Lorelei is Zavvy's Content Marketing Manager. She is always on the hunt for the latest HR trends, fresh statistics, and academic and real-life best practices to spread the word about creating better employee experiences.
It is March 2012.
Donna Morris, then senior VP of Human Resources at Adobe, had just arrived in India to spend time in the Adobe offices. She has agreed to an interview with Economic Times, a leading Indian financial publication.
The reporter asks Morris what she would do to disrupt HR.
Jet-lagged from the long flight, she answers: "We plan to abolish the annual performance review format."
While this was an ongoing thought, she hadn't shared the idea yet with the management at Adobe!
However, this interview made headlines and set Adobe's transformation journey in motion, from doing a single annual review to doing frequent tech-backed feedback sessions.
The focus of these sessions is the growth and development of all Adobe employees.
Let's dive deep into how the world's leading software companies redefined performance reviews.
Adobe restructured its performance review system in 2012 and abolished the traditional performance review system.
The previous system was designed to conduct only one review.
Instead, they introduced a more frequent and less formal performance management system called 'Check-ins' that encouraged the regular exchange of feedback between the managers and employees.
The Check-in system draws inspiration from the concept of "pit stops in race car competitions."
Pit stops help the race team to refuel and service the vehicle so that the car is in peak racing condition.
Similarly, the Check-in system allowed employees to address their issues promptly.
"At a company that has talent as its currency essentially, the Check-in approach is the way for that talent to continuously optimize itself." Donna Morris, quoted in a Stanford Business article.
The check-in approach revolves around a 3-tier framework:
Goals and expectations represent the first step in Adobe's Check-in process, where managers and employees agree upon key results, objectives, and behaviors for the fiscal year:
Adobe has defined guidelines to execute each element in the framework for managers and employees, all of them bundled in a Check-in Toolkit.
Let's have a detailed look at how they implement this framework.
Managers drive the expectation-setting process.
An expectations-focused Check-in takes place at the beginning of Q1 to clarify objectives for the year ahead.
The employee is responsible for drafting appropriate goals aligning with each expectation and reviewing these regularly with their manager. Every employee should clearly understand their expectations and how they would evaluate their success against the expectations.
They create a one-page document highlighting expectations and corresponding goals.
The employee and their manager revisit and update this document throughout the year.
Managers also have the duty of regularly updating all employees with business context/changes/risks.
Stemming from this framework, Adobe evaluates performance according to the following criteria:
Following are the guidelines for Adobe's employees as they create the critical one-page expectations document:
Adobe's Check-in Toolkit clarifies the SMART goals framework:
"SPECIFIC: Who, what, where, when, and why of the achievement.
MEASURABLE: Clear measures of success, key metrics, and milestones.
ATTAINABLE: Achievable and also provides a stretch opportunity to develop and grow.
RELEVANT: Results focused, aligned to Org/BU priorities, and produces tangible results.
TIME-BOUND: A due date gives focus and a sense of urgency to the work."
The expectations worksheet filled in by the employees is the most critical part of Adobe's Performance reviews. All of the discussions, feedback, and consequent development plans result from this exercise.
Once employees fill in this worksheet in detail, keeping in mind Adobe's extensive framework, they also need to follow through with their managers.
Adobe recommends that employees follow through with the expectations worksheet exercise in the following ways:
Getting this right is as vital for managers as it is for employees.
The manager is responsible for empowering each employee to set the correct expectations to help them meet business and personal goals.
For this reason, Adobe has also issued a guideline for people managers at the "expectations" step:
Once employees duly fill out the expectations worksheet, the follow-through recommended for managers is as follows:
Below you can see what the template of Adobe's expectation worksheet typically looks like:
Managers and employees are accountable for giving and receiving feedback frequently.
Managers provide employees feedback on their performance, skills, expectations, goals, and development.
To ensure that feedback is productive, Adobe creates several single-page documents to help managers conduct the input.
The primary document, "Making Check-in Successful," provides the guidelines to form a frequent cadence of Check-ins and have productive meetings.
