Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Areas for improvement...

Areas for improvement.  I was reading Kathy Sierra’s blog again and she had an entry that made me go “hmmmm”.

I remember preparing the employee reviews and spending much time digging for the area’s of improvement.  Most of the review process does seem focused on things to improve – the time spent on “the stuff you kick butt on” was short.  Same with the reviews I receive.  Maybe we do them backwards, or at least not “level” enough.

There are things I do poorly, things I do well and things I’m really pretty good at.  Unintentionally – I focus on the things I’m really good at and let the things I do poorly atrophy.  It makes it so that the things I’m good at get better.

However – looking back, if I hadn’t been pushed into speaking in front of groups, I would not do anything remotely similar to what I do today.  When I joined Oracle – my manager made us submit abstracts to speak at conferences, especially Oracle World/IOUG events.  I lived in fear of getting accepted (but always did get accepted).  It was not my strong point – getting up in front of people and talking.  It took a long time to become competent at it.

Had not my manager (and the fact my job in general) forced me to do the speaking engagements – an event like I did yesterday for the ILOUG (Israel Oracle User Group) would never have happened.  I spoke from 9am to 6pm (they are gluttons for punishment I guess) all about Oracle, technology.  And people actually stayed all day long (which constantly, but pleasantly, surprises me).

So, I agree with the premise of Kathy’s posting today, for me.  However, for “newbies” in a field (any field, anything) – I’m not sure I agree.  We don’t know what are strengths are straight away.  Had you told me in high school that I would major in math in college – I would have laughed.  In college – had you told me I’d write a book that people actually seem to enjoy to read – I would have assumed you were a bit touched in the head.  Had you told me as a programmer starting out that I’d be doing what I ended up doing for a career – I would have said “no way”.

In retrospect – maybe even today, for me – it does not apply.  I have no idea what I’ll be doing 5 or 10 years from now.  I have a feeling it will be different, perhaps radically different.  I’m reading a book now that makes me pretty sure it will be very different to radically different in any case (The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century)

So, I agree, we should spend more time in the review process showcasing what we “kick butt” at – but pushing people into “areas of improvement” still makes sense.  Some of us need to be pushed to do things we don’t want to (at first), in order to discover we actually like it.


Anonymous Σωκράτης said....

γνῶθι σεαυτόν

Tue Feb 07, 06:52:00 AM EST  

Blogger melanie caffrey said....

I'm not quite sure that making it mandatory for people to submit abstracts to user group conferences falls into the same category of the types of "areas of improvement" that Kathy Sierra was talking about.

(BTW, hats off to her for the very hip "TPS Reports" reference. More than once, even! :-) )

I believe your boss was trying to inspire you and your colleagues.

I believe the stuff that Kathy speaks of smacks of time-honored, HR-required SOP.

Few like it, and few thrive on it, let alone ever feel inspired by it.

I once had an economics professor say "Do you know why Einstein was able to excel to the level he did? It has little to do with how bright he was (no question there) and more to do with what he was *allowed* to do. He was allowed to be himself. The *best of* himself.

He was a terrible grammarian (like yours truly). He often wrote documents that were unreadable and required massive editing from his assistants.

But who cares, really? For in the end, look at what he did really well!"

I never forgot that professor or that day's lecture.

Tue Feb 07, 08:48:00 AM EST  

Blogger Rahul said....

Im still waiting for that book to become available at the local library ... its quite popular - always checked out. As an Indian, would be very interested to know what you think about this book.

Tue Feb 07, 09:41:00 AM EST  

Blogger Joel Garry said....

I have seen performance reviews used as a stick, held over people so they keep in line, then used to justify cause when they are fired anyways (instead of the real reason, which would be illegal).

Another extreme is contracting - no performance review at all, unless the contractor takes the initiative.

