In a rigid bureaucracy, whether in the government or the private sector, employee capability can become “dead capital” – an enormous, dynamic resource, effectively stifled by the organization. Successful performance management liberates that “captive” creativity, enthusiasm and dedication as a force multiplier for organizational success.
Fine as far as it goes, but how does this work in actual implementation?
Let’s begin with an example based on an axiom; workers are as different in their personalities as they are in their skill sets. Between one third and one half of the American population are introverts, people who perform best on their own, and whose quality of work can actually decline in team-related gatherings, which saps an introvert’s energy and distracts their attention.
The “cubicle-ization” of the American workplace, eliminating offices in favor of mass, open floor plans, has been a disaster for introverted employees who require privacy and quiet to perform at their best.
Enter Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” a book which became a best seller in 2012. Cain has collaborated with the design firm Steelcase to develop a workplace alternative. The Cain-Steelcase design, represents five unique work rooms that are modular, and can be dropped in within today’s ubiquitous open floor plans.
While designed for introverts, the rooms provide value for extroverts and others of no designation. Of 39,000 North American workers surveyed, 95% reported the need for quiet spaces that allow for confidential conversations, ranging from a call to a doctor, to a conference call with a key client.
The Cain-Steelcase collaboration is an example of “actionable research” – transforming critical data and conclusions into tangible improvements in the workplace that unlock the “captive value” in employees, creating a new threshold for performance enhancement.
Performance leaders in organizations will quickly see the possibilities that these marginal investments will have in sustainable productivity. It is that paradigm of performance leadership and empowered employees that re-writes the narrative work success.
Executives know that they must improve performance capability to improve performance results. But recent public sector initiatives focused on improved performance have been anything but encouraging.
Technology has been a de facto silver bullet for government managers, holding the promise of greater capability and operational efficiency. But the technology silo rarely produces advertised results. In the latest example, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has identified at least $10 billion in federal information technology contracts that are at risk of failure.
$10 billion. That’s almost equal to the amount of money the Feds lost in the GM bailout from 2008, which caused such public controversy. But this report and its results send barely a ripple through the news.
Then you have the Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs where management, technology and policy failed spectacularly, leading to embarrassment, delays and even, potentially, loss of life, respectively.
We clearly need to address these shortcomings more seriously. We need a new path to secure better, more responsive results, and that begins with fresh thinking.
Performance capability is a combination of employee readiness, operational resources, and structural design. Each has its unique complexity, which dynamically impacts the other elements. If executives neglect performance capability, they risk embedding systemic operational weaknesses throughout the organization.
What to do? Executives have three basic options to enhance performance capability.
The first option is to redesign the work. We are all familiar with this in one form or another.
Redesign can be simple, such as a new directive, but these impacts can fade quickly, as enduring cultural influences remain fixed. Redesign can also be grand, incorporating completely new concepts for processing work or new organizational reporting. The grand redesign is a high risk/high reward proposition. The payoff for successful implementation is an energized, high performing organization. The risks, primarily but not wholly generated by employees, include uncertainty, lack of awareness underlying the purpose of change and organizational culture clashes. Every redesign inherently picks winners and losers, and the inadequately explained organizational shift empowers those with the most to lose in the design, impeding optimal results.
The second option is new technology. We have already seen how this can go terribly wrong in the examples outlined above.
Clearly, technology is a double two-edged sword.
Technology has the power to accelerate access to vast information and organize an incredible variety of functional applications, but this invariably comes with negative effects. Indeed, today’s standard design/procurement cycle for technology deployment has a seriously counter-productive impact on work.
The larger, more expensive and complex a technology fix becomes, the more likely it is that the technology, not the problem it was designed to remedy, will become the focus of employee efforts. The result is a poor fit of technology that creates unnecessary burdens on employees, where staff are trying to comply with the tool rather than creating better outcomes. A poor fit can also exasperate operational and organizational weaknesses by putting too much faith into static machinery, rather than seeking adaptive capabilities. To be successful, technology must be adaptive to work design, not the other way around.
The third option is new knowledge.
Training is always relevant to work performance, but the value of the retained knowledge is always in question. Valuable knowledge is acquired in many ways, including skill-based training, work-embedded training, work-based coaching, and work-related analytics. Each of these is valuable, but pose the risk of not sustaining value or becoming misaligned with business goals.
