No, really, I’m not actually reading it so you can have an honest opinion. Was it a great year or did you just think it was great? Yes, your boss’ opinion about your year is key, he does sign the checks, but it’s a key surprise reducing technique to walk into the review with an opinion. This moment of personal honesty you’re having with yourself is a big deal because that’s the foundation you’re going to stand on when the three pathetic paragraphs show up. Having a justifiable opinion regarding your year is a powerful, defensible position.

While it’s important to send the self review long before your boss writes his review, it’s more important that you have this opinion, this well-defined opinion, when sitting down to read your boss’ review. Does it document what you did? Everything? Does the description of what you did match your perception? No? Why? Don’t tell me, tell your boss, and make sure he gets it because it’s these types of historical perception mismatches that form an unhealthy basis for emerging misunderstanding and resentment.

The point of a review is the debate — to align your perceptions with those of the person who signs the checks, but even with all this structured healthy debate, there’s still going to be a…


I don’t know what the surprise is. It’s your review. Some of the doozies over the years from mine include:

  • The total absence of recognition for a multi-month multi-team project that kicked ass.
  • A reversal of opinion regarding a piece of work I’d done, usually towards the negative.
  • Completely contradictory areas of improvement.

Unfortunately, the surprise is the point. A review not only forces the alignment discussion, it serves as a warning for the coming year: What do I need to do differently to avoid being blindsided when the next review arrives?

Fact is, you’re never fully going to get your boss on-board with your year. There are opinions he has which aren’t going to change, which means if you don’t want another surprise next year, you have to change.

A review’s value lies not only in the documentation of what was observed, but also what was not.

The Permanence of the Written

In many years of reviews, the only consistency I’ve noticed is that they’re getting shorter. My unsubstantiated paranoia is that lawyers apply subtle corporate pressure to retain less descriptive documentation of what actually happened in the company. But perhaps it’s just a growing professional laziness.

Whatever the reason, a brief review is just sad. If you’re staring at three useless paragraphs, you have a couple of problems. You’ve got a company that allows crappy reviews and you’ve got a boss who is unable or unwilling to articulate either the quantity or quality of work you’ve done.

That’s all sorts of screwed, but it’s only complete breakdown only occurs when you don’t react.

The first review I wrote was awful. It was three paragraphs derived from scanning status reports from the past six months. I sat in the room as she read the review and she didn’t have to say a thing for me to understand that I’d be spending the weekend actually writing the review. I got an accusing, furious glare. You didn’t even try.

So I did.

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19 Responses

  1. Roman 15 years ago

    If you have not done so, I would suggest adding Abolishing Performance Appraisals to your reading list:


  2. Yearly reviews are awkward. Doing them is a major stress for everyone involved. They are important to do right since it does go on their permeant record.

    My former employer used to do quarterly reviews to get away from the “how could have forgotten about X”. We used to complain bitterly about doing them but they made the yearly, more detailed review, a lot easier to write.

    At my present company, we only do yearly reviews but we also set quarterly goals that I “grade” each quarter. This helps since we all have poor memories about what happened a year ago.

  3. Les Elkins 15 years ago

    One of the things I don’t miss from working at a Federal lab was writing my reviews, so I could give them to my supervisor, so they could then use them to tell me how I was performing….

  4. Rob Allen 15 years ago

    In the 3 years I’ve been with my current employer, a consulting company, I’ve been reviewed once. It wasn’t all together, a terrible experience. My company sent a preliminary packet to me requesting information on projects I’ve worked on and other folks in the company I’ve worked with, then sent the relevant folks a survey to take. The place where it fell down was that the person doing the review didn’t know me nearly as well as any of the people surveyed. He was also unfamiliar with the projects and so, his feedback was of limited value. Then came the negotiation which was horribly disjointed. The person doing my interview didn’t have the authority/power to really get into the nuts and bolts of compensation. He was empowered only with a pathetically low percentage with which to work from.

    Our company has since reorganized and I have yet to be reviewed under the current system. I fear it will look a lot more like what Rands describes.

  5. My company (and many others) have taken to doing a sort of a short-cut for reviews. Instead of having the boss write the review, they ask the employee to write their own review. Then the boss reviews it and responds if they don’t like something.

    I’ve been doing this for years now, and I’m not yet sure whether I like it or not. On the one hand, it guarantees that my written reviews are pretty kick-ass. On the other hand it means it means that I get one fewer piece of feedback. In my company, the majority of the technical managers are NOT programmers (even former programmers) and really are not qualified to evaluate my work themselves. Do they wind up with a better evaluation by asking people to evaluate themselves? Or is it just a form of institutional laziness.

    Back on the first hand again, there are two outputs to the review process. One is a formal piece of paper saying how good you are. This one is formal, mandatory, and really DOES NOT MATTER, except possibly if you want to sue for wrongful termination or something. Promotion decisions are made based on the boss’ opinion, not on what gets written down and honestly no one reads these things. Nevertheless, it can’t hurt for the review to be glowing yet modest, and I can get that when I write it myself.

    The other part of the review process REALLY DOES MATTER, and that’s the *conversation* you have with your boss. After all, you have to get feedback from SOMEPLACE if you want to get better over time, and it’s your boss’s job to provide that. If you have a boss who’s not going to be helpful in this regard, you could try to find a different mentor within the company, but your boss is a good first choice. So the conversation is vital.

    So what I try to do is make sure that I have the conversation — even if it is totally unrelated to what gets written on the piece of paper. And that sort of works. Like I said, after years of this process I still haven’t decided whether I like it or not.

  6. Brian Vincent 15 years ago

    I find reviews to be critical for letting employees figure out where they stand. Here’s some random thoughts:

    • Even if your company doesn’t require employees to do a self review, have them do one. However, don’t collect theirs before doing yours. Take both of the completed reviews and see what the difference is between them. That delta can be a major talking point – if you think and employee did well and the employee thinks they sucked, you need to get to bottom of that.

    • Goals are very important. At some point in the review you need to explicitly state goals that have been achieved and goals that need to be worked on. Rands mentioned this, but really goals and objectives for the year should be a completely separate form with tangible achievements and realistic target dates.
    • As Rands noted, consistent feedback through the year is much more critical than the yearly review. However, the yearly review needs to note such things as, “John ran into a major roadblock during the implementation project K. We reviewed his progress and John noted changes that could be made. It made his delivery date slip three weeks, but John did a fantastic job working with QA and made some of that time up.”
    • A lot of times reviews get put on the backburner. They become the last thing you have time for. Don’t be that guy. Do your reviews before HR asks you to do them. Oh, sure, the form might change a bit, but in general you should be able to cobble together the framework of a review for all your employees before you’re asked. Then, present your review to your employee as soon as you can. Why is that important? Because it shows you care. At the end of the day, employees like managers who care. Well, maybe they don’t like you, but at least they’ll respect you. Believe it or not, employees will mention this to their peers and be proud of it, “Well, my manager already finished my review with me. Why isn’t yours done?”
    • I firmly believe in peer review, or “360 reviews”. Most companies don’t have this mechanism, but it’s important to be able to review the people you work with. You can even make this a very informal process. Just take the standard review, and apply it to other managers you work with. Critique their management. I recommend getting together over beers after work and discuss each others’ reviews. **Note** If you don’t work with a group of people where you can have a discussion like that, you need to do a serious evaluation of why you can’t.
  7. Peter Loer 15 years ago

    A friend of mine who went to Santa Cruz tells the story of a CS professor he had who tracked grading on all projects for the class using some home-grown perl scripts. When it came time to generate gradeless, feedback-focused narative evaluations at the end of the quarter, the perl script would just spit them right out based on the grades for all projects over the course of the year, perhaps with some randomization of descriptors to keep appearances up.

    It’s easy to see how a manager confronted with a large stack of reviews to write would be tempted by a similar approach. To my dismay, some popular web-based review tools even have built-in support for this.

    I’ve always found the story about the Santa Cruz professor harmless and amusing. But for a manager, not so much, for all the reasons mentioned in the article and comments.

