Creating a high performance environment is a question of enabling true capability
There is a lot of talk, and rightly so, about the need for a good strategy, and the ability to execute it. Lack of these will consign any company to the evolutionary dustbin. They are a matter of survival.
Success therefore, depends on whether those responsible for the strategy – and those responsible for its execution – can do their jobs. In simple terms, can they do what they are asked to do, when they are asked to do it? To be able to do so they need a high performance environment.
Everyone in the company, from the janitor to the chairman, has tasks to do. How well they perform those tasks matters, and so we have the concept of performance management. Unfortunately, in most organisations, performance management is dysfunctional because it is based on an erroneous assumption. This leads to a distinctive lack of said high performance environment.
Which erroneous assumption?
When we see someone who is unable to step up and adequately respond the task in front of them in order to get it done at an acceptable level of quality, our knee-jerk reaction is to assume that there is something lacking in the person. We see that they cannot do it, and so we assume there is something wrong with them.
We go about fixing this in a few different ways. We could send them off for training to change them from incompetent to competent. We could move them to some other job which we hope they can do. We get rid of them and hire someone else who we hope can do the job.
As a consequence, performance management typically consists of a raft of measures to find out if people are doing the job well enough. If they are not, the focus is on fixing or changing the person using a big stick, a big carrot, or an iron fist in a velvet glove. This kind of performance management does not result in a high performance environment.
So, what do we need to do differently?
There is another way which is far more likely to lead to improved performance AND give our company the high performance environment we are seeking.
Think back over the last few weeks and consider the times when you did not get done a task that was on your to-do list. Maybe something else came up that was more urgent, maybe you didn’t know how to do it, maybe you couldn’t access the systems or the information you needed, maybe an essential colleague was not available, maybe you procrastinated, maybe the train was late, or maybe your IT failed. Notice that some of the reasons for your inability to do a task were about what you brought to the task at that time, and some of the reasons were external to you. That is at the time of the task the reasons that you could not do it were within your environment.
As you consider those tasks you did not do, what proportion of the time was your inability to respond to the task a result of something about you, the performer?
And what proportion of the time was your inability to respond a result of something around you?
Whenever we are speaking about performance, there are two things to consider. We must consider the competence of the performer, and we must also consider the ‘competence’ of the stage on which they are performing. We could put the best actor in the world on the stage, but if we did not give them a sound system or lights, they could not perform for us.
Most people, once they have been in a job for a while, say that around 80% of the times they cannot do a task, the barriers to their capability are in their environment, not within themselves. Does this ring true for you?
This means our assumption that someone who cannot do the job in front of them is incompetent, will more often be wrong than right. And therefore our typical responses to perceived incompetence will more often be wrong than right. It follows logically, then, that we are lacking the high performance environment we are looking to create.
Each task, each activity is part of a greater performance system, and we have to consider the system when trying to understand which levers to pull in order to improve performance. So rather than make our erroneous assumption about incompetence, we should first be doing a performance diagnosis to find out the root causes of the poor performance.
It is far more effective, and usually also far more cost-effective, to tackle the true root causes of inadequate performance than send people off on a training course in the hope they come back ‘fixed’. Doing so will give our people true capability, which is a combination of personal competence and ensuring the ‘stage’ is as competent as they are.