The title of this article is often the first thing I’m asked when I introduce myself as a “performance consultant”. My 30-second answer is that organizational performance is more than training: it is a genuine attempt to diagnose why an organization or individual is not performing as well as expected, training being only one aspect. A performance consultant works to diagnose performance problems and achieve measurable benefits for the client organization.
So much for the mumbo-jumbo: at an individual level, there are only four reasons why someone doesn’t perform adequately:
- Person doesn’t know what to do;
- Person doesn’t know how to do it;
- Person could do it but is otherwise constrained from doing it;
- Person doesn’t want to do it.
Note that training in the traditional sense can only address the third cause: the rest require different solutions.
The performance consultant uses a systems approach to solving performance problems in the workplace. Here’s a simple mnemonic to help understand what we do, something I call the “Performance Spider-web”:
P = Purpose: Does the employee know what they are supposed to do, and why?
Is there a formal job description, or have the duties been properly explained? Are the expectations of the supervisor known?
Often a performance issue can be traced to this relatively simple cause, especially in an organization experiencing rapid growth and change.
E = Environment: Is something in the work environment preventing good performance?
Many times there are environmental handicaps to stellar performance. The performance consultant will look at the physical environment (noise, light, ergonomics), as well as the social environment (stress, peer pressure, workplace conflict). Think about your own organization: are there physical or social barriers to high performance?
R = Resources: Does the individual have the tools and resources necessary to achieve the performance objective?
Of all the reasons given for poor performance, this is probably the most common. The performance consultant will investigate to determine the validity of the claim. If others are capable of performing adequately with the same resources, then this excuse is suspect.
The “resource” or “tools” complaint seems to come up quite often around software and IT projects: “if we just had the latest version”. Again, it is necessary to really investigate the issue. How many people really do more with the latest gee-whiz software than they used to do back in the DOS days? How many people really need the latest 3GHz 64-bit super computer to balance the accounts and write emails?
F = Feedback: Does the individual know they are performing below the expected level?
As a performance consultant, I ask four key questions:
- Is there a performance standard?
- Is the employee aware of the standard?
- When does the employee find out how their performance relates?
Is the employee aware of their performance in relation to the standard?
The fourth point is key: ideally the feedback loop will inform the employee of their performance while they are performing, so they can adjust in time to make the standard. Think of a pilot looking at the instrument panel while flying to a destination. There is immediate feedback that will tell the pilot whether a course correction is needed. Imagine a system where pilots only found out they were off course after they’d missed the destination airfield and run out of gas. How many feedback systems don’t provide “course correction” information to employees in a timely manner?
I usually also look at two other questions:
- What are the consequences (positive or negative) of poor performance?
- What are the consequences (positive or negative) of good performance?
I am amazed at the number of times people are positively rewarded for poor performance. Extra paid overtime when things aren’t done on time is a perfect example. On the other side of the coin, I remember doing a forced march up a mountain during basic training in the military. We were supposed to get to the top in an hour, but my platoon really went for it, and we arrived on top in just over 45 minutes. Our reward: we got to fill sandbags and dig trenches while waiting for the rest of the company to show up! How long do you think it took us to get to the objective next time?
O = Organization: Are all resources organized to ensure best performance?
What does the workflow look like? Are there built-in inhibitors to good performance (bottlenecks, procedural issues, approval loops, etc.)? I look for systemic or process reasons for poor performance. A typical case would involve a new technology that is being employed using the old technology procedures, and the performance increase that the capital project was to have brought about never materializes. Sound familiar?
R = Review: Have you reviewed the skill/knowledge requirements of the work to be performed?
Too many organizations attempt to do tomorrow’s work with yesterday’s skills. Regular review of the skill and knowledge requirements of a job, and regular upgrading of skills is essential for maximum performance. In my last article I underscored the fact that Canadian companies, on average, lag behind our major competitors in terms of improving the skills of their people. This is where training in the traditional sense can have an impact on performance.
Another way to look at this is to ask the question: If performance was OK before, what has changed?
M = Motivation: The core of the model. Does the person want to perform well?
Much has been written about motivational theories and the things that motivate and de-motivate people. My experience is that the key point to remember from all the research is that motivation is a very personal thing. This drives home the point that managers and supervisors must really get to know and understand their people if they want to ensure top performance.
The Performance Spiderweb is a useful way to understand the kinds of processes that performance consultants bring to the job. Note that all of the elements are inter-connected: it is rare that a performance problem has only one cause; usually there are several factors at play. A performance consultant can help sort out the root cause from all the background noise.
Performance consulting is more than a knee-jerk reaction to send someone on a course to correct a problem. It is not “here’s the course, send your people”, what I would call the “traditional” or delivery-oriented training model. Formal training is expensive, and is usually only undertaken where a clear return on the investment can be shown. Taking a performance approach to the training role is the key to making training a strategic business tool rather than a cost centre.
Learning how to change the paradigm from training to performance isn’t easy. Often managers are so immersed in the problem that taking an objective, systems approach is very difficult. This is where performance consultants, either internal or external can be an enormous help. Because we aren’t immersed in the problem, we can be objective. Because we aren’t constrained by the way it’s always been done, we can look at things from a different perspective.
Once the diagnosis is made, a solution can be tailored that virtually guarantees improvement, since the cause of the performance problem is being tackled head-on. The performance approach may take a bit longer, but it makes money in the long run: and that is what performance improvement is really all about.