As to the point of concentrating on strengths v. weaknesses: there is a whole range of possibilities. Some people choose to do things that they will never be good at, so the best that can be hoped for is to try to improve weak points (the "choice" may be due to no money for what they really are good at). Some people may not need much improvement because they are good at their jobs. Think of every good technical person who became a bad boss - should they be rewarded or helped for a bad career path choice?

Yes, some people can grow and change, most will have different goals at different life stages. Others may be naturally honest with themselves and have an accurate self-assesment and change plan - and some of those may not be willing to share something so personal with others. Some people may need a gentle kick in the right direction, others may need roping and hog-tying. Some simply need a good example.

Trying to formularize career growth is as big a mistake as any other overly simplified process. Makes for good marketing of bad books. Maybe we should just call it SOP and mostly ignore it.

Tue Feb 07, 09:55:00 AM EST  

Blogger Daniel Fink said....

There are things that you do well. These are the f'n amazing things that Kathy talks about. Each of us knows what these are, as we tend to put them at the top of the personal priority list.

There are things we can't do well. Not because we aren't motivated, but we don't have the apptitude. Personally, I can't draw/sketch/paint. I might go to school for years trying to learn, but I just don't think I'd ever color inside the lines.

Then there are the things we don't do well...but we could! Perhaps your manager recognized that you had an innate talent to communicate effectively, but you needed a little motivation to develop it further.

Growth comes from expanding into the third area, eventually one of those skills becomes one we do well. Frustration will probably develop when you are pushed too hard to do something that falls into the 2nd category.

A good leader will work to find the right category for each of the skills of his/her subordinates. A 'manager' will try to fit all of his/her subordinates into a specific set of skills, regardless of their place in the categories.

Tue Feb 07, 09:55:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

As with everything in life, there is a balance between "not enough" and "too much".

For example, I *hate* doing my timesheet, and yet I have to do it, because I'm an independent contractor. That's an "area of improvement". However, I don't think I'll ever really improve that much from where I am - I've been this way for over 10 years.

Most other things I don't do well, I just let slide, because I am *really good at what I do*. That's why people hire me.


Tue Feb 07, 01:16:00 PM EST  

Blogger Stewart Bryson said....

Great debate... everything is pretty much covered. It's only fair to point out strengths at the same level as weaknesses. However, I've had a boss that was unable to point out weaknesses because she believed in the "point out the strengths" mentality so much. She didn't want to delineate anyone, or possibly insult them, that the entire team hovered in mediocrity.

It's all balance.

"Yeah... I'm going to have to go ahead and ask you to fill out another TPS report... that would be great."

Tue Feb 07, 01:26:00 PM EST  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

melanie caffrey said...

I see what Kathy was saying - but it was "painted too broadly". My manager at Oracle would push "areas of improvement" like "speaking in public", "getting in front of crowds", and so on - as things we (I) had to work on.

When I was managing people, I tried to do the same - not "improve in getting expense reports in faster", but "need to get in front of crowd more", "need to get expand knowledge base", "need to get a hands on experience with [something]".

In retrospect, maybe what it was was more in the line of "so, you want to accomplish this - here is what we need to do".

Maybe you can tell that as I was writing this entry - I was almost changing my mind back and forth. Guess it is how you define "areas of improvement" :)

Tue Feb 07, 02:27:00 PM EST  

Blogger melanie caffrey said....

thomas kyte said

Guess it is how you define "areas of improvement" :)

Oh, I agree. It is *all* in how you define it.


Some managers see the forest through the trees very well.

However, other managers follow a cookie-cutter pattern of employee reviews, dooming any real chance of overall improvement right from the start.

It's the cookie-cutter pattern that I find woefully objectionable.

Tue Feb 07, 02:49:00 PM EST  

Blogger Robert Vollman said....

I've always had the opposite problem: the review is only about things I've done right with little or not mention of what I can improve.

One review I call back in 2000:
Manager: Ok that's everything.
Me: Aren't we going to talk about what I can improve?
Manager: Oh. Ok. What do you think you can improve?

Tue Feb 07, 03:56:00 PM EST  

Blogger Bob B said....

