People Development-as-a-service

This post is a organisational design case study of applying service design to internal organisational services — in this instance, appraisals. It covers:

  • Designing a new appraisals process with employees
  • Low-fidelity and live prototyping of an internal service, including what didn’t work
  • Some out of scope things we got excited about (people development-as-a-service, culture change in internal teams and self-management)

I led the project with With You’s People and Culture teams in early 2019. We Are With You (formerly Addaction) is a national charity that supports people who have issues with drugs, alcohol or mental health. The project was a team effort with Alice, Marina, Ricky, Lizzy and Eben.

The project brief: How might we have better and more frequent appraisals, so that our people keep developing the capabilities we need to deliver brilliant services for our clients?

The challenge

In early 2019, We Are With You had recently launched their bold strategy, which relied on good people development: staff with the ability to adapt and learn new skills to improve recovery services and scale reach and impact. However, We Are With You’s existing appraisals process (“Individual Performance and Development Plan”, or “IPDP”) was not supporting people to develop:

  • One appraisal conversation per year was not frequent enough to support development
  • There was variation in the quality of appraisals. Some were two hour face-to-face conversations about career progression, others were short exchanges over email
  • IPDP had a ratings system, linked to pay, but humans are unreliable raters of other humans (many companies are ditching performance ratings). The collection of IPDP ratings data involved the People team chasing a lot of very busy service managers, which was time-consuming
  • The IPDP form was long, 6+ pages, and designed in a top-down way, with requirements from We Are With You’s Head Office that didn’t make sense in a local service context. We heard things like: “It’s not nice that [the forms are] pre-written” and that IPDP comes from “the system”, “from above”. I even observed that people’s body language became closed and agitated when they talked about IPDP. It was clear that this process had to change.

What I did

Reframed the brief

I reframed the brief from: “how might we have better appraisals” to “how might we have better conversations about development?”. An appraisal is not really a process, or a series of documents. An appraisal is a human conversation about a person’s longer-term development, how they will get there and what support they need. A We Are With You Service Manager put it well:

“[An appraisal] is not about what it says on some piece of paper. It’s about the overall view of that person: are they being a good employee, are they a good drugs worker? Do they have team spirit, how far have they come? Have they taken on new projects, what are their successes?”

Desk research to create early prototypes

Organisational design is often hypothesis-led design, because there’s a lot of existing research into what works, organisations tend to experience similar problems and you can’t understand a complex system like an organisation unless you interact with it. Starting from scratch with open discovery is often inefficient. Combining the evidence-base and We Are With You’s needs, I defined “good conversations about development” as:

  • Manager-as-coach, with ownership of the conversation belonging to the person having the appraisal
  • The conversation results in stretch goals with clear success measures, linked to organisational objectives and outcomes for service users
  • Taking a creative approach to designing development opportunities (rather than defaulting to expensive formal training)

Our hypothesis was that both the people having an appraisal and their managers would need support to move from an annual IPDP conversation to a more frequent, coaching-led conversation. We guessed that two artifacts might be useful to support those conversations:

  1. A short guide to having good conversations about development
  2. A shared notes template for both parties to capture notes from the conversation

To embed greater ownership by the person having the appraisal, I made the following design decisions:

  • Keeping shared notes in a Google Doc for transparency, replacing the previous workflow: the manager writes up notes in a Word document and emails a copy to the person they manage for their signature
  • Including questions in the guide and the template that prompt the manager to ask for feedback from the person they manage, so the feedback is not just 1–way
  • Removing the spaces for manager and practitioner signatures from the appraisals notes, which signaled command-and-control culture, not a trust-based culture

Low fidelity testing of materials with practitioners

Practitioners have challenging roles and make up 75% of We Are With You’s workforce (read more about their incredible work here). Any materials we created needed to work for them, first and foremost. Shadowed by Ricky (HR) and Lizzy (Comms), I visited two We Are With You services to do some prototyping with practitioners. I asked practitioners about their existing workflows and approaches to development. Then I stuck the printed prototype materials up on the wall and practitioners scribbled on them to tell me what was helpful or not helpful. The materials broadly met practitioner needs relating to appraisals, but we also uncovered many problems that a new way of delivering appraisals couldn’t solve (see Designing People Development-as-a-Service below).

