How does agile performance management facilitate continuous learning?

“Historically, performance management has been largely top-down, with managers handing down goals for performance and learning. As businesses seek to foster a culture of autonomy and self-directed learning, it is important to allow individual employees to have input into the process.”

– Jörg Koberling

In 2012, Adobe was navigating massive changes to their business model and approach to product development. Not coincidentally, their traditional approach to performance management, which centered around annual reviews, presented a clear barrier to adapting to these changes. As Donna Morris, Adobe’s Senior Vice President of Customer and Employee Experience, wrote:

“Annual reviews had to be eliminated if we were going to be as productive and agile as a company as we needed to be. Adobe was evolving as a company and its practices had to reflect the changes: agility, ongoing innovation, and team orientation.”

A new approach emerged which was branded the “Check-In”: a process that centers around having regular conversations with managers (at minimum once a quarter) to reflect on progress and performance, provide ongoing feedback, and set goals for the following period. A Resource Center was created to provide support for both managers and individual performers with tools and other resources to facilitate the process.

This shift to a more agile approach to performance management led to a number of valuable outcomes for Adobe, including improvements in attracting and retaining talent and significant growth of the business. Morris is convinced that moving away from the annual performance review played a key role in these advancements.

Many other prominent organizations followed Adobe’s lead in making this shift, including Microsoft, General Electric, and Accenture. Many others across industries are becoming aware of the need for a new approach that fits better with the need for continuous learning and performance improvement.

While there is arguably no one-size-fits-all alternative to traditional performance management, there are a few high-level characteristics that can help us begin to make this important shift and find the right approach for our teams. Let’s explore these characteristics and how they fit into the bigger picture of leading continuous learning.

Shorter review cycles

The main problem with the annual review is that in these days of rapid change, individuals require more continuous support to remain oriented on their developmental path. It becomes harder and harder to project a year into the future as we face more uncertainty.

The one thing just about every alternative to traditional performance management has in common is more frequent reviews.  Just as agile approaches to product development center around a more iterative approach, allowing for continuous reflection and improvement, so does an agile approach to learning and performance.

More self-direction

It could be argued that there have always been serious problems with performance appraisals that focus on external feedback and direction. Consider the following from the article Kill your performance ratings by David Rock, Josh Davis, and Beth Jones:

The performance management systems in many companies are misleading, cumbersome, and complex, requiring some HR departments to put aside an entire quarter to manage them. More important, they can be counterproductive. In the context of neuroscience research, most PM practices turn out to damage the performance they are intended to improve. That’s because they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of human responses, as revealed in recurring patterns of mental activity.

The result of all this? People feel unappreciated. They become more conservative. They set their goals low to ensure that they are seen as succeeding. They retreat from candid conversations about development, because the whole issue of progress and feedback is so emotionally charged. The experience becomes one of ‘ticking a box.’ There is little of the type of conversation that actually promotes personal growth.”

As the nature of our work shifts, the existing weaknesses of such systems become more apparent and costly. Even where they worked relatively well in the past, demands of the modern world are calling for an approach that gives individuals more autonomy and responsibility for their own development. The reason is arguably straightforward: the more uncertainty and complexity we face, the more ineffective top-down control becomes.

This is what renowned management consultant Peter Drucker refers to when he writes, “knowledge workers are people that know more about their work than their bosses do.” In the industrial era, this was not the case. Workers could be effectively managed with top-down clarity. In the current era, this approach to leadership is less and less effective. Things are moving too quickly for managers to keep up with changes on every level. Increasingly, the individual must be empowered and supported to keep their finger on the pulse of movements within their own domain and make their own decisions.

As General Electric’s Raghu Krishnamoorthy, who is responsible for the GE Management Development Institute, recently said: “Command and control is what Jack [Welch, former CEO] was famous for. Now it’s about connection and inspiration.” GE is undergoing a profound shift in how they are managing performance, using mobile technology to give individuals the tools for setting goals, requesting feedback, and setting up “touchpoints” with managers, which are very similar to Adobe’s “check-ins.”

Author and consultant Carol Sanford argues that we need to move away from systems that rely on external feedback, toward equipping individuals with the tools and skills they need to manage their own performance. In her book No More Feedback, she writes:

“The primary assumption is that an individual is less able to be objective about their own experience than someone else, which echoes the lessons of the machine and behavioral worldviews… But these biases and attachments can be overcome, or reframed, with the development of a particular set of skills… Developing these skills in ourselves and others is one of the most urgent needs and greatest opportunities of our day.”

We will explore what these particular skills consist of in a future post, but for now, it’s worth highlighting that this shift in our approach to performance management requires that we fill some critical skill gaps. In doing so, we begin to equip individual team members with the ability to effectively reflect on their own experience, come to conclusions about where they need to focus energy moving forward, and take action to improve their performance.

