Minimum viable legibility

Having seen folks struggle through another Google perf season and supporting them through it, I figured I’d write down some of the new things I learned. Specifically, I wanted to focus on the quadrant of performance management blind spot I talked about a while back.

If you do find yourself in the performance management blind spot, congratulations and my condolences. Congrats, because you are probably doing something so interesting and unusual enough that it is not (yet!) captured by the organization’s rubric. Condolences, because you need to do some extra legwork to show that you do indeed provide value to the organization.

Think of it as the minimum viable legibility: the additional effort of making your work recognizable as valuable when viewed through the lens of the performance management rubric, but not so much that it changes its nature. Minimum viable legibility is kind of like a tax, and there are probably lots of different ways to pay it. Based on my experience, it’s a combination of these three ingredients: sponsorship, network of support, and the “big idea”. Depending on the nature of the rubric, each of these may offer varying degrees of effectiveness.

Sponsorship is the situation in which an executive vouches for your work. They expend their own political capital to state that the work is important. If you can find a sponsor like that, you’re usually set. Things to look out for are the reserves of said political capital over time, the commitment to follow through, and the amount of cover given. There also may be additional logistics. For example, you might need to bug them regularly or connect them to the right places in the perf process if they are not in your reporting chain.

Less effective than sponsorship, the network of support may still work reasonably well in environments with peer-driven performance management systems. Kind of like a more distributed variant of sponsorship, the trick here is to grow a robust network of peers (the broader the better) who understand your work and are willing to provide peer feedback on it. It helps significantly if they can articulate well why they see your work as important, so you may have to invest some time into helping them do that – in addition to maintaining the network. When your manager’s sponsorship cover is limited, the network of support can really come through in a pinch.

Finally, sometimes effective, but also fraught with peril, the “big idea” refers to connecting your work to some important — and usually new — initiative. For example, if your organization suddenly sees the need to build a special kind of wooden spoon after focusing on sporks for the last decade, tying your work to the company’s Wooden Spoon OKR might be a tactic to try. The tactic only works when the connection is clear and not dubious, and in combination with other ingredients. Otherwise, it might backfire and actually do harm to your attempts at establishing legibility, becoming a MacGuffin-like distraction.

The unfortunate news is that this is not a reliable recipe. I’ve talked with folks whose extensive and enthusiastic support networks ended up amounting to very little. I know peeps who were trapped several layers of management deep in sponsorship deficit. In such situations, there’s very little that can be done to establish the minimal amount of legibility necessary. Blind spots are tough. However, if you truly believe that you’re doing good work that’s invisible, please give boosting minimum viable legibility a try.

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