At Adobe, managers should give feedback by asking three primary questions:
On the other hand, employees should give managers feedback on their leadership skills to ensure that assessments are interactive and that there is two-way communication.
The feedback also covers the level of support the managers provide to the employees.
To make the feedback step productive for all involved, Adobe has created the following guidelines for employees:
During the feedback session, Adobe shares a framework for employees and managers to get the most out of these sessions. The framework has four focus areas:
Employees are encouraged to ask specific questions, such as:
Similarly, managers must provide specific observations and a follow-through plan. Some examples included in the tool kit are:
The recommendation for employees and managers is to pause, reflect and then respond.
Employees must ask for suggestions from managers to get actionable advice on behaviors and outcomes they can improve.
Managers, too, must ask open-ended questions to the employees to understand their perspectives. E.g., "If you could do it again, what would you do differently?"
Managers must consider the impact of their suggestions and feedback on employees and the business.
For example, they could let the employee know that by incorporating X feedback, they should expect to see Y level of improvement in an outcome.
Similarly, employees must contextualize the feedback they give or receive for overall personal and business impact.
The most critical part of these feedback sessions is to have a concrete "course of action" following the meeting.
Both employees and managers must mutually agree upon what needs to continue and what needs to change.
Some anchor questions could be:
Following this session, both managers and employees must follow through with action. Adobe recommends the following "follow-through" protocols for managers at this step:
Feedback check-ins happen at least once a quarter and, typically, are 60-90 minutes long.
In fact, both managers and employees are encouraged to give and receive feedback informally throughout the year, not just during the quarterly check-ins.
The caliber of its workforce has always been Adobe's pride.
As a software company, Adobe knows that employees are its greatest asset.
The current performance review system focuses specifically on the growth and development of the employees, and special meetings take place with the sole goal of discussing the employee's development.
The first two steps, expectation-setting and continuous feedback should facilitate the final step, employee development.
"Suggestions for further training, stretch assignments, rotations and other development opportunities should arise as part of these dialogues. It is emphasized to employees that they are their own career managers, and they should come to Check-in conversations with their own ideas for growth rather than expecting the manager to chart a course for them." Donna Morris in the World at Work Journal.
The check-in approach makes every employee accountable for driving conversations on their growth and development.
First, employees must identify growth opportunities and how they can grow in their current roles.
Then, employees can open up conversations for future growth by showing success in their current positions and demonstrating that they have upgraded their skill sets.
Managers should also understand their employees' skill sets and long-term goals for growth in the future to create relevant opportunities.
"If you Check-in as you go along the way, you get to see your progress, and that builds the momentum to go just one step further, and one step further, until that goal is achieved." A member of the Information Technology organization at Adobe quoted in a Stanford Business article.
Development Check-ins are driven by employees when they feel they've met their expectations, actively worked on feedback, and are on the right track.
Adobe recommends the following guidelines for employees at this stage:
The follow-through protocol for the employees is as follows:
Adobe recommends the following guidelines for managers at this stage:
Follow-through protocol for managers:
employees own the Development-focused Check-ins, so they can schedule them whenever appropriate. Development conversations may happen once or twice per year.
Rosemary Arriada-Keiper, Head of Rewards at Adobe, highlights the pillars of Adobe's compensation policy:
Before Morris visited India and gave an interview in which she hinted at redefining the performance review system, Adobe's annual review was quite traditional.
Each manager would collect instances of employee performance throughout the year, conduct 360-degree reviews, and document employee performance.
Then the manager assigned a rating to each employee, which would be categorized as follows:
In 2012, Adobe abolished annual performance reviews and ratings in favor of a less formal system called 'Check-ins.
Employees engaged instantly when Adobe communicated the update on the company's intranet.
"Employees devoured the post, making it one of the most-read pieces in the history of Adobe's intranet. Across the company, they engaged in a lively discussion about their dissatisfaction with the review process. [...] Employees were disenchanted about what they believed to be a lack of recognition for their contributions." Laszlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, in his book Work Rules.
