Infinite Choice
Monday, July 26, 2010 at 7:02AM
Steve in design, performance, performance management

The other day I was driving in a light to moderate then back to light rain storm.  One minute the rain was quite strong and the car's windshield wipers had to be engaged at almost full speed to assureFlickr - Christine Krizsa somewhat decent visibility, and then a minute later the rain would subside to an extent that the wipers were hardly needed at all.

Fortunately for me, my car and most cars made in the last forty years or so possesses a feature called 'intermittent wipers', a mechanism that enables the windshield wipers to operate at numerous speed settings, with variable delays between 'swipes' across the windshield.  In an extremely light rain, or mist, or in rapidly changing conditions like the ones I was driving in, the ability to adjust the speed of the wipers to most closely match the outsude conditions is a fantastic improvement of the wipers' original design - simply either 'On' or 'Off'

In the case of windshield wipers, I think most drivers would agree that having a range of settings, perhaps even an infinite amount of settings is an improvement from 'On' or 'Off'.  But having so many choices in wiper settings can actually make finding just the right setting quite difficult.  On my twenty or so minute drive the other day I must have adjusted the wiper speed fifteen different times. As conditions changed outside, I almost unconsciously reacted by tweaking, ever so slightly, the wiper speed. I have unlimited contol and choice remember, so it is assumed no matter what the rain and wind are doing, I have the ability to set the wipers at the perfect setting. I don't remember anything else about that drive except fussing with the wipers the entire time, and thinking I still have to keep messing with them even though I have far superior technical capability at my disposal.

I was in discussion with some colleagues about performance management, specifically a discussion of the use of rating systems in the performance appraisal process.  One person favored the use of the classic descriptors for formal ratings ('Exceeds, Meets, etc.), while another favored a numerical scale (1-5).  A third said what they really need was a way to rate employees on a sliding scale, that all '3's' or '4's' are not the same, and what they really wanted in their performance management technology was a sliding scale that they could use to dynamically 'drag' and adjust the ratings between the defined beginning and end points. That way they could rate Sally as a 3.73 and Joe as a 3.21 and so on. Sort of like an 'intermittent wiper' for the performance rating.

While I think that the capability for more granular assignment of numeric performance ratings is, at least on the surface, an improvement from assigning '3' or '4', it doesn't really change the fundamental exercise all that much, or improve the conditions or environment that effects the eventual outcomes in the review process. Sure, the manager has more choices, even an almost infinite amount of choices, but as sometimes happens when we are presented with so much choice that we spend all our time focused on the alternatives and much less (or not at all) on the outcomes.  Obsessing over the 'choice' and not the results of the choice if that makes sense.

And no matter how advanced our windshield wiper systems get, it still rains outside.



Article originally appeared on Steve's HR Technology (
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