  8. Chris Phelps 15 years ago

    My last review at my previous company, the manager (who had only taken me 2 months prior in a reorganization) gave me a review with another person’s name in the body. It’s not going out on much of a limb to conclude that the other guy’s review was mostly or completely identical to mine.

    My previous managers (actual manager and task lead), though they were no longer responsible for me, offered to write the review for the new boss. How lazy does one have to be, to turn down a basically pre-written document, and instead copy and paste one’s own empty review?

    I had already planned to leave the company at this point, so it did not bother me too badly, but I did mention it on my exit interview.

  9. My last job was one I took with a lot of excitement. Looked like incredible projects and the opportunity to learn from someone with great experience.

    The months drew on and the projects rocked. My boss, on the other hand, was a bit of a disappointment. He seemed to expect me to do the learning portion via telepathy and raged quite fantastically when I failed at that task. We sorted out these misunderstandings but never got to the point where he actually gave me feedback.

    A year passed and it was review time. I was eager to finally hear how I could better grow into the lofty ideas my boss and I shared for the position.

    The review came two months late. It was a two minute conversation. On a car ride. Between meetings.

    “You’re great. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

    Plus a substantial raise.

    To this day, I don’t know if I’d trade half that raise for actual feedback. It’s academic, now, since I left that job to work for me. Still, shame the dwindling emphasis placed on this important facet of leadership.

  10. Matthew 15 years ago

    After spending three years in the truly corporate world of the #1 Wireless company in the USA at the time, I cannot agree more with the review process commentary here. It was literally a waking nightmare of bureaucracy, apathy, and I-Don’t-Have-Time-For-This-itis. HR announced the PEP (their name for an annual review) opener, and three days later every manager on the entire call center floor (easily 100 people) had to review their 20 representatives over the past year and provide feedback.

    In my time as a front line representative, the review was a senseless waste. I had changed managers 7 times in the first year, so who actually knew how I was doing, with the exception of direct statistical data. My personality wasn’t calculated or factored, my team dynamics, the time I spent helping everyone else, just the raw numbers.

    That being said, I still got a great ‘score’ on the review, and was eligible for promotion after that (touching on that in a moment.)

    As a manager, the review process was even worse. Peoplesoft made it nearly impossible to write a valid review, relying in full on the statistical side (thus explaining why my review the year before was wretched) and I ended up having to write a separate form entirely just to feel like I was giving good feedback to my people.

    The worst part, however, about corporate reviews isn’t necessarily the process itself, but the arbitrary assignment of promotion opportunities, raises, and ability to do -anything- else in the company. Annual reviews are a senseless platform that lock employees into a drone-like state for the next year in that world if they don’t achieve a necessary score. I would have promoted half a dozen reps to management without the required ‘acceptable’ score because I knew their talents lay elsewhere.

    I’m glad to be out of that world, freelancing and doing what I want most of the time… I feel sorry for everyone still locked in to it.

  11. A nicely written piece, and as an employee I can appreciate it. However, as a manager I feel this is a biased and grossly simplified and naive view. Managers, as do their employees, deal with complex business circumstances. Unlike their employees, managers often also deal with complex interpersonal and sensitive private situations. The complexity in a manager’s job role has more facets than their employees, and a good manager shields their employees from much of this where possible and necessary..

    Performance assessment is difficult, especially when companies require relative assessment amongst peers. Employees have a naive view of their own individual performance, but little perspective relative to the performance of their peers (especially when those peers are in different levels with different scopes).

    Everyone wants to be told they are doing well. Many do not like to hear about areas in which they can improve. Often the “surprise” as you put it comes down to a lack of awareness of peer’s contributions or areas for improvement, or from a level of self-delusion around scope, contribution, effectiveness, impact, value or other measures of performance.

    It is easy to call the manager’s “3 paragraphs” as a “pathetic piece of paper” but bear in mind some managers may be doing this for 15, 20 or more staff, on time budgets that are already stretched, while continuing to effectively hold down the fort on all the “normal” day to day work such as HR, personnel, customers, finance, business compliance, organisational politics, and others. My personal view is that the comments on the piece of paper are for the most part written by the employee and the more important piece of the puzzle is, as you say, the conversation during which the employee hopefully gains some perspective on their relative contribution and insight into the future and areas for improvement.