The old performance review system disrupted teamwork since employees chased individual ratings instead of being a team-player.
Also, the once-a-year feedback wasn't very relevant as most of the work had been done two-three quarters ago.
Frequent and open conversations between managers and employees throughout the year would solve this problem.
So the concept of 'Check-in' was introduced.
"There was more risk associated with not making a change because the entire company was evolving, and our people practices needed to keep up with the pace." Donna Morris.
Here are the reasons why Adobe completely revamped their performance management system.
Adobe's annual performance review process used a grading system called stack ranking. Stack ranking ensured that no more than 15% of the employees could qualify as "high performer."
This process created unhealthy competition wherein employees became laser-focused on individual performances and worked towards being in the top 15%, sometimes at the team's expense.
The infrequency of feedback meetings created many problems. The annual review process didn't identify and resolve issues in real-time. The once-a-year feedback often impacted employee morale and focused more on past performances than future growth.
In contrast, the Check-in approach encourages ongoing conversations and support from the managers to ensure that employees achieve success and meet their objectives.
"Feedback and ongoing conversations between managers and employees are at the heart of what makes check-ins successful - both to ensure employees have the clarity they need to be successful in their roles and to support their career growth." Gloria Chen, Chief People Officer and EVP, Employees Experience.
Employees were laser-focused on their rank rather than the qualitative feedback they received. Nobody liked a ranking that fell short of "exceeds expectations." Employees especially dreaded the "meets expectations" grade. Hence there was a high voluntary attrition rate after the performance reviews.
"Our people were asking for change. Our company was transforming and moving faster than ever. It was time to take a hard look at those traditional people processes and shake things up for the benefit of our employees and Adobe overall.
We hire exceptional people, we don't want to label them. We want to focus on motivating and inspiring each individual to bring his/her best to the company." Donna Morris, Forget Reviews, Let's Look Forward.
Reflecting on the tangible benefits of taking a new approach to performance, Donna Morris estimated that eliminating the traditional appraisal process has saved over 100,000 hours of managers' time and decreased voluntary attrition.
"Some wonder how we're able to manage lower-performing employees without a heavy process, but actually, we're doing better.
We've seen an increase in involuntary attrition, which means we're doing a better job of identifying and communicating when people aren't meeting expectations." Donna Morris in 2017: The Year Performance Reviews Get the Axe.
Adobe was one of the first companies to abolish the annual reviews and switch to a tech-based frequent performance review process.
"Ultimately, we need to accomplish three things: review contributions, reward accomplishments, and give and receive feedback.
Do they need to be conflated into a cumbersome process? I don't think so.
It's time to think radically differently, simplify our process and improve our impact. My view is that we need to transform from a once-a-year review to an ongoing process of feedback" Donna Morris, in the original Adobe blog released via its intranet.
With its' people-first culture, Adobe took this radical decision after conducting several internal surveys and polls.
Here's how the performance reviews at Adobe stand out.
The two-way conversations help resolve any issues between the managers and employees, and they motivate each other to raise the bar and create a high-performance culture.
"The more positive and constructive tone set with the Check-in resulted in more motivated employees who were able to embrace the challenges Adobe faced as a business." Donna Moris in the World at Work Journal.
It's very important that the employees align with the company's expectations from their skill sets and set their goals in sync with these expectations.
Adobe realized that the company could grow if its employees could thrive. Taking up new skills, donning new hats, and finding other opportunities which fit the newly acquired skills are encouraged across all teams. Managers receive guidelines to conduct frequent growth and development meetings.
"From a performance management perspective, since the implementation of the Check-in process, turnover attributed as non-regrettable and involuntary attrition has increased by about 2%–3%, which the company considers a positive outcome.
Under the previous annual review model, managers typically addressed poor performance at the end of the year when the process forced them to do so. With Check-in, managers are more actively managing performance on an ongoing basis, leading to active performance management (terminations) when needed and many underperforming employees choosing to leave after open discussions with their managers." Donna Moris in the World at Work Journal.
