It’s mid-year career discussion time at Microsoft®. I could rant about the HR tools we use, but that’s like complaining about prostate exams—too inflated a target. Instead, what gushes out at me at this time of year are BOGUS commitments.

You’ve heard of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-based, and Time-specific). BOGUS commitments are Bloated, Outdated, Generic, Unrepresentative, and Self-centered.

What really kills me are BOGUS commitments posing as SMART ones. They sound specific and measurable. The results seem achievable in the specific time period provided. And yet, these so-called SMART commitments are totally BOGUS. As a manager, BOGUS commitments are particularly gut wrenching to evaluate—“Yes, you are ‘On Track’ for 11 of your 12 commitments. Unfortunately, your commitments make you look good while your team is failing, nine of the commitments have changed, and the one commitment that needs improvement is the one that matters the most, but it’s lost in the mess. AHHHH!!!!”

How do SMART commitments become BOGUS? Let’s break it down.

Eric Aside

To its credit, HR has heard all the “feedback” on the performance tools and is actively working on them. Unfortunately, the problems are systemic, so the fix won’t be quick. If you’re one of the Microsoft employees given a chance to provide constructive feedback on HR prototypes, please dofor the good of us all.

I get bloated with a foamy latte

The first trap for even the SMARTest of commitments is bloat. You’ve got a whole year’s worth of work. The commitments are supposed to be specific and measurable. They are supposed to align to your manager’s commitments. Pretty soon, your number of commitments is blowing past 10 and pushing toward 15.

Why is having 10+ commitments a bad thing? Let me count the ways:

1.      It takes a long time to write them all. The goal is to get real work done, not to spend weeks writing and editing commitments.

2.      It takes a long time for all of them to be reviewed regularly, or discussed at calibration, so they aren’t. So they are useless.

Eric Aside

Calibration is a process Microsoft uses as part of its differentiated pay system to calibrate expected and exceptional contributions and potential of a group of employees in comparable careers stages and roles. For example, the development managers for Office® meet regularly to separate all the Office developers within each career stage into the top 20% of high potential contributors, the middle 70%, and remaining 10%. Doing so aligns differentiated pay and our expectations of roles across the company. When used carelessly, calibration can emphasize local versus global optimization, but it’s the system we have.

3.      They get so specific that the ones for the second half of the year are completely outdated, whereas the ones for the second quarter are only mildly outdated.

4.      Since there’s no way to distinguish the critical commitments from the “that’s part of the job” commitments, you and your manager can’t give proper attention to serious problems.

5.      Likewise, with countless commitments, it’s difficult for you and your manager to highlight your greatest achievements on your review or at calibration meetings.

What’s the solution? Have, at most, four commitments (five if you are a manager). Your first three commitments are for your critical project responsibilities this year—the ones your boss will either brag about or have to defend in calibration meetings. Your fourth commitment should focus on personal growth. (Be sure to include mentoring and teamwork skills in this one.) If you are a manager, your fifth commitment is to managing the health and growth of your team. Five commitments. End of story.

Eric Aside

What happens if your boss insists that you perfectly align to her 12 commitments? If she is open-minded, you can explain why you’d like to have just five commitments, and then align with hers accordingly. If it’s her way or else, well there you are. She is the boss. Perhaps you could slip this column under her door.

Living in the past

Plans do change during the year. Your commitments need to reflect those changes or they become outdated. How these changes get reflected in your commitments depends on the type of change.

§  A change big enough to alter one or more of your critical project responsibilities demands rewriting your commitments. Obviously, this needs to happen when switching jobs, but can also happen with a major strategy or organizational shift.

§  A strategic change that significantly alters your planned approach to one of your critical project responsibilities requires an adjustment to the execution plan and accountabilities for that commitment. You could leave your commitments alone and just explain the change in the comments, but rethinking your plan and how you’ll measure your results is a good idea. Thus, it makes sense to use a commitment change as a forcing function to document and communicate your new approach.

§  A tactical change that impacts specific accountabilities for one of your critical project responsibilities could compel you to adjust that accountability in your commitments, but you could also simply comment on it with agreement from your manager. Be sure to get agreement from your manager first.

Eric Aside

Revising your commitments with your manager when changes occur, especially big changes like a job shift or significant reorganization, is certainly the right thing to do. It’s also seldom done. That’s probably because everyone is busily focused on the big changes and not thinking about commitments until the next review period. That’s a missed opportunity for setting the right expectations with your boss and the right framing for calibration, but if you make that mistake, at least you’re in the majority.

The reason is a little vague

If your commitments and accountabilities could appear just as easily on your peers’ reviews as on yours, then they’re too generic. Knocking your 10+ commitments down to four (or five for a manager) might lead you to writing generic commitments. This won’t happen if you focus on your three critical project responsibilities, the ones that truly matter this year, the ones you’ll never dismiss or hand off to another team.