    Let’s see you try writing a similar piece from the other perspective – can you?

  12. KB: I’m calling bullshit. “complex business circumstances blah blah blah” is just another way of saying “douchey corporate crap”… Let’s face it: companies lose tons of money every day because they refuse to deal with the people in their organizations who are hurting them. They do that for all kinds of reasons: managers who should never be managers; managers who are potentially great but who aren’t trained well; corporate policies that effectively neuter managers’ ability to do what they otherwise would in order to further their organization’s goals. Whatever.

    If Joe Employee has been there forever, isn’t performing, hasn’t been performing, and is quietly regarded as one of those “yeah, Joe, well….”, then he’s hurting everyone. And he’s hurting your review, my review, and everyone else in the department. Are his circumstances complex? I don’t know. I don’t care.

    I work with managers (not mine, Thankfully) who spend all day in their offices with their doors closed and locked. Are they engaged? Are they doing their jobs? They might be writing code, but they sure as hell aren’t doing what they *should* be doing. What Rands is pointing out is that these are precisely the people you’re up against in your reviews. I don’t care if these managers face all kinds of pressures about which I know not.

    Unlock the fucking door. It’s your job.

  13. A. Peon 15 years ago


    Not tightly related to this thread, but… well, two related ideas:

    My boss is branching out from solo legal into leveraging his MBA, so you’ve made another sale – I have an excuse to slip him your book. Hopefully he can get past the software/technology angle, since I can’t think of any better introduction to “corporate” culture, its rationale (making profit, avoiding knife-fights in the hallways..), and its quirks (why *so much* Process? what’s up with meeting/’PowerPoint’ culture?) for someone who’s never been directly exposed to it. [He’s always wanted to be there, but wanting a pony doesn’t mean you know how to ride one..]

    So from that perspective – I’ve got my own ideas, but it’d be interesting to hear you ruminate on the Jack Tramiel business-is-war approach vs. the common-case business-is-golf-and-PowerPoint approach vs. the Steve Jobs business-is-hypnosis approach. (Well, Tramiel and Jobs are both close in attitude, just that one targeted “the masses” at retail and the other “the classes” with ‘luxury’ design and marketing. I can’t think of a more legitimate/less-contradictory exemplar of the ‘laid-back-Californian’ approach right now, though.)

    Since those are CEOs, maybe it’d really be an easier/simpler exercise to classify corporate cultures in general? “Keiretsu” (Sony et al), “American Keiretsu”/”East-coast stodgy” (GE, Xerox, Kodak), “Meat Grinder” (EA, ??), “Animal House” (not sure if that should apply to cultures that are very cigar-lounge who-knows-who fraternities, or lights-on-but-nobody’s-home/lunatics-running-asylum shops), “Land of Oz” (Disney, Apple, don’t-look-behind-curtain / own-dogfood-running-out-their-ears shops) … “Bait Shop” (YouTube, Flickr, Twitter – where management’s ‘core product’ is to get acquired as quickly as possible) … “Assembly Line” (manufacturing or any equivalent culture where employees have tightly defined roles/directly quantifiable performance), “Toy Shop” (Google), “Misfit Toy Shop” (SGI, Sun), “Sweatshop Toy Shop” (Microsoft), “Detroit”… Maybe some of those aren’t distinct cultures, just the same culture applied to different products, but it’d be an exercise to look at what worked where and what burned down like the Hindenburg.

    … Inspired because said boss definitely takes the Tramiel approach right now (…maybe not as successfully, and he’s about to smash face-first into not just ‘corporate’ culture, but .tw Confucian corporate culture) … and hell, even I have some of the same Tim Taylor grunt-grunt you’re-getting-paid suck-it-up-and-perform work-harder-*and*-smarter attitude – which is why we’re both complete frickin’ burnout cases now.


