The planned vs. the serendipitous: On writing the 2017 performance review now

img_2167Part of time management is making time for one’s priorities. The problem is that it’s not always clear what those priorities are, or else we have many priorities and have trouble figuring out what’s good to do next.

So in workshops, I like to have people do an exercise that involves performance reviews. Across the corporate universe, people are now engaged in this annual ritual of looking at successes and “opportunities for growth.” Some companies are moving away from them, but they remain popular.

These reviews tend to be backward looking (hence, “review”) but I find it’s more effective to do this exercise looking forward.

Instead of looking back over last year, pretend it’s the end of next year. You are popping the Champagne corks because it has been an absolutely amazing year for you professionally. What 3-5 things did you do that made it so amazing? Write this list as next year’s performance review, and you’ll have a good sense of what’s most important for you to tackle at work.

In the spirit of taking my own advice, I worked on this exercise this week. Of course, that made me think about what I would say in my normal, backward looking review for 2016. Does this match what I said in the prospective review I wrote at the end of 2015?

The answer: sort of. One highlight I’d identified (figuring out what my next book will be) matches. But two other major things I’d list from 2016 — writing an essay for the New York Times on tracking my time for a year, and giving a TEDWomen talk — were serendipitous. I did not see either coming. These opportunities came because work I’d done came to the attention of the right people, but I had not declared either as goals I planned to work toward.

So yay, serendipity. Sometimes serendipity is presented as being at odds with planning. Why plan if you have no idea what some of the best stuff will turn out to be? However, even with the mismatch, I don’t think this means there’s a flaw in the idea of writing next year’s performance review now. You can achieve things on the prospective list but have other things overtake them as highlights. There are 8760 hours in a year — plenty of time to play around with. These things can be both/and not either/or. I set an income goal for speaking, and I will hit it, but I think that unpaid speech (i.e. TED) was more interesting.

But even if you don’t achieve what was on the prospective review, that’s OK — you wrote it for you, and as the author you can change it. People let go of goals all the time. As long as it’s because you’re consciously choosing to devote your time to something else, that’s called flexibility, not failure.

Regardless, articulating what you find interesting and meaningful can help answer the question of “I have time, what should I do with it?” Serendipity is great, but counting on its appearance feels a lot like spinning one’s wheels. I think the best approach is to plan for great things, but be open to even more wonderful things happening that you didn’t know to plan for.

Do you write prospective performance reviews?

Photo: A good spot for some breakfast pondering.

12 thoughts on “The planned vs. the serendipitous: On writing the 2017 performance review now

  1. Hi Laura, I am so glad you wrote this post – I needed the reminder! Last Jan. I wrote a blog post about this very thing. I will sit down with my cup of coffee early tomorrow morning and do it once again for 2017. If you’d like, take a look at my post nearly a year ago about how this writing exercise played out in my life:
    Thanks for all of your work. You (and it) are inspiring! Warmly, Shonda

  2. This is a great post because I just spent roughly two full working days planning out my (work) projects for 2017. My biggest issue is that all the projects run on pretty strict timelines (I work in training development for a call center and time off the phone is money lost!) Even though I can plan it all out right now and feel like, wow, if I actually did all this on time, I’d be done in October, the real issue is that I have trouble planning for the unexpected and those things ALWAYS come up and ALWAYS impact my timelines. And there is not usually enough advance notice to actually adjust and correct course. I’m intrigued by the idea of writing that prospective performance review because yes, in the corporate environment I’m in, they just sent out the e-mail that said “it’s time to look at your performance goals” well, that just makes me cringe because even though I had good intentions last year when I set those goals, I know that when I review them, I probably failed to complete them. They just add more on my already full plate. You’ve given a lot to think about. Thanks so much!

    1. @Anna- excellent. I’m both fascinated and somewhat troubled by the corporate review process. But I heard from one place recently that does them that made the point that even if it’s very forced, it’s at least one time when managers have to give feedback and people can talk about their career goals without it being weird.

  3. I love this idea and was just composing a newsletter on the importance of planning even though these unexpecteds are a given (though you don’t know which unexpecteds on both the good and bad fronts).

    I’m curious if you have thoughts on creating space to accommodate this serendipity?

    I’ve found, especially with employees as annual reviews often leave important things to be discussed only once a year rather than adjusted as needed, that having quarterly reviews can help this, but then you fall prey to skipping or getting behind.

    1. @Gabi- sometimes in the past I’ve made quarterly goals – I did this for 2016, something in each category of career, relationships, and self, for each of the four quarters of 2016. That’s one way to be focused on something for a while, and then move on (whether we stick to it is a different matter!)

      I think building in space into life is key — for opportunity, for serendipity. Being careful with which projects you take on, which meetings you take on, which commitments you take on, all help. Although the truth is, for the right opportunity, a lot of things can be canceled.

  4. Found here as a result of Chris Guillebeau really love this concept and now I am hooked I have actually heard about couple of your books. Keep Pressing On you have just earned yourself a new FAN…. Happy New Year 2017

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