Prototype 1: A three-page guide to having appraisals for team members

Live testing of materials with practitioners and their managers

After iterating the prototypes based on the feedback from practitioners, it was time to up the stakes. The only way to know if you’ve created a good product is to observe people trying it out in a live situation. I recruited some practitioners who had their appraisal coming up in the next two weeks, and, along with their managers, asked them to have an appraisal using the materials. I then emailed them a Google Forms survey to probe whether the materials prompted better conversations about development. I also did a few follow-up calls to get some richer, qualitative feedback. I decided not to observe the appraisals themselves — they should be safe spaces.

Surveys to team members and their managers.

The feedback pointed towards better conversations and a useful guide:

“The meeting felt very staff member focused and brought out some good ideas and discussions”

“A helpful addition, some different ways to ask questions I would normally ask”

Much of the positive feedback related to the fact the guides were short and written in plain English (rather than any “clever” design decisions I had made). When organisations do the hard work to make something simple it signals that they respect and value their employees. End-users deserve good design, and so do staff.

But the feedback also revealed that I missed something basic (a place to add the appraisal date) and that the way I framed objectives didn’t align with practitioners’ existing mental model of development (SMART goals):

“Just a note from completing the new process. There isn’t a place to sign or date the document”

“It needs to be laid out in a ‘SMART’ way that makes it clear for staff to understand”

I iterated the materials based on the pair feedback and helped We Are With You’s People teams to develop a testing plan to assess the effectiveness of the materials post-launch. Early anecdotal feedback is that people have been having better, richer conversations about development, prompted by the new process. [Update: We Are With You are still using the new appraisals materials, and finding them useful, 2.5 years after the project]

You can make a copy of the materials and create versions for your own organisation here.

Some out of scope things we got excited about

Designing People Development-as-a-Service

Through the research, we uncovered many unmet needs around development. For example, first-time managers needed much more support.

What if We Are With You’s People team offered “People Development-as-a-Service”? What would that service look like? What products would it offer? What needs could it meet?

A black and white conceptual sketch of We Are With You’s “People Development-as-a-service” offer
A black and white conceptual sketch of We Are With You’s “People Development-as-a-service” offer
A conceptual sketch of We Are With You’s “People Development-as-a-service” offer

Cultural shift from processes to services

A slide from early discovery work showing the previous appraisals process guiding document. It says “we develop processes, rather than managers” as the title, with another title below: “Addaction’s Guide to Managing the IPDP Process”
A slide from early discovery work showing the previous appraisals process guiding document. It says “we develop processes, rather than managers” as the title, with another title below: “Addaction’s Guide to Managing the IPDP Process”
A slide from early discovery work showing the previous appraisals process guiding document

What if we enacted a culture shift within internally-focused teams, from managing processes to delivering services? What if this document’s title was: “Addaction’s guide to developing people and teams?”, rather than “Managing the IPDP Process?”

From managers to self-management?

The principles and practices of self-management are useful (you don’t have to implement full holacracy). What if we re-designed performance management more along self-management principles? What if people don’t need managers at all and can self-assess their performance through greater personal accountability, seeking continuous feedback from peers and clients? Is this approach viable, feasible and desirable in legacy frontline service delivery organisations?

See Optimi’s work on accountability questions, a technique used by many self-managing organisations, including frontline service delivery organisations, like Wellbeing Teams.

Organisational design consultant. Coach. #chronicillness advocate. She/her. Newsletter: thismightresonate.substack.com. Website: https://www.emrosebaz.com/