    So, uh, yeah, WTF, second thought:

    Plz consider doing a “Complete Asshole’s Guide to Budgeting” kthx?

    Specifically: I’m along for the ride with this guy [we’re family, of course] on the existing practice, the upcoming corporate work, and a startup involving a manufactured product that’s gone nowhere for years because no resources have been allocated to packaging, marketing or manufacturing.

    That’s not what I’m suggesting you tackle, though – lots of people start a business but don’t follow through – it just shows the extremity of the dysfunction.

    What I think you might want to write about is a more general situation, eating a lot of SMBs alive, especially re: IT:

    Start with any dude with some authority, one or more employees/subordinates to delegate to, and a “budget” for the entity his authority controls [team, workgroup, business, whatever]. To adapt to your perspective, let’s call him The Manager.

    The Manager recognizes that certain expenditures are necessary to conduct business and make money – rent, phone… paperclips.

    Those get taken care of pretty smoothly. Either The Manager handles them directly, or someone fills up the cart at, gets The Manager to sign off (or takes out the second box of paperclips), and life goes on.

    IT, however, is where the record stops with a screech. Let’s generalize that as The Specialist Field (any dark art that The Manager has no real expertise or understanding – or direct interest – in).

    So… from The Manager’s perspective, everything in The Specialist Field is off his radar until it forces itself in front of him. Then, ohshit, a Specialist is needed.

    Here’s where the Mysteries of the World unfold:

    In Specialist Fields where no Specialist is on staff, a Manager must call in a Consultant – and a Consultant, by nature of his business, will make a pitch with 100% confidence, provide a quote, and The Manager will either approve it as a one-off expense or tell the Consultant to fuck off and go find another Consultant. If The Consultant fucks up, The Manager will not know until the failure occurs, at which point it’s time to call back The Consultant if it’s not obvious that it was a fuckup – or a different Consultant if it is.

    In Specialist Fields where the Specialist is on staff, though:

    – The Manager wants direct approval over every expenditure;

    – The Specialist on-staff knows his ass is on the line unless the expenditure performs (The Manager, of course, always wants immediate ROI, but a Consultant is out of there before any problems emerge);

    – The Specialist is part of the operation and gives a crap about making sure the solution is actually appropriate to The Manager’s needs / the entity’s overall budget.

    So begins the waking nightmare of many Specialists at “small-to-medium-businesses,” especially if they have roles beyond being a Specialist: The Manager wants something done that’s going to require expenditure. The Specialist can think of 500 ways to do it and asks The Manager for a budget and time frame: Fast, Cheap, or Reliable, pick two.

    In my experience, The Manager who can’t [*refuses to*] ballpark an answer to both questions is failing the Specialist and the overall managed entity: To the Specialist, he’s communicating his insecurity about the Specialist Field, and leaving it on the Specialist to prepare a report on every option without scope – begging for an education in the field rather than a short list to pick from and Get It Done, then getting pissed off if the report comes back and reads like an introductory text for the field.

    Gridlock: The Specialist’s going to lose sleep and eat time-on-payroll trying to guess at business priorities and cash flows he has no data on. He’s got those 500 solutions in his head and needs The Manager to scope it down so he can get to work. The Manager knows nothing about the field, can’t fix a priority, and no matter how much he might blow in Vegas, can’t decide what fraction of business funds to ante on getting this_thing done.

    In an Enterprise situation, this is either sussed out through meeting and reporting culture or Falls Off the Radar. In a small-to-medium-business, it just becomes the dead horse rotting in the room and poisons trust and productivity – The Manager remains consistently angry that The Specialist hasn’t reported to him yet, and is suspicious that he just wants to procure some expensive toys; The Specialist knows he’s going to have his head bitten off no matter what he does, so either doesn’t do anything or ends up doing it with his own money and bringing it in, pissing off The Manager by creating a tax headache.

