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How Con-Way Reviews Teams

Here’s how Con-Way provides feedback to its information-systems team.

Most work these days demands teamwork. But most reviews are still conducted as one-on-one sessions between managers and their direct reports. It’s hard enough to provide candid, timely, useful feedback to one person. How do you provide feedback to a team?

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A simple answer comes from the information-systems department at Con-Way Transportation Services, a subsidiary of shipping giant CNF. In this department, teams evaluate themselves through a process called the Team Improvement Review (TIR).

“We stayed away from terms like ‘performance review’ or ‘appraisal,’ ” says Debbie Blanchard, a senior systems analyst at Con-Way and a founding member of the 100-person department. “Those words conjure an image of a boss judging you. We want a more positive feeling. What are we doing that’s working? What are we doing that’s not working? How can we change that?”

Con-Way’s IS department began to take shape in November 1995. From the outset, department members thought hard about team performance. Their first step was to define excellent performance, by crafting a document called a Team Agreement. “The agreement sets out how we do things,” explains Mark Ozbun, a manager of IS development. “It’s pretty much the common law around here.”

That’s important. Darcy Hitchcock, a consultant who’s worked with Con-Way, argues that a team can’t figure out how to evaluate performance until it develops clear definitions of good performance. “Teams are jointly accountable for their work,” she says. “After all, teams are held jointly accountable by customers. If someone falls down, team members need to ask themselves: Was there something I should have noticed? Could I have helped?”

The TIR process has at least three core features. First, it separates feedback sessions from salary reviews. Explains Blanchard: “People might not be as candid with a teammate if they think that something they say could affect the other person’s salary.”

The TIR also guarantees that feedback takes place within a safe environment. When teams get together, managers are not usually present. Instead, the groups often bring in a neutral facilitator who leads the discussions.

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Last, the TIR has a formal process by which teams offer feedback. The reviews happen about every three months. A week before the TIR meeting, participants rate team performance on a 1-to-5 scale for 31 criteria. During the meeting, people discuss the team’s performance as well as individual performance in the context of the team. Critiquing individual performance is usually the hard part. So the sessions use special techniques to keep the discussions focused on performance rather than on personality.

One technique is the Round Robin. Each person creates two columns on a sheet of paper, one labeled “Strengths” and the other “Something to Work On.” Then each person lists all the strengths that he or she brings to the team as well as one thing to work on. The papers get passed around the room, and each team member comments on everyone else’s forms.

Hitchcock says these peer reviews help people to be more honest with themselves: “When people identify something that they need to work on, it’s usually what everyone else wishes they’d work on too. So it puts the team in a position to coach that person.”