We all need feedback but few of us get the kind to really help us be successful on the job. And few of us do a good job of giving other people similar critique. The 3 x 5 conversation is a simple but effective way to communicate and to make sure we are focusing on the right things. It’s a way for subordinates to get calibrated with their bosses, and it’s also a structure for managers and leaders to coach subordinates towards greater success. It can work particularly well to facilitate difficult conversations about underperformance.
A key assumption here is that the boss knows what his or her subordinates are supposed to be doing and knows what success looks like. The term “3 x 5” refers to a typical 3 x 5 note card, and to the number of topics to be discussed. Writing three to five bullet points on a 3 x 5 note card is an effective way to keep focused on the most important. Below are some examples.
You need feedback from your boss. This is especially useful early in the transition to a new position or to a new boss. This is more conversational and actionable, and less threatening, than the typical structured performance review. It’s a vehicle for you to make sure you’re doing what is expected. In an ideal world, you’d have a good roadmap for this on the front end. But we don’t live in that world, which means we often need to take the initiative rather than waiting for instructions and guidance that may never come. Here, the initial conversation could go something like this:
“I’d like to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to be successful. I would appreciate getting on your calendar for a few minutes to make sure I’m focused on the right things. It would be of great help to me for you to articulate your key priorities for my work, and also what success in each of those areas will look like in your eyes. I’ll bring a similar list of the things that I’m spending most of my time on and we can compare notes to ensure I’m pointed in the right direction.”
From this conversation, you should have enough information to set some clear targets for success. Of course there may be more than the three to five priorities, so don’t put artificial constraints on the boss. But you’ll probably be able to distill the key takeaways from this discussion into a manageable set of priorities.
You want to give feedback to a subordinate who is performing effectively. The basic idea of comparing notes in a more conversational and informal setting applies here as well. Even if you have already provided a structured performance review, this is still a good way to help successful people stay focused on the right thing. You don’t need the encumbrance of a stilted performance management/review structure. Here, the initial conversation could be something like:
“I’d like to be sure that you have everything you need to continue to be successful in your job. At your convenience, let’s talk about my priorities for your work, and also about the key things you’re focusing on at this point. Don’t worry, this is not a formal performance review. And we’re having this talk for good reasons, not bad. I just want you have a clear roadmap for continued success. Before we get together, please list the three to five key things you are focused on at this point, the things that are taking up most of your time. Then we can compare notes to make sure that we’re in sync. No other preparation is necessary.”
You need to give feedback to a subordinate who is having performance problems. You should be positive here, but don’t pull your punches. Even if you have not already addressed the shortcomings before, the chances are good that this person knows he or she is not performing at the level you expect. However, things need to be made explicit. Emphasize that you see this person as valuable and worth the effort to coach and develop, but that there need to be some changes. Also emphasize that if he or she is successful, you will be too. This means you have a vested interest in a positive outcome. Keep in mind Marshall Goldsmith’s ideas about feedforward (http://bit.ly/191fadX) rather than feedback. That is, don’t spend much time on his or her screw ups. Rather, communicate what success would look like in your eyes. Use the same general introductory format as above but stress that this is an opportunity for you to work together to achieve success. Set the tone that you’re providing coaching for future achievement and growth, rather than just critiquing the past.
The session should conclude with specific behavioral steps to help him or her to achieve success. Stay focused on behavior: what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and why it needs to be done. And be sure to include checkpoints and time frames.
What to do with this information.
As a subordinate, the critique and insight you receive from these sessions should be central to your career planning, skill development and ultimate success. It should have given you enough data to define your most important goals for growth. A general sequence for this would be as follows:
1. Decide on a few (no more than three at a time, please) key goals that will help ensure your success and make your life easier on the job. These goals should be of the SIMple variety – Specific, Important and Measurable (from One Page Talent Management — http://amzn.to/1m9b7FL).
2. Take inventory. What resources are available, and what obstacles are you likely to face? Take into account your primary strengths and how you can use them to help you achieve these goals. Also plan for how you will deal with the Resistance (capital R) that’s always an obstacle to positive growth and change. See Do the Work (http://amzn.to/1QVot58).
3. Develop strategies to achieve these goals and test them out in the real world.
4. Tweak your strategies in response to tangible results and feedback from these efforts.
5. Iterate. Keep the process going to achieve new and/or modified goals.
As a leader, try to play more the role of coach and mentor. That is, help your people to work within the above goal-setting/accomplishment structure towards a positive outcome. Check out the references above for insights and tools for doing this.
Good communications are essential to success in any organization. No matter how diligent you are about communications, things tend to fall through the cracks and people get lax after a while. It takes sustained and continued effort to make sure that everybody has the information they need to be successful. The 3 x 5 conversation can help keep the lines open and can help create a culture of growth and positive achievement. This tool is deceptively simple and easy to use, but it’s not a one-time fix. It’s something you’ll need to rely on consistently over time for maximum impact and benefit.