I think an 80/20 approach would work well. Spend 80% of your improvement time working on your strengths and 20% working on everything else. As mentioned, ignoring weaknesses completely can completely cripple strengths (e.g. extremely visionary individual who fails at sharing those visions with others). The trap Kathy was speaking of, I believe, is where 80% of the time goes into the weaknesses and 20% goes into the strengths. Maybe Tom can share from his experience, but I'm willing to bet, the time spent on the weaknesses of presenting in public were worked on at most 20%, if not more like 5-10% and his strengths were in the 80 - 90% range

Tue Feb 07, 04:08:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Chris said....

How about the bad review because no one knows what you do. Meaning, the databases you're responsible for "never" ( so rarely that no one remembers) experience problems. So since there are no fires to fight, I sit in my cube making sure queries are running optimally, I/O is spread out, backups are running etc. No emergencies. Then we lose 25% of our revenues and suddenly everyones looking to cut costs. Since my salary is one of the highest in this small company, suddenly everyone is questioning whether or not they need me.

One of my former bosses had it right when he said (paraphrase):

"We reward people for solving problems, and punish people for preventing problems "

Tue Feb 07, 04:42:00 PM EST  

Blogger Roderick said....

Tom, I hope you share your review of The World is Flat. Reading that book is somewhere on my mythical "To Do" list. I confess I anonymously mentioned the book on the AskTom website a month or so ago (but it's been out for a while, so you may have known about it already).
I guess Habit #7 of Effective People is called Sharpening the Saw, but it's been so long since I've read that book that I cannot recall if Covey had an opinion about working on strengths vs. weaknesses. Or maybe the only point was to take some time out to expand your abilities in some way...

Secret word: ydbyltb
"Why'd you buy a lightbulb?"

Tue Feb 07, 08:06:00 PM EST  

Blogger Robert said....

that's good food for thought !

Tue Feb 07, 11:19:00 PM EST  

Blogger Amit Mohanty said....

I am interested to know about the compatibility of Oracle 10g on a Pentium III machine. I got to know that its recommended requirement is PIV, but it can also be used on PIII. Can you tell me the problems we will face if we install 10g on a PIII?

Also, if Oracle 9i has better performance than 10g on a PIII machine. Please help.

Wed Feb 08, 05:15:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

It's the cookie-cutter pattern that I find woefully objectionable.

And yet, isn't that the purpose of HR departments? Indeed, MBA's in general?


Wed Feb 08, 09:45:00 AM EST  

Anonymous blo said....

I became a team lead about a year ago...one of the first books that I read was: First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently. It talks about the concept of focusing on the strenghts rather than weakneses. It makes a lot of sense, however I found that with some people you need to focus on their weaknesses simply because they don't have any stregnts or their strengts are overshadowed by weaknesses.

Wed Feb 08, 12:10:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Arul said....

Amit Mohanty said....

You may want to try posting your question in the other Tom's site :-)http://www.tomshardware.com/

Thu Feb 09, 06:26:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Dawn said....

Tom, this post really helped me to clarify soemthing in my head. I've been a developer for a year now, having moved from a support/test analyst role (getting to grips with Oracle by pestering developers to fix issues and then learning how to do data fixes, etc myself).

It's really not something that I'm finding easy, and at times my head has been pounding and my brain leaking out of my ears. Having read your comment, this is definitely my "area for improvement", something that my managers are keen to have me do (I bring communication and analysis skills to our far-too-small Oracle developer team).

I will persevere - after all, if you can become an Oracle guru and go giving talks to large groups of people, etc, then I can learn to develop.


Thu Feb 09, 07:40:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Kathy Sierra said....

As usual, Tom, you and your commenters here have great things to add/critique about my thoughts on performance reviews. And I agree with you that I definitely "painted too broadly". I think that's one of my "areas of improvement" ; )
Cheers and thanks for adding to this discussion!

Thu Feb 09, 09:12:00 PM EST  


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