I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about organizations, culture, leadership, and performance. Recently I spoke at the ISM conference in Las Vegas on The Elusive High Performance Organization. (And they are very elusive indeed.) I was asked to speak on this topic because a number of years ago I created what I think most people would agree was a high performance organization even though it wasn’t necessarily what most people have in mind when they hear the term. And this led to my first challenge.
Defining a true high performance organization is difficult. When we think about personal or organizational performance, we tend to see it as a linear scale – bad, good, better, best – or something similar. This is an appropriate way to look at productivity, which is the primary way we measure both organizations and people, but high performance organizations do not just product more, they produce “different”. I chose not to give my audience a definition but instead lead them through a guided imagery exercise to experience what it feels like. Here is a first attempt to put high performance organizations into perspective.
Non-performing organizations. A non-performing organization is not meeting the basic requirements of its charter. These organizations are rarely found in line functions that play a direct role in product or service delivery. Non-performing organizations in this group are quickly remediated. Most non-performing organizations are found in support organizations such as IT, HR, Strategy, PMO, etc. Unfortunately EA and business architecture can fall into this group if they fail to provide recognized value. These organizations are often working hard, just not getting the results they need. The leaders of these organizations typically know they have a problem and are continually struggling to solve it. When they fail, the entire function is frequently eliminated, often to be resurrected again a few years later.
Performing organizations. This category represents the majority of organizations. Performing organizations meet expectations, period. They set reasonable and sometimes unreasonably low goals then build a plan to perform slightly better. People in these organizations work hard and strive to become more efficient at delivery but they expect to stay within the hours of a typical workweek. The leaders of these organizations are not highly engaged with the larger organization and are not ambitious. They are comfortable with their role and manage their groups largely to not be noticed. Their approach is to keep their heads down, deliver just a little more than expected, and not screw up.
Well-performing organizations. These organizations produce significantly more than their original remit and frequently take on assignments above and beyond their goals. They are able to accomplish this by becoming highly efficient at their core tasks creating extra time to apply to other opportunities. They also work longer hours than the performing organizations and sometimes very long hours. These organizations are noticed and respected by both managers and peers. The leaders of these organizations are engaged and ambitious. They want to be recognized and move up the organization.
High performance organizations. Notice I changed the wording here. That is intentional, as these groups are not just focused on performing more, they are performing “different”. High performance organizations are not simply efficient – they are highly effective. Frequently they are not efficient at all. High performance organizations meet their remit, but often in unexpected ways. They also go beyond their original charter to deliver other value add products and services that were not expected of them. In these organizations, the entire staff is engaged and willing to work long hours when necessary, but also scale back when it is not. The leaders are highly ambitious but interestingly do not necessarily want to move up. They like what they are doing and want to make their organizations larger so they can do more of it.
The bottom line:_________________________________________________________________
High performance organizations are very rare. Most people have never experienced one up close though many of today’s web-based companies such as Google and Facebook are probably in that category. Most organizations are so efficiency focused with so many unengaged employees they cannot even conceive of a high performance model.