Performance Management System Overhaul: Autodesk Case Study

If you’re considering making significant changes to your company’s PM system, it’s very useful to hear from someone who’s gone through the process, which is why I’m capping off my series of articles about performance management with a case study of a company that’s done it. Autodesk first made a name for itself with AutoCAD, the computer-aided design application that allows users to create detailed technical drawings of all types. For decades AutoCAD has been the most widely used program for 2D non-specialized applications. After creating many specialty versions of the software for more specific use in architecture, civil engineering, and manufacturing, Autodesk began expanding into other types of design software, including parametric building modeling and parametric mechanical design applications. Jonathan Levy, Director of Training and Organizational Development at Autodesk, was deeply involved in what turned out to be a major overhaul of the company’s PM system. What follows are excerpts from an interview with him that details how it happened.

You can also download the expanded whitepaper Performance Management: New Directions in Appraisal and Evaluation – The Autodesk Case Study.

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When you first arrived at Autodesk, was a PM system overhaul already on your agenda or was it something that developed over time? — Sherman Morrison

Performance Management was not on my radar screen when I first arrived at Autodesk. I joined Autodesk back in 2009, and at that time we had a fairly traditional performance management system in place. Jan Becker, the Senior VP of HR, and Ian Mitchell, the VP of Training and Organization development, noticed that the most maligned process on the annual employee engagement survey was the performance management system.   Many employees thought that the written performance reviews had become nothing more than a “check-the-box” activity that wasn’t adding any real value. They also shared that there was little ongoing feedback as managers put most of the effort into the written documents, and conversations were taking place, if at all, only once a year. So while the way we did business at Autodesk was undergoing high-level change, the PM system was fundamentally unchanged.

When you realized that the PM system at Autodesk wasn’t adding the value that it should, what came next? — Sherman Morrison

There was widespread agreement that we wanted performance management to be ongoing and not an event. We also agreed that the system would need to focus not just on what gets done, but also on how it gets done. We also agreed that the greatest potential value was in the performance discussions, not in a written document. To help employees develop well, we also saw value in making feedback more ongoing rather than only annual, which fit nicely with the overall changes at Autodesk that were requiring us to be much more agile. We wanted a PM system that would reflect that increased agility. We were identifying not just what a PM system should be, but what Autodesk specifically needed from a PM system.

That must have been both exciting and nerve-wracking. What did you come up with for a new PM system? — Sherman Morrison

We decided to make a major overhaul. It was apparent to us that merely tweaking the system wouldn’t satisfy these objectives. The most major change was to abolish written reviews entirely. We wanted coaching and feedback to be ongoing, not event-driven, and so we shifted the focus to having ongoing/high-impact discussions. We also doubled down on “calibration sessions” that helped everyone understand what excellent performance looks like in their areas. These sessions provide managers with a forum to get a more in depth view of how others’ view their employees and to create more consistent approaches to evaluating performance.

What was the reaction among the rank-and-file employees? — Sherman Morrison

About two years into the PM transformation we launched a campaign to drive the new process more deeply into the organization because people wanted more information and tactics on how to make it happen. One thing we wanted to do was to stop calling the whole thing a performance management system, because that felt too synonymous with the old approach. We wanted to come up with a name that would not only capture a more holistic approach but also link to business results. What we came up with was Performance Matters, which offered a nice double entendre of not only covering matters of performance, but that performance really matters to Autodesk. We also came up with three tag lines to go along with it: Performance Matters for Autodesk; Performance Matters for your development; and Performance Matters for you and your team. Then we conducted interviews throughout all levels of the company, asking open-ended questions about performance and people’s experience of performance at Autodesk, how the feedback they received was affecting them and changing their careers. So then you have people hearing from each other what felt important and significant about performance. We had video presentations about this along with sessions we called “Lunch and Learns” to engage people in discussions about performance and best practices around development and coaching and ongoing feedback. We also created a variety of tools, resources and trainings that helped people learn how to more fully engage with the different elements of the system.

How do you evaluate the impact and effectiveness of Performance Matters? — Sherman Morrison

We did two years of focused surveys about the new PM process. It was the data from those that led directly to the development of the second phase to drive the system deeper into the organization. The Holy Grail, of course, would be to make a link between these changes in the PM system to business results, but we haven’t found a way to do that. There are just too many other intervening variables and forces and other changes happening that get in the way.

November 13, 2014   Updated :July 31, 2017   autodesk, case study, performance management   

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