How Important is the "How"?

Do you know the best way to succeed in your career?  To stand out in the crowd?  To prove your capabilities?  Well sure, that’s by showing results, a ton of results!  You work long hours and stay focused on getting your deliverables done.  Right?  Well, have you considered the possibility that showing results isn’t the only important aspect to focus on to be successful in your job?  Granted, it has a lot of weight.  But as a manager, if I had to choose between an engineer that shows a ton of results but upsets all his coworkers and in the end I have to intervene to keep everyone motivated, versus an engineer that shows slightly less results but was able to partner, lead, or mentor others to allow them to also show results and when completed, everyone was happy and team morale was high, I would choose the second.  And many managers think this way.  What this means is that how you accomplish your deliverables at work is just as important as what you accomplish.

At Microsoft, we changed our performance review philosophy over the last few years to focus on the “How”.  And I found through this last review period that there is still a lot of learning for engineers to understand what this means.  Every year, there are always a few people upset with their review ratings.  This year, I found the theme was truly around understanding the importance of the “How”.  Engineers would state that they worked through the weekend and in the evenings, yet they didn't made improvements in working smarter so that they didn’t have to work those long hours.  Their counterpart engineers that made efficiency gains and got the same amount of results but by working smarter so they weren’t working longer had the potential to be reviewed better.  People who were leading projects and expecting that this increased responsibility would show up well during the review potentially didn’t pay enough attention to the "how" which would have uncovered that people saw their leadership style as condescending or harsh.  Engineers who were involved in the big, highly visible projects potentially positioned themselves so that they were the single point of failure meaning nobody else had been taught how to do their job.  Although they showed a ton of results on a very important project, it doesn't mean "how" they did their work was optimal to the overall team or the company.  Do you understand why watching how you do your job is as important as what you do?

The interesting thing about performance reviews at Microsoft is that we now implemented a peer feedback process.  This information has become increasingly important in evaluating someone’s “How”. 

  • Firstly, most of the peer feedback is all about the “How”.  When you think about what you want to say about someone else you work with, it’s not as much about how many results they accomplished or deliverables they produced.  It’s about how they treated you, how you felt about working with them, and whether or not they made your life easier.  Peer feedback is truly about the “How”. 
  • Secondly, recording feedback into an official tool makes people very nervous, so typically I found that what is in the tool is much more conservatively written than what that coworker actually feels.  Talking to someone in private shows a lot more emotion and they are a lot more open than what they wrote in the tool.  What that means is if your peer feedback from the tool has any negative feedback written in it, it’s probably some degree more substantial than that in reality. 

Those two items help managers in determining someone’s “How”.

Not all companies gather peer feedback.  Actually some of them tried it and decided to stop it.  And I’m sure as Microsoft continues to mature to meet the needs of its employees, it will make changes as well.  But without getting lost in the logistics of it all, the bottom line that everyone should consider in any corporation or industry is: how are you doing your work?  Are you leaving a mess for someone else to clean up around teamwork and relationships or are you showing results while creating partnerships and helping make others great as well?  Granted, just having a good “How” with no “What" (the deliverables and accomplishments to show for all your work) is also not the right focus.  You need both and doing well at both will carry your career farther.