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Seeing Learning As Performance, part 1

Let's talk about performance reviews [1]. Consistently, performance reviews have been uncomfortable for me. I feel awkward about the standard questions used in reviews and in self-assessments and don't want to go through the process. Yet they are a common feature and they keep happening so if performance is going to be reviewed, I would like to make it meaningful. What should "performance" mean then, and what does it suggest about my career advancement?


As a coder, my performance could take the form of having done some work. Let's say I built some features and I fixed some bugs. This is the 'what' of the work. That is why I get a paycheck, but says nothing obvious about how valuable I have been to the product, to the team, or to the organization.

Should you gauge my performance by the particular work done? How did the work I completed get selected? Did I choose politically sensitive work to garner recognition and did I appear to succeed in the work? For piece work this may be less of a concern but for knowledge workers it seems like this thinking isn't what we should incentivize.

Another measure of the value is in 'how' I did the work. I'd like to suggest that how I do the work, specifically what I learned from doing the work, is a better indicator of performance and value to the organization. This could be a basis for performance review and considering recognition for achievements (and if your org does titles maybe this can be valuable in marking advancement in titles too [2]).

Learning as Performance

One of the rewards of working on software is that there are a lot of opportunities to solve new problems all the time --variety! A former coworker once observed (I paraphrase) that our job is to be struggling, to be challenged. As soon as we overcome one challenge, there is another one waiting for us and it's time to move on to that.

If we are going to spend the great majority of our time struggling through that next thing, it makes sense that we will feel our productivity ebb and flow as we charge through the open to the next blockade, then slow to circumvent it. We can mark our professional development in part by our raw productivity, but the greater part of our professional growth comes from the breakthroughs.

If my daily routine is going to be one continuous learning process, and that learning is the function by which I increase my technical capabilities and productivity, then this is a fair measure of my increasing value as an employee to the organization. If my organization values individual capability and productivity increasing the same throughout the team and the organization, let's think about how we can reflect that in setting career paths, marking achievements, and conducting performance reviews.

What could be gained by looking through the lense of learnings?

By including, or possibly centering on, learnings in performance reviews, we can discuss all of our work in non-threatening terms of insights and lessons and discoveries rather than letting the hard times be seen as oversights, failures, or mistakes. We can also acknowledging the professional growth on each individual by talking about individual learning and achievements.

In the next part I will explore ways to recognize and keep track of the individual learnings so they are available at performance review time.

[1] Wikipedia, Performance Appraisal
[2] Rands in Repose blog: Titles are Toxic: