Getting the most out of review meetings

Yesterday night, I helped a couple of colleagues prepare for reviewing their deals with their line management. And today morning I spent some time reviewing a couple of deals with my team. Perhaps the largest category of meetings in the corporate world is “reviews” – be it deals, career, special assignments or whatever. Having been a reviewee and a reviewer several times, and having been in both good and terrible reviews, I thought I should jot down a few thoughts on this topic.

group of people in a meeting
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For the reviewee

  • Have no fear : This is absolutely the key to having a good review. Bad reviews are most often a result of fear. Reviewers often (not always) know way less about the topic at hand than you do – which is why they asked you to work on it in the first place. If they sense you have some fear, they often think that is because you have not done a good job thinking through the problem. So someone will start poking at your POV and then the herd mentality will kick in and soon they are all jumping on your throat. Don’t let that happen – walk in prepared. And call out risks and open questions explicitly. Ask for additional help as needed. Tell them what you have already done before asking for help. Do whatever you need to do up front to prepare – except pls don’t EVER resort to lies – and it will pay off in spades. Also, if you develop a reputation for coming to reviews well prepared, you will have their confidence and reviews will start getting more pleasant for you.
  • Know what a good outcome is before you walk in :  

    “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
    “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
    “I don’t much care where –”
    “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland 

    The success of a good meeting is in knowing what a good outcome looks like. It could range from you living to fight another day all the way to getting funding approved for a key project. If you don’t know what you want from the meeting and leave it to just play out – the odds are that you will end up with a result you won’t like, or at a minimum asked to come for another review . When I prepare for a review, I work backwards from what I want out of it to prepare my narrative. When you walk in prepared and without fear – you often pick up things to learn from what the reviewers tell you. That is the highest value of reviews – the learning and tweaking of what you already knew!

  • Always have options : People are unpredictable in generally, and especially so under stress. So all that prep you did might not come in handy when there is someone in the review team who is having a bad day and is hell bent on taking it out on you. In less drastic situations – they still might want to “add value” and you need to leave some room in your solution to incorporate their input. One way to solve this is to pre-determine a couple of areas where you could use some coaching, and explicitly state it in the review. Also – figure out your strategy in case the review goes south. Do you want to ask for another meeting ? Should you enlist the support of a few reviewers before the formal review?
  • Know what is important for the reviewer for the short term : The needs of reviewers change from time to time. You may be reviewing your deal which has great revenue but not the best profit. If your boss needs more profit and not revenue – you probably are not going to score an approval. It helps to know upfront what is important for the reviewers before you craft your narrative. This obviously needs work in terms of networking and homework. But it is time and energy well spent ! One of my worst reviews came in a meeting that I prepared very well for. I was the lead developer and I got ripped a new one for telling them what I did on performance optimization, when the big objective from the CIO was to have more robust testing accomplished in that quarter (which made sense, but I had no idea it suddenly trumped performance problems we were working on) !

For the reviewer

  • Do you actually need to review ? : Life in the corporate world will be infinitely better if reviewers were honest about their answers. Vast majority of such meetings are low calorie or just gamed for optics. Why bother having such meetings? This is especially true the higher you are in the pecking order. Every review you ask for has several people below the hierarchy spending time on intermediate reviews. Can some of it be automated fully or partially ? Is there a standard checklist that can be used to manage by exceptions ? Can the team be better trained and managed to minimize the times you need to review yourself? The idea is to minimize low calorie reviews – and conserve time and energy for where it is needed the most
  • Does the reviewee know what you are expecting ? :  That is not the same as the meeting having an agenda and the presentation following a published template.  It is easy to ask “gotcha” questions. It is usually low value to do so though. When you give someone a problem to solve – tell them what you expect them to come back with ? Are you just looking for information ? Do you want them to make a decision and solve it – or should they bring back options and you will pick one ? Do you want to know if this is the right problem to solve ? Are there any direct consequences to the not solving the problem that you can tell the reviewee about ? How often should they keep you posted on their progress? The more clarity you can provide and the more consistent you are – the more useful these reviews will be for you.
  • Feedback comes in many forms : Not all reviews are about giving an explicit approval to some proposal. One of the most useful things you can do as a reviewer is to also explain how you viewed the review process itself. Could the reviewee improve on something ? Will you change something about the process because you learned something new from the reviewee? Do you engage in an intellectual debate with the reviewee or do you just check boxes ? . Do you follow up on the commitments you both made during the reviews? Do you use reviews as teaching moments? If you want the next review to be great – you need to make the reviewee feel that it was a good use of their time, and not just an administrative activity.

Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

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