June 25, 2019

Continuous Improvement at Sophilabs

Delivering excellent service to clients is at the core of our purpose, and continuously improving our performance is central to achieving that. We constantly reflect on what we can do better as a team and as individuals. Providing and receiving regular feedback is an important way to encourage our team members (and ourselves) to learn and grow.

At sophilabs we decided to eschew traditional evaluation methods and develop an effective process for giving genuinely helpful feedback. Continuous Improvement is our approach to identifying both strengths and weaknesses and creating clear action points to facilitate growth. It's our ongoing effort to be the best version of ourselves.

What's wrong with an annual review?

The most widely-used traditional method of giving feedback – the annual review – often has a negative impact on company culture and the mindset of individual team members. Centering the feedback process on one big evaluation causes team members to focus on external rewards rather than on learning for its own sake, diminishing their intrinsic motivation and the authenticity of their efforts. This is detrimental to team members' creativity and innovation, and it erodes their sense of purpose. In addition, the looming annual review tends to instill fear rather than enthusiasm.

Annual reviews often only reflect a team member's recent performance, raising legitimate concerns over accuracy and fairness. They can also foster an environment of competition instead of teamwork. 1 In light of all these issues, we've opted for a review model that provides frequent feedback with a focus on helping each other grow.

Our Continuous Improvement Feedback Cycle

The goal of our feedback cycle is to provide each other with timely recognition and constructive feedback that marks a clear path for future learning. This structured yet simple cycle normalizes regular feedback in our work environment. We value insights on areas to improve as highly as we value praise because we know it's about helping each other do our best work.

Cycle Timing

Frequent feedback is crucial to creating a culture of continual growth. The most effective feedback is specific, citing actual events and accomplishments. Our short feedback cycles ensure that relevant issues or achievements are top-of-mind when providing feedback.

Our team members receive feedback from their direct managers once a month and from their peers and the team members they manage every other month. When a new feedback cycle opens, everyone receives an email from our People team as well as an automated reminder from Small Improvements, the easy-to-use platform we chose to provide written feedback.

What Our Feedback Looks Like

Our feedback forms consist of two simple questions: What did (Name) do well? and What could (Name) improve on? On a manager's review form, these two questions are followed by an Action Points section that details what a team member can do to continue to grow. We wanted to keep the process as lightweight and straightforward as possible to make sure the feedback cycle doesn't burden our teams and that all feedback is clear and genuinely helpful.

An example of a manager's review form on Small Improvements.
An example of a manager's review form on Small Improvements.

We purposefully excluded any kind of numeric scoring system. Assigning someone a number promotes high performance for the sake of "getting a good grade" rather than the intrinsic motivation of learning and growth. In addition, numbers can create a bias for future reviews. More importantly, assigning someone a number can be stigmatizing and can impact the way managers and peers work with that team member. 2

It's important to us that we give quality feedback. Therefore, we provided our team members with handy guidelines they can reference when writing praise or constructive criticism. We stress that the most valuable feedback is specific and references particular tasks or events, regardless of whether it is pointing out a strength or a weakness. When outlining areas to improve, we ask team members to make feedback a positive tool, saying only what will help their peers grow in a particular area.

One-on-One Meetings

Constant communication is crucial to effective feedback and continuous learning. 3 We've built one-on-one meetings into our feedback cycle to make sure team members understand their action points and have the opportunity to voice questions or concerns. These regular meetings are a pillar of the mentorship that makes continuous improvement possible.

Manager Meeting

During this monthly meeting, a team member meets with their direct manager to discuss their recent performance. The manager recognizes the team member's contributions to the project and outlines specific action points for improvement. This meeting may focus on a team member's work from a more technical perspective, though the manager may also discuss soft skills such as how they collaborate with the team or how they work with the client. The meeting is an opportunity for a team member to ask questions, clarify any points of feedback, and work with their manager on how they are going to address areas that need improvement. After the meeting, the manager shares their written review with the team member on Small Improvements so they can reference their action points in the future.

TDA Meeting

Every sophilaber has a Talent Development Advisor (TDA), a member of the People team who helps guide team members along their career path within the company. TDAs regularly meet with team members to see how they're doing and make sure they have the resources they need to work on their action points. TDAs are always available if team members want to voice a concern and prefer to discuss it with someone outside of their project. During their regular meeting with team members, TDAs might help them schedule any necessary training or create a plan to work on their action points. TDAs may also communicate any organizational level changes to company tools or policies.

The personalized attention made possible by one-on-one meetings is an integral part of our continuous improvement feedback cycle. These regular meetings help us make sure we're adequately supporting our team members with the feedback and resources they need in order to learn and grow.

Other Tools for Continuous Improvement

Praise

Identifying strengths is just as crucial to growth as constructive feedback. When team members know what they do well, they are more likely to use those skills with confidence and think of creative solutions. They can also leverage their strengths to work on areas where they could do better. In addition, positive recognition is essential to keeping each other motivated to do our best work. We want to make sure our team members know they are valued.

We use the Praise tool on Small Improvements to recognize each other for outstanding contributions to the team. Anyone can write praise for another team member at any time. We recommend that team members mention specific skills and contributions so that the praise is personal and meaningful.

An example of how we use the Praise tool on Small Improvements to recognize valuable contributions to the team.
An example of how we use the Praise tool on Small Improvements to recognize valuable contributions to the team.

Every week during our Town Hall Meeting, we share what team members have written on Praise and recognize individual accomplishments in front of the entire company. This helps all of us take pride in our work and encourages more team members to recognize their peers for a job well done.

Gurus

At sophilabs, we call an expert in a specific skill or technology a "guru." We encourage everyone to become a guru in skills and technologies that interest them.

Peer-to-peer mentoring is key to learning and growth, so we made a tool to facilitate these interactions. We designed the /guru command in Slack so that team members can easily access a list of gurus or nominate a guru for a particular skill. We encourage team members to reach out to a guru for a code review or for help with a technology challenge.

Growing Together

At sophilabs, we believe our success is our peers' success, and being a team player is one of our core values. We see the opportunity to give and receive feedback as crucial to working and growing together to reach our goals. Our feedback cycle, technology gurus, and tools like Praise are all part of a broader culture of continuous improvement, which also informs our use of OKRs and tools like Officevibe. It's through a team effort that we're able to continue to improve our performance, meet our most ambitious objectives, and consistently exceed client expectations. It's been great to see how much growth has already been facilitated by our feedback process, and we can't wait to see the achievements that are in store as we continue to reach higher.


  1. "Why We Got Rid of the Annual Review, For Good" by Alison Robins, Officevibe, August 7, 2017. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 


"Continuous Improvement at Sophilabs" by Adriana Campoy is licensed under CC BY SA. Source code examples are licensed under MIT. Categorized under people & culture.

Photo by Adriana Campoy.

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