Skill-based training is not necessarily applied to the work. Work-embedded training can reinforce a weak work design. Work-based coaching can be off the organizational goals. Analytics can distort and drive unwanted behaviors. Valuable knowledge is when employees and executives are prepared to change work capacity together.
In sum, for each approach there is a significant downside. But what if, as part of our fresh thinking, we were to incorporate the best features of design, technology and knowledge into a discipline of its own, where the mutually reinforcing elements empowered change from the bottom up while also limiting risk?
That creates a fourth option; performance engineering for executives.
Performance engineering is a “trans-disciplinary” method of fitting design, technology, and knowledge together so that the changing and complex elements of performance capability are measurable, and readily available for analysis. Recursive analyses of elements allows employees and executives the opportunity to test feasible change, and create a rigorous culture with the potential for performance improvement. Instead of looking to one element to solve an organizational problem, performance engineering incorporates each, creating maximum value with minimal risk. It is fast, adaptable, scalable and affordable to almost any organization, in or outside the government.
We cannot end organizational challenges. But we can improve the manner in which we address them, which is fast, flexible and cost-effective, and which unlocks the captive value of employees while promoting rigor, efficiency and accountability.
For discerning executives, Performance Engineering is the answer.
Issuing its first revision to first quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 2014, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has reported that the US economy contracted by one percent in the first three months of the year; the first such contraction since 2011. Despite truly extraordinary efforts by the Federal Reserve since 2008, and more than $1 trillion in spending by the federal government since 2009, the economic recovery that officially began in June 2009 has been halting and anemic, significantly under-performing all post-recession recoveries since WWII.
Is this the “new normal”? Do we face – or more importantly, are we bequeathing to our children – a world of stagnation where individual gains are only derived from redistributing the existing pie?
To answer the question, meet Robert Solow.
An MIT professor, and later, a Nobel Prize winner, Solow published a paper in 1957 that analyzed American labor productivity gains. Those gains are the core component of per capita GDP growth, which directly relates to expanded wealth and improved living standards.
Solow research determined that less than 13 percent of growth in output per worker could be accounted for in increased use of capital (land, equipment, et. al.). The overwhelming majority of the increase, nearly 88 percent, was attributable to “technical change” or innovation.
As Jim Manzi, former CEO of Lotus Development notes in a recent article in National Affairs, “The root of American economic success has not been luck or land or conquest but innovation.”
Despite our subpar economic performance, as a nation we remain in a dynamic era where innovation radically reduces costs, spurring additional innovation, in an almost virtuous cycle, that is a natural wellspring for growth.
Consider the computer revolution. In 1990, one million transistors cost $527.00. Today, a million transistors costs five cents.
Or consider storage capacity. In 1990 it cost $569.00 to store a gigabyte of data. Today, the same data can be stored for two cents.
The birth of ubiquitous IT, which revolutionized the marketplace for business and consumers at the end of the 20th century, has in turn, been the basis of a second, potentially more consequential revolution. The competition and subsequent innovation that triggered the radical drop in marginal costs for hardware and storage has catalyzed a new market of low-cost, specialized analytic tools, which, when combined with low cost data storage, provide unprecedented insight into business operations, promoting efficiency, transparency and accountability in near real-time.
Applied automation is now automatic, analytic and actionable.
But technology tells only one part of the innovation story. Human interaction, in a mutual problem-solving approach, remains indispensable to the sustained innovation process.
“The innovations that have driven the greatest economic value have come…almost without exception, from iterative collaboration with our customers to find new solutions to difficult problems in the course of business,” said Jim Manzi.
We could not agree more.
What was true then remains true today. Combine Manzi’s work paradigm with the revolution in technology and you have a robust kit of processes, practices and tools that enhance employee engagement, nurture performance leadership in executives, while developing a rigorous culture that is dynamic, flexible, responsive, transparent and accountable.
Empowered by people, designed for success.
This is the latent potential in our economy. If we can recognize and harness the rapidly evolving value in the marketplace and apply it to both business and government, a strong and growing economy will be only one of the benefits.