It also requires that as leaders, we work to shift from the machine and behavioral worldviews which Sanford points to, toward what she and others describe as the living systems view. This shift can be characterized as one from seeing organizations as ultimately predictable and controllable, to seeing them as complex adaptive systems which are ultimately unpredictable. Managing change within such systems resembles something closer to facilitation than traditional management, where ultimate control is no longer a viable goal.

Dialog over directive

This new approach to leadership, more aligned with a living systems perspective and more effective in a complex and changing environment, represents another critical skill gap for many managers. Within the context of agile performance management, managers need to be supported to sit down with their team members on a regular basis and have an open and honest conversation with them about their performance and their goals for improvement.

In one recent poll, participants were asked about the barriers to making a shift from annual performance reviews to more frequent check-ins. 60% of respondents identified that they were “worried about encouraging managers to have more meaningful conversations.” This may seem a bit strange at first glance, but perhaps it is understandable—more meetings is often perceived as more wasted time. In other words, there is doubt these interactions would be either meaningful or valuable.

From the “old” perspective, sitting down with your boss to talk about your performance is something to be avoided at all costs. It’s uncomfortable for everyone involved and as discussed, often fails to produce valuable insights. Everyone hates it. So the challenge, while not minor, is to transform this experience into one that engages, motivates, informs, inspires, and helps to form close and meaningful relationships between individual contributors and their managers.

What does such an experience look like? First and foremost, it is learner-centric. It’s far more about developing the individual’s perspective than it is about delivering the manager’s feedback. It  is about support rather than judgement; it should feel more like a collaboration between peers than an external appraisal.

Developing and supporting managers to lead such conversations is a key strategic focus. This may involve coaching skills such as asking questions, active listening, and holding space for reflection with empathy and a non-judgmental attitude. Formal learning experiences such as workshops or courses might serve this goal in part, but it’s important to see that these are skills that are developed primarily through experience and exposure. Tools and templates can be provided for managers, along with ongoing coaching and mentorship. 

While those of us in HR or L&D roles have an important part to play in enabling this shift, it is an appropriate moment to highlight that managers and leaders on all levels of the organization have equally important roles to play. That brings us to our third principle of leading continuous learning:

Principle #3

Continuous learning is enabled by agile performance management, facilitated through regular coaching conversations with leaders.

Supporting continuous performance improvement

There has been a growing buzz amongst learning professionals around the need for focusing on performance in our work. After all, it’s not what our learners know that creates value—it’s what they do.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of sitting down with Charles Jennings, former CLO of Reuters-Thomson and co-founder of the 70:20:10 Institute. In our conversation he talked about the performance mindset:

“We’re looking at how the learning function moves toward becoming an integral part of creating value in the organization… moving from thinking about content to context, or content to experience—designing and supporting experiences which provide learning… we need to start to think like our internal clients, to think about what problem it is that they’re looking to solve, and then co-create solutions with them.”

An agile approach to performance management can serve as a good foundation for designing complementary performance improvement solutions. For example, creating competency models for specific jobs provides the opportunity for individuals to self-assess their skills and performance and create individual development plans (IDPs) to guide continuous learning. These plans can serve as a tool to facilitate conversations, or “check-ins,” with leaders or coaches, where individuals can reflect on their progress and set new goals.

In many organizations, competency models may not exist for certain jobs, or they may need some work to accurately reflect reality. This presents a challenge, especially when things are changing. Yet it also represents an opportunity for learning professionals to add value by helping to paint a clearer picture of what individuals need to do, as well as what skills, knowledge, and attitudes they need in order to perform on the job.

The process of developing good models requires some investigation. Especially in today’s climate, many routes to target performance are hidden from plain sight. This is where learning leaders can put on their performance consultant hats and work to clarify the key outcomes, processes, and tasks that relate to the performance gaps standing in the way of reaching organizational goals. In doing so, they work to shift the learning function into the role that Charles Jennings describes above: adding more value by strategically helping our clients to solve their most important problems.

An important risk to beware of is getting wrapped up in the weeds of the many tasks involved in any given job. For this reason, an effective strategy for clarifying competencies works backward from high-level goals to the details, as outlined below.

1) Align key outcomes with organizational goals.

What are your organization’s strategic goals? What are the key outcomes produced by this job that contribute to these goals? An outcome should be framed using a noun: it is the thing that is produced through the work. For example, it could be a report, a product, a service, an experience, etc. These are the deliverables on which performance is ultimately measured. By beginning with organizational goals, you ensure you are focused on the most important outcomes for any given job.

2) Break down key outcomes

One approach to breaking down outcomes centers around interviewing and observing “key performers.” In doing so, we can shine a light on best practices within a given job as well as surface insights related to enablers and barriers to performance. Inspired by the Performance DNA methodology, which focuses on working to understand top performers rather than under-performers, this part of the process involves mapping out the processes and tasks related to producing each of the key outcomes. In doing so, you will highlight the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to perform each task.

