The Importance of a Systematic Approach to Realising & Maintaining High Performance
"Too often interventions in organisations appear driven by knowledge of tools and techniques rather than by understanding of the causes of performance issues"
It can be hard to change while our actions are producing goods and services that are profitable and sought after. But producing profitable goods and services does not guarantee the future of a business. Focus only on what is current and the demand for our goods and services will change while our goods and services do not. As business situations change so our goods and services and the ways in which they are produced or provided must also change.
To make changes that are necessary we need to look beyond our immediate actions and outcomes and pay attention to factors that influence, i.e. that help or hinder, what we want to achieve. As these influences change we need to review what we want to achieve, identify the critical influences and take actions to manage them. In short, the more we understand the influences that make up our situation the more able we are to manage them. If we do not understand them or we ignore them we risk letting them manage us. Either we take control and steer our course or allow ourselves to be driven by the current and into possible danger.
To understand any situation we need to know, 'what influences are at play in any situation'. Fortunately this is something WHE UK has been working on for many years and, by combining research, science and business experience, WHE UK has produced a very, very useful way to look at situations; any situations.
WHE-UK's Situation Dashboard (in development and use since 2006) groups all situational influences into three categories: Aspirations, People and Conditions. These influences, which are not always visible in a situation, combine to shape the actions and outcomes that we can see. Very importantly, the Situation Dashboard also shows that influences interact.
To get the actions and outcomes we need, Aspirations must be clear and achievable. This means: Aspirations and operating Conditions must support each other; Conditions and People must support each other; and, People and Aspirations must support each other. When they do, we see desirable actions and outcomes. When they do not, actions and outcomes may not just be undesirable they can be very damaging.
If we focus on what we see in the middle we will notice when actions and outcomes start to be a problem. If we monitor the influences we can spot changes and adapt situations to ensure we continue to fulfil our purpose, often avoiding problematic actions and outcomes. WHE UK uses this systemic way of looking at situations to ensure the causes of performance issues are identified and addressed (the influences and their interactions) and not just their symptoms (the actions and outcomes).
Let me restate that very important and easily overlooked point. Organisations need to address the causes of performance issues not just their symptoms. Far too many organisations try to address the actions and outcomes of the people doing the work as if they were the only performance issue. In most cases this is putting plasters on cuts without removing the causes of the cuts. Stress, bullying, disengagement and underperformance are problematic but they are also just the symptoms of issues. The causes of these problems need to be resolved otherwise the stress management training and engagement programmes and leadership training will have little if any lasting effect, except on increased costs and reduced morale and reduced future performance.
The fact that people are almost always the medium through which performance issues come to light means that people are often mistaken to be the problem. Take the following example.
A private equity firm bought a company, with the intention of improving its value and selling it on for a profit. The company was successful but it was not growing, its products, while world leading, were not evolving and its competitors were catching up fast. This is a great example of a company that has excellent and profitable goods that are in demand, it was doing what it had been good at and just focused on its actions and outcomes. It was NOT considering or taking account of the influences on its situation.
The private equity firm had identified this but those within the company had not. The private equity firm decided on two interventions to address what it believed to be the problem, i.e. that the management team lacked and therefore needed to develop or acquire the necessary knowledge and skills for business growth and product innovation. At first this seemed a good analysis and the interventions seemed appropriate.
When the Situation Dashboard was used with the company management team, it became clear that many managers had the necessary knowledge and skills to help grow the organisation and to inject innovation into product development. The key issue that we surfaced together was a working environment that did not encourage or reward the use of their knowledge and skills. In fact working conditions, such as management/department structures and meetings, were great for operational performance and product excellence but provided almost no support for developing future performance.
In a nutshell, strategic business development was missing from day-to-day business and performance management and the operating conditions kept it that way. It was a conditions issue not a people issue!
As a direct result of this work, changes were made to: reporting lines; ownership of goals; meetings were changed to support all the strategic priorities; and, service levels were agreed between managers that depended on each other's roles or departments. Actions and outcomes subsequently changed with a greater focus on business development goals and on engaging and supporting colleagues in using their knowledge and skill sets.
The private equity firm bought the company for more than $100 million and sold it two years later (within 18 months of this business psychology intervention) for more than three times that sum.
This systemic way of looking at situations makes it easier to identify the underlying causes of performance issues and communicate them to those who need to decide on interventions. It may cost a little more to invest in this early analysis but it saves time and costs in the long run, creates changes that work and avoids wasting resources on interventions that only try to address the symptoms of performance issues.