The first few weeks of the year can bring fairly different paces to a startup. Some companies left for the holidays with their Q1 planning set and they are slowly ramping up steadily from the holidays to execute. Other orgs are just starting to get their Q1 and year-long plans set for 2020. The start of the year is upon us, and so the one thing both of those organizations have in common is that they are probably gearing up for performance reviews. Whether you are kicking off the cobwebs or you’re hustling and struggling to clear some downtime to write, here are my tips for making the most out of the practice.

The Practice

If you are a part of an org that is able to invest in the growth of its employees, you should have a review cycle. Reflection is a prerequisite of growth, and it’s important to set aside adequate time to reflect. A performance review should give time for both the manager and their employees to take a look back at a good chunk of time to find patterns, understand progress, and tell a story for that employee and what they are accomplishing as a part of the org.

There are a few different flavors of performance reviews that differ from place to place. Annual, biannual, and quarterly are common cadences. Some orgs focus solely on the employee’s self-review and the manager’s review; others will add in a peer review component. Some companies will run a review process driven by the people team, while others will just ask managers to make sure they’re having a conversation at the end of each year.

There is a common fallacy that performance reviews are unnecessary because managers should be giving employees feedback all the time. The belief is that the manager should not wait until performance reviews to deliver feedback. The idea of immediate feedback is a fantastic idea in both theory and practice. However, this argument creates a false dichotomy between just-in-time feedback and performance reviews. Just-in-time feedback is crucial for encouraging more immediate growth and stemming the tide of floundering skillsets. Performance reviews act as a way to see patterns and progress over time. There is a story to be told between an employee and the larger team that is difficult to tell when an employee is only receiving timely feedback. Used correctly, both forms of feedback can coexist wonderfully.

The Preparation

Before writing your reviews, there is an act of self-analysis and research that needs to be done. Writing reviews can be a taxing activity, particularly because, by its nature, it works out a muscle you don’t use often. Plan more time than you think you’ll need. Also, make sure to break up the activity. Can you really research, outline, and write for four hours straight? And will the fourth hour be as productive as you think?

Your research stage will vary depending on if and how peer reviews are done in your organization. If peer reviews are not a part of the process, you’ll want to bake in some more time to connect with the folks with which your team members work closely. Ask your team members’ peers out for coffee. Try and get a cross-functional range of feedback by talking with PMs, designers, and other engineers, and get their perspective on the growth and areas for growth of your team member. With the chaos or slowdown that the start of your year may bring, plan some extra time for this. If peer reviews are a part of your company’s review process, ensure that you will have access to these peer reviews before you need to have yours completed. If you won’t, you’ll want to run through the above process anyway.

With your peer feedback in hand, it’s time to gather your first-person artifacts. Go through pull requests and JIRA tickets the engineer worked on throughout the year. Review your one on one notes to remind yourself of context and the lift or drag that the employee was operating under over the course of the year. Identify the various ways that your engineers could have received feedback over the year and collate these. You want to gather your ingredients before you start cooking so you can move from a research mindset to a writing mindset.

The Outline

You’re in a great spot! You have everything you need to write some really great, impactful reviews. At this stage, there’s a decent chance your org has set up the questions that make up your team member’s review. Bring up these questions, read through them, but then take a pause. If you’re in a fast growing company, there’s a good chance this year’s performance review questions and template is different than last year’s and will be different than next year’s. Performance reviews are already a pretty tough skill to grow since you only get so much practice; there’s no use in making this harder on yourself by changing your approach every year.

I recommend crafting your own outline of a performance review for your team member. Identify the high-level points that are worth discussing in a performance review and fill this out before you do any writing on your company’s own template. The benefit here is to give you the same lens to look through this team member every review cycle regardless of how the company may change and regardless of whether and when you change companies.

There are a few key things to consider when putting together your outline. Start by separating it out into two sections: Looking Back and Looking Ahead. For Looking Back, make it a point to list out your team members’ accomplishments. Get to three, max out at four, and worry if you ever write five. The goal here is to list out their top accomplishments that you can reference in your company’s review. If you can, pull out some quotes from their peer feedback. You’ll want to sprinkle these into the review as well. For Looking Ahead, list out two to three areas your team member can improve in over the next year. For each of these, try and highlight an opportunity or two coming up where the team member can grow in the areas you suggested above.

The Writing

With your outline written, you should be in a pretty good place. All the signal you want to convey to your team member is here. The only thing left is to tie it together. But while the finish line may seem close, don’t try and cram this last step in at the end. Writing will take a focus and likely work a part of your brain a bit differently than meetings, one on ones, coding or any other project work. Anticipate needing some breaks as you pick up each team members’ outline and write out their review.

Once you have something written, you’ve likely been putting it together for some time. I like to apply the One Sleep rule here. Try and take at least until the next day before you review one last time and submit. In this last pass, reference your notes to make sure that anything you’ve cut is ok to be cut, make sure you don’t have any inconsistencies, and touch up any grammar. Remember that your team member is either anxious about the review, excited about it, dreading it or experiencing any other mix of emotions. In other words, they’re feeling a way about it. They’ve put together work since the last review, and you want to be able to honor that work with the best feedback you can offer. The last touch always helps.

At this point, you should have reviews written. Congratulations! You’re a third of the way there. Next time, I’ll review the next step: delivering the performance review. Best of luck in your review writing this year!