You can tell if a project responsibility is critical by considering what would happen if you ignored that one responsibility, but delivered brilliantly on all the others. Would your manager downplay that one miss, or would that oversight cast a shadow over the rest of your accomplishments?

Each of your three critical project responsibilities has a description, a plan of execution, and specific results that can be measured this year. Write these responsibilities down, and you’ve got your three primary commitments—the three items you want your manager discussing at calibration.

“What about reviewing other people’s code, writing great unit tests, or helping ship our product?” I hear you ask. Those accountabilities are part of being a good engineer. Thus, they form the execution plan and accountabilities for your personal development commitment. It’s called the, “I’ll continue to grow into an impactful and influential engineer for my team and my group who demonstrates the highest standards of quality” commitment. You put all your solid engineer, good teammate, and skill improvement plans for the year into this commitment.

Now when your manager is providing you commitment feedback, she can easily highlight how you are doing in light of your critical responsibilities, whether those responsibilities relate to your three most important projects, your basic behavior as a team member, or your effectiveness as manager of your own team.

I don't believe that's a proper characterization

You want your four or five commitments to equally and fairly represent your focus for the year at a glance. Having 13 commitments can’t help but be unrepresentative.

Why do too many commitments lead to an unbalanced and unfair representation of your annual contributions? Because unequal commitments take up equal space on your review. Yes, that shouldn’t matter. You should be able to use bold or highlighters to emphasize the truly important commitments. However, the human mind doesn’t care. The text is there, so you read it, and the minor commitments dilute the major ones.

Not all projects are equal. To avoid watering down your accomplishments (or challenges), you need to focus on the critical projects and leave out the minor ones. However, being a good manager and a good team member is just as important as any one project. They each get their own commitment.

As for managers, they should ensure that poor-performing employees don’t hide within a herd of commitments. Pull out and bring forward the critical responsibilities that best represent what you expect from your employees for the year.

Eric Aside

Many cynical or disillusioned engineers wonder, “What’s the point of carefully representing myself in my commitments? My review is determined at calibration meetings, and they happen before my review is written.” Most groups work hard to ensure calibration meetings happen after employees have a chance to comment on their commitments. However, the biggest impact you can have on calibration, beyond your actual performance, is framing the discussion of your performance. Are you working on a critical, difficult, high-risk, impactful, and influential project that aligns with the team’s business direction and customer focus? If so, have your commitment say so. That way, your commitments frame the discussion of your work even before you comment on them.

Always thinkin' about yourself

I’m amazed when I read reviews of people who clearly delivered on their commitments, yet their managers thought they were awful. How can that happen? It happens due to poorly chosen, self-centered commitments.

Sometimes the commitments are focused on intermediate personal results rather than final team results. Sometimes the commitments are appropriate for a level below what the team needs from that individual. Sometimes the commitments ignore the importance of collaboration and team dynamics. Regardless, the commitments were written from the perspective of the individual, instead of being written within the context of the team.

If you want to work by yourself, for yourself, then quit and start your own company. If you want to collaborate on projects bigger than yourself for the greater advancement of us all, then write commitments that get you there. Your manager and your mentor can and should guide you through this process. Insist that they do.

Eric Aside

Vatsan Madhavan pointed out to me that our HR performance management tool for tracking commitments specifically calls them “individual commitments” instead of something more appropriate, such as “commitments to my team and our customers.” Words can be powerful—these words should change.

Bogus. Heinous. Most non-triumphant.

No one wants Bloated, Outdated, Generic, Unrepresentative, Self-centered commitments. They don’t reflect you, your work, or your importance to your team.

Being SMART is not enough. Don’t be BOGUS. Focus your commitments on four or five areas of equal importance. Keep them relevant and oriented toward your impact on team goals. Doing so gives you the best chance to excel at what is truly important to you, to Microsoft, and to our customers.

Eric Aside

Whenever I talk to people about commitments, the most common questions I hear are about measuring results and handling stretch goals. I talk about measuring results in “How do you measure yourself?” As for stretch goals, remember that missing a firm commitment is underperforming, while making it is achieving; missing a stretch goal is still achieving, while making it is exceeding. Ambiguously mixing stretch goals with firm commitments weakens both—you don’t get credit for your stretch goals and you aren’t held accountable for your firm commitments. I recommend saving stretch goals for your comments or separating them by using a “meets” section and an “exceeds” section in your accountabilities.

 

Eric Aside

As a completely personal aside, I’ve recently changed jobs to become a development manager again, my favorite role at Microsoft. My new team is responsible for the Xbox.com web site and the Xbox® publishing systems for the web, console, and the upcoming Windows Phone®. Yes, the team has openings. J