Performance Success ResultsHow do you know when something needs to be improved?

Typically it is because you begin to notice that the results you are getting are not what you expected. There is a gap between the performance involved in producing a result and the expectation you had for that outcome. In the context of services, this is the definition of Service Quality and in the context of an improvement initiative, performance is assessed by the results achieved, these in turn being driven by the behaviour of those people charged with its delivery. Improvement means closing the gap between performance and expectation.

Performance is so fundamental to a successful improvement initiative that it must be understood and managed from the outset. Whether you are responsible for the overall program, lead a team or perform as an individual team member, it is too late to say at the end that performance was lacking. Consider the following comment taken from the Harvard Business Review in the Moving Mountains article, January 2003, as part of an edition devoted to Motivation:

There’s no trick to motivating others. It requires a clear, unbiased understanding of the situation at hand, deep insight into the vagaries of human nature at both the individual and the group levels, the establishment of appropriate and reasonable expectations and goals, and the construction of a balanced set of tangible and intangible incentives. It requires, in other words, hard thinking and hard work. And when an organisation is under strain or is in crisis, the challenges-and the stakes-become that much higher.

Were we to change the words “motivating others” to “managing performance” I think we would be closer to making an accurate statement. In reality, people motivate themselves and yet the reality we all face is that it is one thing to be motivated and another to be able to give effect to it and perform. Indeed, the risk for many organisations is that: “…research consistently shows that even the most committed employees will rapidly become demotivated if they cease to find their work meaningful or they can’t succeed at it.” Motivation is essential for performance but not enough by itself, so in the context of execution, organisational change and improvement, understanding what matters to performance is critical to improving.

Whatever way you look at it, understanding and explaining performance can be complicated and the link between motivation and performance is neither direct nor simple. This is a big topic to be expanded in future posts, however, over the next two posts we offer five pointers to better understanding performance. This post covers the first two.

Clarity: When we talk about performance what do we mean?

In the context of organisational change and improvement, we tell people they need to perform but it isn’t always clear what we mean. The dictionary definition canvases activity, outcome and capability to define one sense of the word:

– the action or process of performing a task or function: the continual performance of a single task reduces a man to the level of a machine.– a task or operation seen in terms of how successfully it is performed: pay increases are now being linked more closely to performance | [ count noun ] : it was a tremendous all-round performance by Wigan.– the capabilities of a machine, product, or vehicle: the hardware is put through tests which assess the performance of the processor | [ as modifier ] : a performance car.

Performance in terms of organisational change and improvement initiatives, will be framed in terms of how successfully a task or operation is performed. As an example, the English Premier League is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading football leagues, with each team playing 38 matches from August to May. When you watch a match, all that you see is what each team does – you don’t see what individuals think or how they feel, only what they do. The team’s performance, assessed by whether they win, draw, or lose, is driven by what individuals do and how well they do it. Sometimes a team scores because they engineered it, sometimes because they were lucky and sometimes they don’t score because they were unlucky or the other team offered an effective defence. There are many elements that go to make up a team’s actions such as:

  1. Anticipation of each other’s intentions and that of the opposition;
  2. Applying their individual technical skills to do their job on the field;
  3. Accuracy performing their job with attention to detail and care;
  4. Speed and timeliness, either fast or slow, to adapt to the situation at hand;
  5. Individuals working as a team to coordinate ball movement toward the goal;
  6. Resilience when things don’t go to plan and how individuals adapt.

All of these actions take place in a context of collective and individual preparation before the game, along with the tactics developed by the manager and staff for the game. The game also takes place in the context of being either home or away, encouraged or otherwise by the crowd with the referee providing additional context through the interpretation and application of the rules of football.

Likewise, change and improvement initiatives take place in their various organisational contexts of markets, operations, culture etc. Performance, however, is still assessed in terms of results, that are, in turn, driven by behaviour. That behaviour comes from an individual’s understanding of their accountability, job requirements, expectations and the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that govern their motivation. If that sounds messy, it is and placing performance in the context of organisational change and improvement adds significantly to that messiness. Setting up and delivering successful improvement initiatives requires you to be able to see performance clearly and objectively in terms of the results to be delivered.

Performance is ultimately about the ability to execute and deliver results, giving rise to another question: “Whose performance do we need to consider and what results?”.

Results: What do they look like?

To answer the first part of the question, because of the systemic nature of organisations, with their interdependencies and interrelationships, performance has to be viewed through the lens of all of the participants; everyone involved in prosecuting the improvements and everyone involved in consuming them. In terms of the second part, the business case, the charter documentation, and the benefits realisation plan reflect the expectations regarding the results to be achieved. It should be obvious that these results will demonstrably improve organisational capabilities, market position, operational performance and competitiveness but sometimes, while this is obvious to the senior leadership and their direct reports, it isn’t clear to those required to put these changes into effect and deliver the expected results.

The challenge is, therefore, to establish buy-in and cooperation to deliver these results at the start of the program, hence the need to understand and manage performance at the beginning, not as part of a belated performance appraisal process.

In their book, Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne explain the idea of “Fair Process” as a way of allowing organisations to build execution into strategy, and in my view, any improvement initiative. The founding concept is to enable people to trust the process through which improvement objectives have been developed and encourage cooperation from the outset. They explain fair process in terms of three ‘e’ principles that collectively lead to judgements of fair process:

  • Engagement – being the process of involving individuals in the strategic decisions that affect them and allowing dialogue on the merits of ideas and assumptions, sharpening thinking and offering new ideas.
  • Explanation – ensures that everyone involved understands why the final strategic decisions are made as they are and the impartial decisions in the overall interest of the organisation.
  • Expectation clarity – reflects the new rules of the game. What targets, milestones, accountabilities, standards and penalties apply.

This is further reinforced by Robin Stuart-Kotze in his book Performance: The Secrets of Successful Behaviour. where he emphasises the importance of an ‘ask them’ rather than a ‘tell them’ approach. He cites Peter Drucker’s observation: “One has to assume, first, that the individual human being at work knows better than anyone else what makes him or her more productive …. even in routine work the only true expert is the person who does the job”.

If we needed any further reinforcement in the context of a services business, one that relies on the individual or group creating the service to be consumed, it is the importance of knowledge and its application. In the knowledge economy of which we are part:

The core assets of the modern business enterprise lie not in buildings, machinery, and real estate, but in the intelligence, understanding, skills, and experience of employees. Harnessing the capabilities and commitment of knowledge workers is, it might be argued, the central managerial challenge of our time. (Beyond Empowerment, HBR, January 2003 p48)

Identifying and committing to results in this environment has gone far beyond “tell and sell”. It depends on trust and confidence between the various parties to seek genuinely beneficial outcomes for the organisation as a whole, even where there will be some disappointment. Providing clarity and support, even where bad news is involved, is a generally better approach that can engender and preserve respect.

What does successful performance look like?