A Post-Mortem: Thoughts on Roundtable Peer Reviews

By: January 12, 2017

Hit me, bro! As hard as you can!

The mobile team at AWeber… We really like each other. That is what became quite evident during our annual face-to-face, peer-to-peer roundtable review process conducted in mid-November.

As an organization, AWeber just finished “that” season: employee performance reviews, and 360-degree peer reviews. Uniquely, the mobile team wanted to deliver that feedback directly to each other in person, and with the entire team in the room – which we refer to as “roundtable reviews.” This is not standard practice for the teams here at AWeber, but each team has freedom to manage the review process as it desires.

In my mind, I pictured the roundtable review process like a rowdy party where one of the guys sets their drink down and yells, “Hit me, bro! As hard as you can!” – and then gets dropped because he didn’t steel himself well and his friend was stronger and meaner than he thought.

Fortunately, it wasn’t anything like that.

A brief description of the process

Unlike the chaos and unknowns of a party, there is a structure to the roundtable reviews.

A facilitator makes sure each session follows the set structure. The only thing everyone else has to worry about is either providing feedback or listening to feedback. For these reviews, feedback is provided in the “start / stop / continue” format, which is an element that should be familiar to anyone doing sprints and retros in an agile organization. The person reviewed is only allowed to respond to feedback with “thank you.” Post-roundtable one-on-one meetings are also encouraged, in order to follow up on any feedback that required more discussion. And that was it.

I’m scared

At first, this process sounded daunting – even frightening – to someone like me who had never gone through it before. I feared having my feelings hurt. I feared being misunderstood. I feared that my teammates had been storing up complaints for 11 months and were going to dump them on me, all at once, like that scene in Mystic Pizza when Julia Roberts kicks over a barrel of dead fish and slime into her boyfriend’s convertible Porsche.

But it wasn’t like that. At all.

Most of it was positive. Not all of it; there were truthful and constructive criticisms, but even they were handled with professionalism. There were good ideas for improvement. There were no hurt feelings (that I’m aware of). There were only minor misunderstandings (which were able to be resolved immediately as a result of these conversations).

What’s so wrong with being polite anyway?

It’s tempting to suspect that in such a forum we were all too polite to give honest critical feedback to one another. And some of that may have been at play. But, really… what’s so wrong with being polite, anyway? If a side effect of the non-anonymous approach to peer reviews is that people are more polite, then I’m all for that, as long as the feedback delivered is honest.

One of the potential downsides of anonymous peer reviews is that there’s less incentive to cushion the criticisms. And while all peer reviews are subjective to some extent, anonymous feedback runs the risk of being too subjective, perhaps due to personality clashes or workplace competitiveness.

Non-anonymous, face-to-face feedback greatly reduces the temptation to insert ego into the mix. You have to own every word you say about your coworkers, while also knowing you will eventually sit and listen to feedback about yourself. The whole process creates a heightened sense of empathy and honesty that, I believe, supported the safe and positive culture already in place on our team.

The stronger your team, the more appropriate roundtable reviews are

It is also possible that we are a strong enough team that we had already addressed real issues throughout the year, as necessary, so that by the time we reached annual review season we did not have a stack of complaints. Our team leader, Andy, is a big advocate of immediately dealing with team issues head on. As a result, things don’t tend to sit and simmer for months on our team.

Our team is also small (approximately 10 people), and is populated with evenly reliable members. This means there is no individual or individuals who shirk responsibility and get to skate by while others pick up the dropped tasks on top of their own. We all carry our own weight. This creates trust.

Another thing that helped our team was the predictive index assessment (PI), which all employees are asked to complete at AWeber. Our individual PIs are shared internally and used to be more understanding of each person’s personality and professional working style. This is a benefit when it comes to reviewing your peers, where you can take into account someone’s tendency to be introverted, have a certain level of patience, etc.

All in all, it was easy to accept criticisms because we had all been on the same team together for a significant length of time, and we trust each other. These were key factors in why this particular format for conducting peer reviews worked for us and might not work for every team.

It wasn’t all roses and rainbows though

During the sprint retro that followed the roundtable review process, it was unanimous that the process was perhaps too disruptive to our work. People used words like, “flow-breaking,” “derailing,” and “time consuming.”

We did each have to create feedback for nine other people in preparation for the sessions. Then we had to break context 10 times throughout a single week to gather. The sessions were not bunched, but sprinkled on our calendars, increasing the number of times we were pulled away from work.

It was also a redundant process, as we still had to provide 360-degree feedback via Trakstar, the employee performance software we use at AWeber.

The team agreed that many of these problems could be fixed, though, to make the process more efficient.

Hit me again, bro!

The roundtable review process reduced toxicity, it did not inflame it. And even though we agreed to examine the process to make it less disruptive and more efficient, everyone on the team I spoke to said he or she thought the roundtable reviews were worthwhile, and they would want to do them again next year.