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Go Full Circle

Go Full Circle

Do 360-degree job reviews remind you of that joke about the nattering egomaniac at the cocktail party: "Well, enough about me; let's talk about you. Tell me, what do you think of me?"

A 360-degree review process gathers feedback from multiple constituencies, including the business consumers of IT services. Every management team I know that's implemented one whines and moans about how painful and time-intensive the process is. Then again, every single group that's gone through that agony more than once asserts that the feedback is superior to traditional top-down one-on-one job reviews.

A third to a half of all IT organisations practise some sort of 360, according to various surveys. That's not enough. Any IT organisation that genuinely cares about implementation and execution needs 360s. Badly. Not because IT has a miserable tradition of conducting performance reviews (although it does) or because IT doesn't always do the best job of working with other parts of the organisation (although it doesn't). The main reason CIOs should embrace 360s, even if HR says "no", is that they represent a cost-effective way to align communication and expectations within the enterprise.

You can't manage successful implementations without successfully managing expectations. Indeed, the most brilliant and heroic technical implementation looks like a loser if expectations have been mismanaged. Conversely, a barely adequate implementation can look terrific if the client has bought into lowered expectations.

IT's reputation in many organisations has been poisoned by users and IT agreeing to unreasonable specifications and deadlines. But such dishonesty and ambiguous expectations simply can't survive 360s over time. (Actually, that's not quite true: dishonesty and destructive ambiguity can survive any review mechanism that human organisations can devise.) Smart organisations build 360-review infrastructures into their service-level agreements. Indeed, even outsourcing should not be allowed to provide an escape from 360 oversight.

Well-crafted 360s can dramatically raise the cost of preserving dysfunctional management by making it more managerially expensive to be dishonest than to be forthright. In fact, a reasonably good 360 probably could do more for MIS productivity than the latest suite of object-oriented development tools.

Instituting MIS 360s at one global professional services firm created an esprit that simply hadn't existed before. The 360s created contexts for conversation that made everyone think twice about what performance criteria mattered most. The department became more transparent to its clients as surely as its clients became more transparent to IT. Intriguingly, the review function made everyone more self-conscious about just how collaborative they were prepared - or not prepared - to be. The 360 created a virtual "cross-functional team" based not on performance goals but on performance review. Reciprocity can be a beautiful thing, no?

Good CIOs manage people well; great CIOs also manage expectations well. The 360s become a human "systems integration" tool, revealing exactly what kinds of collaboration lead to the most effective implementations. The CIO can see who does a better job of managing expectations than implementations - and vice versa.

Of course, 360s can yield personal insights that make personnel uncomfortable. One Asian regional IT manager of a global financial giant ruefully observed that he heard from his 360 review the sort of complaints his wife had been making for years. He said he was emotionally "stunned" by the consistency of the feedback. He couldn't dismiss the feedback precisely because it came from so many sources.

The catch for CIOs is that 360s inherently decentralise their power. Suddenly, it's not just the CIO's perceptions that determine the efficacy of their direct reports. Is that a risk? Of course. But IT is probably better off trying to create mechanisms that give people more feedback about what they do well - and what they do poorly - than less.

This column will argue that better implementations are more likely to come from innovations in human behaviour than innovations in digital technology. What makes 360s so powerful for IT is that they force technical people and businesspeople to communicate about something other than the immediate tasks, specs and deadlines at hand.

The 360s don't qualify as managerial panacea or productivity balm. But they do focus attention on the real implementation problems confronting most technically proficient IT organisations: institutional dishonesty and unrealistic expectations.

Michael Schrage is co-director of the MIT Media Lab's eMarkets Initiative and author of Serious Play. He can be reached at schrage@media.mit.edu

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