“That Time of Year”

Summer is here! My kids have finished school and spring sports commitments. The weather has turned from an unseasonably cool (for California) May into a full-on hot June. The days are noticeably longer, the sunsets prettier, and the beaches more crowded. It’s officially time to frolic. Life is good.

Summer also means that, at Riot Games, we’ve kicked off our annual performance review process. Yes, it’s that time of year.

I’ve mentioned before that Rioters values feedback highly, and we consider Riot as having a feedback culture. We tend to hire, as our co-founder Brandon Beck says, “growth-minded autodidacts” who want to know how to improve and have a bigger impact. As a result, performance reviews take up a rather large part of our collective consciousness when they kick off.

Most of my career has been at large, global, Fortune 500 companies with a ton of infrastructure and process. In those companies—despite highly disparate industries—performance reviews were more or less the same.

…which is to say that they were consistently painful. “That time of year” usually meant a groan or a wince or a deep, deep sigh. Lots of effort from managers and HR went into assigning ratings, documenting results, and making compensation decisions. Everyone, it seemed, was equally unhappy about the process, how much time it soaked up, and how much stress and demotivation performance reviews injected into the atmosphere. In a word… Blech.

I’m finding myself marveling at how performance reviews are unfolding at Riot. Here are some cool things about our process that feel both noteworthy and refreshing:

  • No rating. No direct ties to compensation. Riot’s performance reviews are intended to build self-awareness. The tagline for the process this year is “Better Feedback. Better You. Better Riot.” Again, we have hungry learners who want to get better. Rather than try to assign ratings (which is just fraught with psychological peril), all of your feedback here is qualitative. Our annual process is in June to separate reviews from compensation decisions (which happen at end of year). The point of our reviews is not to boil down your year into a number or assign a formula to determine a bonus (indeed, we don’t have bonuses). Instead, we want to create a moment for you to pause, look at your performance holistically, and reflect on how to have a bigger impact in the future.
  • You launch your own review. Since the point is to build self-awareness, we put the power of the review in each Rioter’s hands. Our expectation is that once we’ve armed you with the tools to do so, you can pick your reviewers and launch your own review. It’s a process that is essentially self-motivated.
  • Everyone gets 360 feedback. Your manager provides you feedback, of course, but so do your peers and someone we call a “Results Reviewer,” a person outside of your management chain who you believe can best speak to your results. If you’re a people manager, your direct reports give you feedback too.
  • All feedback is transparent. Last year feedback was anonymous and Rioters pretty much freaked out with how un-Rioty that felt. We value transparency almost as much as we value feedback. This year, you’ll know exactly who said what in your review.
  • It’s not just about results. Yes, one section of the review asks about results. Results matter. But you’ll also get feedback on how well you represent Riot’s fundamental attributes, and also the mastery of your specific discipline craft. Two huge benefits of these sections are that a) we had to articulate what we mean by “fundamental Rioter attributes” beyond our Riot Manifesto, and b) each discipline (for example, Engineering, Art, and, yes… Talent) had to define what “craft mastery” means and looks like.

None of these aspects of our review process are revolutionary. Companies like Microsoft, Adobe, Juniper Networks, and others have made headlines for their attempts to overhaul their performance management processes or just do away with them altogether. There seems to be a collective consciousness rising that says that performance reviews aren’t—gasp!—actually creating high-performance cultures. I fully expect more and more human resources functions to throw out their Industrial Age tools and processes in favor of something more… I don’t know… human. Riot’s advantage is that we aren’t tied to a formal process of yesteryear. We get to create what works for us from pretty much scratch.

Riot’s reviews have just launched, so I’m still holding my breath a bit about how this will all play out this summer. Certainly there’s a lot of potential pitfalls with our approach. I wasn’t at Riot during last year’s process, but there is lore about how much time people spent writing reviews (since we value feedback, some people write novellas), how clunky our tool was, and how some people got stuck writing a gazillion reviews. We’ve tried to improve this time around, but we’re still fundamentally learning what works and doesn’t work. I expect that both our tool and process will need to get better. I expect that our definitions of Rioter Attributes and each discipline craft will need to be refined. And, above all, I expect we’ll need to invest time and effort educating Rioters what good feedback looks like in a review – just because we value feedback doesn’t mean we’re necessarily good at it. In other words, we’re still quite a ways from something awesome.

Still, “that time of year” at Riot doesn’t make me groan or wince or sigh deeply at all. I’m queerly optimistic that our process matches our values and aspirations. Heck, I’m personally looking forward to the feedback I’m going to receive and am thankful for this moment to pause and look at things more holistically so that I can have a bigger impact here. When was the last time I found myself looking forward to performance review time? (hint: never)

-jms

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