Revolutionize Performance Assessments with One Simple Change

“The Big Five” Could Have a Huge Impact on Your Company’s Performance

A Sickening Feeling

It was 20 years ago at JPMorgan Chase. I was an operations manager navigating in what felt like a literal landslide of work. The federal government changed the criteria for qualifying as a mortgage loan custodian and suddenly Chase Bank was the only option for many mortgage lenders—one of those magical confluences of situations that we all hope to find ourselves; until we actually find ourselves there. We hired 95 loan reviewers and took custody of about three times our normal volume, all in the space of a couple of months. I coped by working 70 hours a week — and by throwing up every morning in my front yard before I came to work. No kidding. But I digress, the topic is performance assessment.

Small Change, Big Difference

I worked for a really great manager at the time and suspect he, too, visited his front yard on a daily basis. As good as he was, I was not sure he knew what I was going through or fully appreciated what my team was accomplishing. It may have been my ambitious nature or just plain self-defense but I started sending him a simple, half-page, emailed status report detailing our volumes, our most significant accomplishments for the past month, and our highest priorities for the next month. He liked it! Not only did it allow him to get a better handle on his span-of-control but it helped me to focus, better manage my time and my team’s efforts, and frankly, gave me a little hope that we were making progress against what seemed like a wall of impossible volumes and deadlines.

Born from Innovation

We not only survived those challenges but became one of the preeminent mortgage custody banks in the country. And I kept creating “The Big Five” for my managers. Throughout the years, most of them encouraged me to continue and some have even adopted the process for everyone in their departments. And here is the really cool part. Only recently have I realized that these simple, monthly reports, when grouped together after 12 months, create an effective and efficient chronicle of an employee’s contribution. When properly structured, Big Five Performance Management can totally replace traditional, annual performance assessment! So, how does it work?

How The Big Five Works

Each month, by the fifth calendar day of the month, employees submit a simple email or form, detailing their five most significant accomplishments from last month and their five highest priorities for the next month. There is nothing magical about five. A report with 3-7 items in each category works, depending on the organizational climate. The beauty of the process is in its simplicity, however, and experience has shown that five is about the “right” number. The line items are reported in bullet point format, not lengthy narratives, and companies can customize the format to include a number of other key elements including volume statistics, scrap rates, sales, quality, safety, etc.

Upon receipt of these reports, the manager’s job is to read and respond, thanking employees for their contributions, encouraging their efforts when appropriate, and sharing the most significant of the items upstream. Managers also use the report to provide guidance and course corrections for future activity.

The Managerial Response

Generally speaking, managers respond—once again in bullet point fashion—to about half of the items the employee reports. Some months, especially with high performers, the manager may be able to reply with a simple, “Well done! Go get ‘em,” type response. Other months will require some serious, face-to-face coaching that cannot be accomplished with a simple bullet point.

Still, on average, the employee spends about 10 minutes per month on this process and a manager with eight direct reports will spend about an hour a month responding. Compare that to the research that shows managers in Fortune 500 settings today spend somewhere between 200 and 400 hours on the traditional, annual process.

What are the Benefits?

Some of the benefits of this process are obvious. Managers can generally save well over 50% of the time that they would normally spend on the traditional process and Big Five requires no heavy systems or software infrastructure. That makes it ideal for small to mid-sized businesses that cannot make significant IT investments. That does not mean that larger companies are out of luck. Most performance management systems I am familiar with can be easily adapted to accommodate Big Five.

There are Some Challenges

Some of the benefits are not so obvious.

Admittedly, some employees will groan at the prospect of having to complete monthly reports. After all, the appraisal process is universally disliked, even though it is completed only once or twice a year. “You now want us to do it monthly?” Believe it or not, a curious thing happens when you empower employees to write their own monthly accomplishments and priorities. They begin to embrace the process, taking pride in their accomplishments and loudly announcing the accomplishment of their latest “Big Five” from their cubicles to any co-worker within earshot. It is the equivalent of “ringing the bell” in a sales environment.

And yes, there can be challenges getting some employees to take the process seriously, just like there are challenges getting them to take the traditional process seriously. Worst case, dealing with “that” employee will take much less time than in traditional appraisal.

The Pros Outweigh the Cons

The other benefits of Big Five Performance Management are summarized below.

  • The monthly frequency of the report forgives a multitude of the annual process sins. Feedback is more timely (especially important to Millennials who are accustomed to high tech, instant feedback); priorities can now be adjusted to keep up with the speed of change; and employees can no longer wait until appraisal time nears to pick up their pace.
  • Big Five creates coaching! Most managers worry about “carving out time” to train, develop, and coach their employees. Big Five creates, on average, 120 documented, coachable moments per year per employee (10 accomplishments/priorities a month for 12 months). Forget about that separate coaching initiative you are launching. Big Five kills the proverbial two birds with one amazing stone.
  • Big Five serves as an excellent time management tool. I have kept my Big Five lists on my whiteboard in my office as a continual reminder of what I have said were my most important priorities for the month. This forces personal accountability. I have stayed at work until 8:00 PM on some occasions on the fourth day of the month, just so I did not have to give myself an “incomplete” on the fifth. And yes, sometimes items cannot be completed due to unexpected circumstances or interruptions. When this happens, Big Five helps to simply move those priorities to the next month, keeping them from totally disappearing off my radar.

OK. Has this piqued your interest in Big Five? If not, enjoy your traditional, annual performance appraisal process. If it gets really tedious, remember that throwing up in your front yard before you come to work might be a viable coping strategy.




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