3) Analyze influences on performance

While the first two steps may be sufficient for creating an accurate competency model, this also presents a valuable opportunity to use the data gathered to identify other factors that may be either enabling or hindering target performance. For example, borrowing from the Performance DNA Influence Analysis toolkit, here are some categories of influences we can consider:

    • General workplace structure and environment
    • Learning, development, and training programs
    • Factors affecting personal motivation
    • The overall structure and support of management
    • The factors involved in hiring and selecting personnel (acquisition of talent)
    • The critical tools and technologies used in the creation of outcomes

It is likely that in interviewing key performers, you will have some idea of what factors are influencing performance and will be able to form an initial hypothesis. This can then be tested through additional conversations aimed at specific categories of influences, generating clarity around enablers and barriers to performance. In doing so, as learning leaders we can take a more holistic approach to facilitating continuous performance improvement by considering all contributing factors rather than assuming that the problem is always a lack of formal training.

Integration with agile performance management

The process outlined above (at a high level) is designed to produce two key outcomes:

1) Competency frameworks for specific jobs which can be leveraged for performance management as well as role definition for recruitment and hiring purposes.

2) Insights to inform performance improvement interventions which may include formal training as well as solutions such as job aids, performance support tools, changes to workplace structure, changes to management practices, knowledge management practices, changes in tools and technology, and/or changes to talent management practices, to name a few. Backed up by the data we have generated through our analysis, we are in a position to make well-supported recommendations to senior leadership and garner the buy-in and resources needed to implement solutions that strategically target the root causes of critical performance gaps.

As mentioned, competency frameworks can be used to facilitate regular reflection on the individual level, as well as guide conversations with managers. This may include a self-assessment of individual skills and competencies on the part of the individual, though support is often needed for this to be effective.

A previous personal experience highlights this need. Some years ago, I was working with a medium-size organization developing competency models for individual roles. As part of a pilot group, we asked everyone to self-assess their current levels of competency. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a clear tendency to rate themselves as highly competent when in many cases they were relatively new to a particular task or skill.

For the next group, we kicked off the process with a virtual workshop followed by a short online module that led to the self-assessment.  A large part of this initiative involved laying the cultural foundation for continuous learning and the key values that drive the process. Another part helped them become aware of some of our natural biases that lead to overestimating our abilities, especially when we have a little experience with something but not very much (known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect). The primary goal was to support them to be honest with themselves and their managers about where they were with each competency.

With the context more clearly defined, participants offered far more accurate assessments of their current skills and performance. This led to more meaningful conversations with their managers and clearer goals about where they needed to focus energy and attention moving forward. While managers still had an opportunity to share their perspectives, their feedback was not the primary driver. On the contrary, individuals were supported to come to their own conclusions, which led to owning their decisions about how they wanted to learn and develop in their roles.

Generating and collecting insights

Wearing our performance consultant hats, as learning leaders we have the opportunity to dig in deeper to better understand the work that is being done and the performance gaps we need to close in order to meet our goals. Yet it can also be argued that this upfront-analysis-heavy process has its limitations in a faced-paced environment. As things change, it may not be feasible nor effective to engage in this process of deep-dive analysis on a regular basis.

We can look to leverage the regular conversations managers are having with their team members to provide a more continuous stream of insights and updates. For example, we might find that competency frameworks need to be updated. We might also discover emerging enablers or barriers to performance that can feed our strategic thinking and planning. While there is often a place for comprehensive analysis, it benefits most when supported by a more agile and continuous process.

To reiterate, a primary factor to success is in equipping managers to lead the conversations that are at the heart of this process. Part of their role can involve collecting and sharing key insights that emerge, to inform learning leaders who are responsible for updating tools and providing solutions to enable performance. This highlights the need for the learning leaders and managers to work more closely and collaboratively than in the past.


For continuous learning to be effective, it should be performance-centered. When we start with and work backward from the organization’s primary goals, learning becomes more than a “nice-to-have.” Rather, it shifts to a critical and strategic part of how the organization does what it aims to do.

Part of the challenge relates to the ever-shifting nature of work in the modern world. This new reality is exposing the limits of more traditional approaches to leadership and performance management, which were designed for slower and more predictable environments. Now, managers increasingly struggle to keep up with the needs and realities of those working under them, which makes it difficult for them to “command and control” as was common in the past. A new approach is needed.

The emerging ways of working and managing performance, by necessity, give individuals more autonomy and responsibility. More and more, only they can understand their jobs to the degree necessary to make important decisions about where changes are needed. Managers are shifting into more of a support role, leading conversations that provide individual contributors with opportunities to reflect, share, and decide on next steps moving forward. The faster things change, the more frequently these types of conversations need to happen.

Making this shift is no simple task, but it is a critical step for any modern organization. Even those who were notably successful with the more traditional approaches of the past, such as GE, are now transitioning to more agile approaches to performance management and continuous improvement. It often involves important changes in culture and mindset, along with the letting go of some old ways of doing things, as well as the letting come of more agile practices.

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Tom Palmer