    …and heh, maybe that’s burrowing deep into my specific situation, but there’s the general problem: in nearly any field, specialty, role, whatever, there are expenses and tradeoffs between time and expense. Secretarial duties can, for instance, be performed on a PC, or scratched out on a pad in longhand – or can go to the extremes of beating reeds for papyrus and berries for ink or renting a mainframe and support staff to handle mail merge. IT needs spares, upgrades, and might wish to evaluate products from time to time without a demand that they go into production – *if* times are good and budget permits. Programmers need books, software, compiler farms. Legal needs books, subscriptions, paperclips, support from IT… Everyone’s supposed to be working together, right?

    What I’m wandering in circles about is: Money is, *ahem,* the universal currency. Most people are actually not that bad about doing back-of-the-envelope math as to how to act rationally with it, particularly if they know to expect a fixed amount across a specific time. People who blow budgets should be held accountable – and are going to be naturally selected out, if they spend and fail to show results – but if you count paperclips, your core competency rapidly becomes paperclip-counting with the original business crammed into your spare time.

    So – got any heuristic management can use and feel_smart_about when delegating budgets so subordinates can get shit done? As far as IT, there are plenty of articles saying “devote N%” – and in a small business grossing low 6 figures, lord, $1,000 a year would be plenty and might leave a surplus that could go back to payroll in 5 years – but it’s hard to make the case to a manager who thinks every unallocated cent is somehow earning more interest in the bank than one allocated but not yet spent.


  14. Easily, one of the best article l have come across on this precious subject. I quite agree with your suppositions and will eagerly look forward to your coming updates.

  15. I’ve had good and bad performance reviews. The best was with a manager who had told me the aims, and then gave me useful feed-back. The worst gave no aims and empty, meaningless, undefinable feed-back.

    In general, the aim has been to set up a system of fuzzy, irrelevant criteria and a scale such that no one can reach “excellent!” and no one is told “you’re outta here!”. You could be doing the work of 3 or 4 and better than anyone in the division, and still never get an excellent on any of the criteria.

    What the heck is a “program manager”? We had group leads, who had no decision-making power, dev group managers, 1 or 2 mid managers, general manager of all dev, VPs (the conglomerate had over 200 at one point, so by that time there was a hierarchy and functional area break-down among VPs), and then CEO co-founder “Uncle” Bill.

    Oh, and you owe me a nickel. When I originated the phrase “Show me the money.” it was in the context of having done some consulting work on several successful major movies and hadn’t been paid a dime, though I did have dinner with Kilmer, Kidman and O’Donnell (I took revenge on the sequel for not having been paid by going along with a lot of garbage). I’d quit my day job after the 3rd try at trying to convince them that it was a bad idea to commit federal felonies. But SMTM and “materialize the coin” arose in the midst of a complex, multi-way discussion of economics, employment, and intellectual property rights. I was trying to convey the idea that each employee must produce at least as much value as it costs to employ him — salary, benefits, taxes, over-head, insurance, etc., i.e. the coin (pronounced quan as in quantum, in part because I was living in a cave apartment with a Frenchified name, and this minimum value was a hard quantum below which they can’t employ you). On the IP front, I was putting forth the proposition that all property rights originate in a mental feat of creation of value. Over the course of the 1990s, my little bits found their ways into over 35 movies.

    The wild, exaggerated version used as “Rod” carried on in the kitchen and through the house came the next day, when I saw Crowe using my line as a sig to his posting. And, yes, it does feel good just to say it.

    “If I’ve got to ride your a** like Zorro, you’re going to show me the money.” came a few days later. The filming of “The Mask of Zorro” was held up and I’d heard of it on CNNHN; they’d had all of their costume swords seized at the border. And, besides, I wanted to plug the whole Zorro mythos. It took me about 20 minutes after I heard the news-blurb until I’d edited the line down so that it had the right sound and rhythm and serious tone and Crowe picked that up, also, and ran with it. (“Dorothy” had been in my Anthropology class.)

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  19. Rod Barlow 11 years ago

    Excellent read Rands. You inspired me to take reviews to the next level with my team. Further, the review sessions pivoted to a conversation.

    In my recent post, ‘Does Your Team Have Great Answers?’ I shared that my team members had really great answers to the career questions posed to them at review time. I propose that if your team members don’t have great answers to your questions, then you’re not doing a good job.