The Quarterly Sit-Down: How to run more efficient performance reviews

Published on Nov 09, 2023

The Quarterly Sit-Down: How to run more efficient performance reviews

You don’t have to dread performance reviews. There’s a 15-minute format that requires minimal prep but gets managers and employees aligned on critical goals and openly discussing performance and career development. Instead of the typical and agonizing multipage writeups, it focuses on sparking important conversations that lead to improvement. I call it the “Quarterly Sit-Down.”

I first shared this approach after an industry conference where several of us founders were stressing the importance of transparency and continuous feedback within our own teams. We discovered many of us were struggling to find the right depth, frequency, and formality for reviews. Some had a yearly cadence that nearly shut down their leadership team. Others admitted to not having any process or an irregular cadence. We all agreed that regular, consistent feedback should be the goal.

I described a streamlined framework I’d used for several years before I refined it while scaling my companies Payvment and Opsmatic (those companies were later acquired by Intuit and New Relic respectively). There was enough interest that I documented my framework and am sharing it here.

Driving toward continuous feedback

In an ideal world, managers would provide continuous feedback—during meetings, at 1:1s, and when reviewing code/work. In the real world, we’re usually driving too fast and hard to pause to collect our thoughts. The next best thing is a swift process that can be repeated frequently enough to ensure teams never get off track. The core tenets are that the framework is:

  • Lightweight and informal—prep and delivery time should be less than fifteen minutes each and easy to repeat throughout the year to align with the pace of a fast-growing company.
  • Comprehensive—a review of the recent past, future goals setting, skills assessment, and development planning are rolled into one.
  • Provocative—the right conversation will reveal misalignment immediately (more on that later).

QSD: Step-by-step

The Quarterly Sit-Down is an efficient format for employee performance reviews that asks both managers and employees to assess accomplishments, goals, strengths, areas for improvement, and ways the manager can help. They then swap their one-page write-ups and discuss misalignments.

The QSD is designed to be held quarterly to prevent misunderstandings from turning into wasted work or missed milestones, and the cadence makes these check-ins less scary for employees. I like to hold them just after the close of the quarter, during the first week of the next quarter.

The QSD starts with both the employee and the manager independently filling out an identical form (template here).

Each form has six sections::

  • Key accomplishments the previous quarter: big things you got done
  • Top five goals for the coming quarter: big things you aim to get done
  • Top five strengths: what makes you successful at what you do
  • Three areas to develop: what you could do better, how you’ll get there
  • Three ways my manager can support me: requests for development support
  • Feedback for my manager: how they can do better and any kudos

It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to do this the first time, and less with successive quarters. It looks like this, with intentional brevity to keep the discussion focused:

A screenshot of the Quarterly Sit-Down template

‎It’s critical that neither party shares their form with the other prior to an in-person meeting, during which the manager and employee swap printed or digital forms. After both do a quick silent read-through of each other’s forms, they can discuss where they were in sync and what needs reconciliation. Finally, the employee and manager review how the last quarter’s accomplishments match up with the previous quarter’s goals.

Reconciling misalignments

Healthy teams may be seen smiling and nodding as their points all look similar, and they can focus on refining the next quarter’s goals or professional development plans.

However, during this process misalignments are immediately (and sometimes painfully) obvious—in fact, these revelations are probably the biggest value of this process. 

When there’s some difference in perception, it drives an often hard but always useful conversation about what got done, future priorities, or areas to grow. Typically this carries over into 1:1s and beyond—it’s a big wake-up call to having “missed” each other. I’ve seldom seen an employee/manager pair repeat a misalignment for more than one or two quarters. If there are big disagreements with the feedback, I have managers make notes in the forms or add additional notes to clarify so we have documentation and issues can be surfaced to leadership.

You should come away with not only a clear sense of an employee’s performance, but also how to improve it and how you can nurture that progress.

How QSDs connect to KPIs and compensation

While QSDs are a great forcing function for clarity, keeping feedback continuous within the quarter is critical—especially on the development areas and “how my manager can help me” items. This process also assumes you have a regular check-in process to track achievement of goals/deliverables as laid out in the QSD. This isn’t a replacement for key performance indicators (KPIs) but instead a way to diagnose why they did or didn’t get completed.


A portrait of SignalFire
Jim Stoneham, inventor of the QSD and your humble author

‎Many companies make merit-based compensation adjustments yearly, some twice per year. I’ve used QSDs in both contexts. They provide a perfect way to track employee achievement and growth as a backdrop for any compensation change or other performance action—and because you’ve had a documented quarterly conversation/alignment session, none of the good (or bad) news should come as a surprise to the employee. I usually add a single page of additional feedback and commentary at compensation and promotion review time on top of the QSDs—summarizing a person’s growth, high achievement, or other trends during the previous period.

Speaking of performance reviews, your critique of this QSD format is most welcome at jim@signalfire.com. You can also find me on Twitter/X. I hope this guide helps you make feedback a natural, ongoing facet of your work. And ideally it helps your teams see performance reviews as less of a stressful surprise report card, and more like a two-way dialogue about how to help them and the company grow.

*Portfolio company founders listed above have not received any compensation for this feedback and did not invest in a SignalFire fund. Please refer to our disclosures page for additional disclosures.

Related posts

Building blocks for HR success: Set up a People function
Advice
March 27, 2024

Building blocks for HR success: Set up a People function

We’ve earmarked $50M for the SignalFire AI Lab to provide the resources, capital, and credibility to help tomorrow’s AI leaders today.
The new 9-box: Modernizing the talent review template
Advice
February 14, 2024

The new 9-box: Modernizing the talent review template

We’ve earmarked $50M for the SignalFire AI Lab to provide the resources, capital, and credibility to help tomorrow’s AI leaders today.
Hire from these 9 AI-vy League companies, not Ivy League schools
Advice
Must-Read
January 31, 2024

Hire from these 9 AI-vy League companies, not Ivy League schools

We’ve earmarked $50M for the SignalFire AI Lab to provide the resources, capital, and credibility to help tomorrow’s AI leaders today.
No items found.