“Fresh Thinking” to Improve Performance Capability
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.