So You Crave For a High-Performance Organization?
Two ingredients are the salt and sugar for high-performance organizations.
Every company wants to be a high-performance organization these days. Well, at least most organizations.
That makes sense.
A high-performance organization seems to be the answer to the uncertainty, volatility and complexity we face today. It promises outstanding business outcomes and sustainable success despite these odds. It is an organization where learning and adaptation takes place.
Which responsible company owner wouldn’t want to pursue that path? But what gets you there?
High-performance organization: the basic ingredients
Let me first tell you what will not get you there.
First, you can’t expect to do the same, give it a different name and be successful with that. No one has ever been successful in initiating change without changing anything. Instead, you will have to accept that change is inevitable and even that it could affect you. You will have to let go of things you came to like. Allow for things to happen that may seem counterintuitive to you at first.
Second, you can try to copy what others did but it won’t get you far. Forget about the Spotify model because what you know about it is already outdated. Of course, there are lessons to learn from successful companies. To stay with the Spotify model: you can learn that it evolved and still evolves. Yet, success is rarely the result of replicating what seems to make others successful. Understanding trumps Copying.
There are basic ingredients you will need to build your own recipe for success. Think of them as the salt and sugar of your company.
These are the ingredients, which you should always have in the organization.
Let me break it to you: if you present an idea and there is not at least one person challenging it, you are in trouble.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a worker bee or the big boss. Neither does it matter whether you are the smartest or dumbest person in the room.
Almost every idea can benefit from the input of other people. But even if your idea is perfect as it is: there is always something to learn for you and the person speaking up. At the very least, you learn how people perceive and understand your idea. The person speaking up learns how you react if someone challenges you. So do the other people in the room.
Silence is cruel and deceptive.
The very fact that no one challenges your idea is telling. The silence that you hear is not a sign of agreement. It never is. Well, it is an agreement that staying silent is safe. Most of the time it’s a sign of an unconscious risk analysis. The people in your company weigh the risk of speaking up higher than the potential benefit.
For a high-performance organization you want a learning culture.
Fear invites wrong figures. Bearers of bad news fare badly. To keep his job, anyone may present to his boss only good news.
— W. Edwards Deming, in The New Economics
For better or worse, you want to know if something you knew is no longer valid. Can an idea be improved for the better? You want to know. An idea that no one has brought up? You want to hear it, let others challenge it and ultimately find even better ideas. Is the well-being of your people at risk? In need to pivot for your company to survive? For sure, you want to know this.
And let us be straight.
It is not enough to instill learning on the team level, like rolling out Scrum to your delivery teams. You want to learn on all levels and across all levels of an organization. Even the person at the lowest level of your organization possesses knowledge you don’t have.
Psychological safety became a popular term, when Google shared the results of their Project Aristotle. But the science, linking psychological safety to team performance, has been available way longer.
It’s not so much about being nice, but making it safe for people to speak up and to establish candor. In a psychologically safe environment people ring the bells if something goes wrong. They share ideas, ask questions and learn from the perspective of others. Psychological safety is about listening to and appreciating contributions. But it is also about coming up with a productive response. If an idea is bad, there is no way that people in a psychological safe environment would pursue it anyway. You want to encourage and practice all that, without being condescending or belittling people. Avoid people feeling stupid.
Finally, mind the silents.
Just because some people have the courage to speak up, doesn’t mean that you have high levels of psychological safety. Psychological safety is not a personal trait — it’s a group phenomenon.
A good read on the topic is the book “The fearless organization”. I’ve written a review in another article.
That high standards set an organization apart seems self-explanatory. But do people really look at high standards holistically?
Nowadays I see many people talk about outcome and that makes sense to me. As Stephen Covey, the author of 7 habits of highly effective people, would say: it’s always good to start with the end in mind. But the outcome is the result of many factors, sometimes including good timing and even luck.
Thus, high standards cannot be solely about the outcomes. It’s also about the quality of the process to get there and the quality of the work.
How you treat your employees is important. The people in your company produce value for your customers. They are your most important allies in achieving the best possible outcomes. If you want to set high standards, you should involve them. Seek out to them, ask them what they need and get rid of hurdles they have to jump every day.
Some areas of interest that come to mind when thinking about the topic are:
- Strategy: do we have mechanisms in place that make sure the company strategy is in alignment with changing demands? Can we adjust to changes quickly?
- Individuals and interactions: do people have what they need? How good does collaboration across team borders work? Do Silos exist? Do people have easy access to trainings and alike?
- Processes and Tools: do our processes and tools serve their users? Or do they prevent people from getting things done? Can we make processes leaner? When was the last time you evaluated if a process is still valuable?
- Decision-making: where are decisions taken? Are people empowered to take decisions without jumping over mountain high, bureaucratic hurdles? What does it take to get work equipment or a training? Are people from the workforce invited to participate in decisions of a large impact?
- Transparency: do people have the necessary information to take informed decisions? Does data exist to support decisions? Are people aware of procedures to implement feedback loops?
A good model that can help to think about high standards in organizations is the Lean Thinking model. The model aims for sustainable growth by aligning customer satisfaction with employee satisfaction. To that extent it suggests increasing quality and reducing wasted efforts.
„The problem with workarounds is that well they, work. They seem to get the job done, but, in so doing, they create new, subtle, problems.“
— Amy Edmondson in „The fearless organization“
It’s important to note that quality is not always linked to outcomes. Sometimes people take shortcuts to achieve a desired outcome or build workarounds. That works in short term, but can backfire over time.
Without any doubt it’s a fine line between the two ingredients.
When learning is important, you have to realize that failure is inevitable. When failure is inevitable, you have to decouple failure from fear. You can’t simply fire anyone for mistakes or failure. But you also need to realize that not all failures are equal. Sometimes changes to the organization system could prevent failures from happening. Sometimes they happen out of good intentions as a side effect of complexity. Sometimes they are the result of people breaking the rules for their own good. Or making avoidable mistakes due to sloppiness. Treat those cases differently.
That is certainly a field of tension. But good things in life are not always easy to achieve – that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.