Zavvy lets you run a performance review process like Adobe.
The process is simple. Here is a step-by-step breakdown.
You can easily replicate Adobe's frequent check-in ritual using Zavvy.
Zavvy allows managers and employees to set up a 1:1 cadence with their managers.
Here's a snapshot of the manager dashboard for their team, as well as the check-in cadence they can set up.
Managers can set the frequency, day, and recurring questions and agenda for their 1:1 cadence.
Additionally, with the "Conversations that matter" connection program, Both manager and employee get paired.
Zavvy sends all involved automated reminders. And the manager could get the checklist as a separate message/reminder.
Pressing questions like "recent achievements," "radical honesty," and "priorities for next week" can be asked through this feature.
To replicate Adobe's candor in conducting the three-step check-in process, you can name the check-in according to the agenda, i.e., Expectation Setting, Feedback, or Growth and Development.
You can also use the feature to "Customize your recurring Check-in agenda" with some of the questions from Adobe's detailed process.
Zavvy can help you replicate each step of the 3-point check-in at Adobe.
For example, in the feedback check-in agenda, you can incorporate questions such as: What is ONE thing that I do effectively? How does this impact the larger business context?
Following the expectation-setting check-in, Adobe focuses on feedback and the "Individual Development Plan."
With Zavvy's "Growth Cycles" feature, you can model a development plan similar to this process at Adobe.
Employees can create individual development plans and submit them to the manager for feedback.
Based on this, managers and employees can come together with the final version.
For example, based on frequent manager assessments, employees can extract actionable insights from the "My Feedback" view and add them to their development plan.
You can also create a career development framework to fast-track the growth of high-potential employees.
A role card will represent one of the levels of a career framework, for example, from junior sales manager to mid-level sales manager to senior sales manager.
This approach will give your employees a clear path for continuous learning and career growth.
Adobe uses five leadership criteria to assess leadership capabilities among their people, at the employee, manager, and director levels:
"A key leadership capability that we have identified is the focus on role modeling Check-in.
Adobe leaders are held accountable for establishing challenging yet attainable performance expectations; role-modeling Check-ins; providing clear and timely feedback, and coaching others on their performance.
We have provided a very simple framework for leaders to use and tailor to fit their personalities and the culture of their teams." Donna Morris, Lessons Learned with Check-in.
Adobe invests in its managers' training to further ensure overall employee well-being.
These are skills that you can nurture with Zavvys learning experience features:
1. You can easily create self-paced learning journeys that your managers can go through at their convenience.
For example, you can assign our Microlessons on Leadership to managers to study at their convenience. This program will help:
2. You can enable peer learning among your leaders like Freeletics' People Manager Roundtable.
The leadership roundtable brings together leaders from different departments every six weeks. Two facilitators are responsible for picking a topic and preparing the session for every group. To do so, they follow a step-by-step process on Zavvy.
3. You can share the learning materials in a digestible and easy-to-consume format via email or daily slack nudges.
Small challenges and reminders motivate ongoing behavioral change. This feature would be essential for equipping your leaders with the skillsets to accurately coach and assess their team members and techniques for giving constructive feedback.
For you to properly train your managers to conduct an accurate expectation framework with their employees, you can create a customized training journey with recurring reminders, as well as bits of knowledge that will replicate Adobe's process:
Doing this enables your leaders to become more effective coaches while training them on a performance review process.
Zavvy's learning scientists created a training journey, "How to give constructive and effective feedback."
So, you could assign a pre-designed training course to your entire workforce with just a click.
Zavvy literally takes care of everything else for you.
Some more features that make Zavvy stand out in conducting industry-standard performance reviews:
Combining technology with research rooted in the best people management practices, Zavvy can improve performance outcomes across leading organizations worldwide.
If you’re looking for a way to provide more meaningful feedback and better develop your people, book a free 30-minute demo with Zavvy.
Our experts will show you how to craft the best performance review system that enhances your organization's productivity and motivates your talents.