Performance Culture

I believe a reason many organizations fail to meet their goals is not because the goals are unrealistic but because they don’t have a clear path to achieve them.  Setting is goals is necessary and valuable.  Goals are motivating and provide a benchmark for performance.  However, setting a goal is only part of the story.  There must be a plan for achieving the goal.

That is why I love David Brailsford’s approach.  He sets goals and has a plan for achieving them.  In the video above, Sir David explains his approach.  I have summarized this below.

  • The cumulative effect of 1% gains leads to significantly improved performance.  What is the goal?  Not victories but improved performance.  See points 3 & 5.
  • Look at every aspect of your operation.  His team looked at obvious things like diet, fitness, and tactics but also considered recovery, technological developments and psychology.
  • Enough fractional improvements add up to a larger fraction and lead to a better outcome.
  • Analyze every aspect of your operation, set goals and work out a plan to achieve them.
  • “Focus on the process not the outcome and you’re going to get the best chance of being the best that you can be.  What can I do today to optimize my chances?”
  • Coaching is important.  If you expect the rider to be the best then why don’t you expect the same of the coaches?

Where did this approach take British cycling and Team Sky?

— Source: Wikipedia

This approach is radically different than most organizations take.  In an era where outcomes dominate our attention, it is hard to adopt a process-oriented approach.  It is a vastly different mindset that many cannot grasp.  It takes courage.  It takes confidence.  It takes humility.

Another thing I like about this approach is that it is scalable.  No matter how large your organization or the size of your team you can apply the principles listed above.  Team Sky has less than 30 riders and 18 support staff.  The key is your mindset.  Do your employees know what to look for?  Do they feel comfortable bringing ideas for marginal gains to you?  Are you willing to meet and discuss opportunities to gain with your employees regularly?



This article is a great example of the need to include all levels of employees.  It shows that you get better results when include frontliners in the process of identifying and resolving performance issues.  I want to emphasize the role of the supervisor in this process.  Notice the process begins when “a supervisor facilitates the team to define a performance issue that is under the team’s control.”

Its not the Training department or the performance specialist who initiates the effort.  Its the supervisor.  This is evidence of an organization that is committed to performance improvement. The days of centralized training and performance improvement are long gone.  Markets and workplaces move too quickly to rely on a separate department to identify and address performance issues.

In other words, performance improvement is a mindset.  It’s either in an organization’s DNA or it isn’t. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that all the collaboration and development from the Training department (which is where the performance improvement specialist is often assigned) cannot change an organization’s culture all alone.  Supervisors and their upline have to make it a priority and look for opportunities to improve.

How do you instill this mindset?  First, performance improvement has to be a part of the everyday conversation.  Below are some questions you can ask regularly to get the conversation started.

  • What can we do better?
  • What are we missing?
  • Who else can we ask about this?
  • Where are your pain points?

The second thing to do is let down your guard.  Humility and a willingness to accept feedback takes practice.  Supervisors have to demonstrate this on a regular basis.  The best feedback hurts a little.  Sometimes it hurts a lot.  A little short-term pain is worth it if you really want to perform at a higher level.

Third, learn.  There is a direct link between learning and growth.  When a person stops learning or loses the desire to learn personal growth stagnates.  The same thing happens to an organization.  There is no shortage of things to learn in an organization.  There is a risk that you might be focused on the wrong thing to learn about.  It won’t take long to find out what is worth learning about and what isn’t.

Finally, maximize the resources you have.  Expertise is everywhere.  You just have to look for it.  Despite their day-to-day responsibilities, most people have skills that are un-utilized or under-utilized.  Tap those resources.  Many times you will find skills and perspectives you never would have known about.  A hidden benefit to this is increasing the satisfaction of the employee.  We all toil away at our job doing work we have to do to keep the operation running.  Giving someone a break to do something different feels like a reward.  For a few hours or days they get to do something they really love and are good at doing.  At the end, make sure to recognize their efforts.  That will motivate others and motivate others to share ideas to improve.

As you can see from the description above, performance improvement can become self-sustaining.  Employees have to feel that the people they report to are interested in their perspective and willing to act.  Once this gathers momentum the culture of an organization will change.  This sounds scary but it doesn’t have to be.  The change I am talking about is the atmosphere in the workplace.  Organization-wide performance improvement is empowering.  It puts a spring in people’s step.  It breeds confidence. It make people happy at home and at work.  Who doesn’t want that?

This article on workforce innovation has worthwhile reminders for identifying opportunities and creating new products and services.  I have posted or shared a lot of the ideas that in the article so I will focus on examples and recommendations that offer a fresh perspective.

What are the prerequisites?

Lay a base of trust. Mix risk-taking with job security. Subtract strict chains-of command and barriers that impede ideas from rising. Add professional development. Separate rewards into two units: excellence in routine activities and efforts to find breakthroughs. Don’t forget a dash of fun. And when trials result in errors? Openly discuss failure to learn from it.

What are the raw ingredients? (emphasis mine)

“Great innovative companies have created the right environment, attracted the right employees who constantly want to learn, and they’ve figured out how to get people highly engaged in innovative processes without fear and without the dominance of quarterly earnings,” says Edward Hess, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

How do you know if its working?

One metric: track how much of a company’s revenue comes from products introduced within the past five years.

What role does learning (not training) play in this?

“Learning is part of the culture,” says Laurie Gilbert, vice president of restaurant innovation at McDonald’s. “Candidly, fun is a big part of the culture.”

Once a quarter, the center has its own version of the Food Network TV show Iron Chef. Upon arrival, a group of employees is given a theme and told to create a lunch for everyone else inspired by the theme, using only ingredients available in a McDonald’s kitchen.

What can you do to promote innovation? (emphasis mine)

Zebra Technologies Corp. has a special banquet for employees who have earned patents in a particular year. The company also offers cash awards, and honorees receive certificates or plaques and are recognized at quarterly meetings broadcast globally. “We do a variety of things to encourage people to take some shots at the basket,” says Michael Terzich, senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Illinois-based Zebra.  Bally Technologies Inc. offers rewards such as iPads to the top-rated inventions posted online and voted on by employees. The slot-machine-maker also honors “inventor of the year” and “inventor of the quarter.”



There are two video clips in this post about Burberry.  In the first the CEO talks about how the company encourages use of social media by their employees.  In the second she talks about the intangible qualities she looks for in an employee and the culture she strives for in Burberry stores.

Total running time of both clips is about 10 minutes.

I listened to a webinar on developing organizational innovation recently.  The excerpts below are from this presentation.  Click here to download the entire 45 minute presentation.

  • The term “innovation” has been used in so many different ways that it has almost lost its meaning.
  • Innovation doesn’t really mean the same as invention.  Its about new things and new approaches but its not the same as invention.
  • Innovation does not mean technology.  Technology is not required for innovation.  Obviously its going to help facilitate but its not the same thing.  It doesn’t mean redefining an industry.
  • Innovation is the creation of something new which when its implemented leads to a positive, measurable outcome.

People: Not all organizations need to have that one legendary innovative leader.  Organizations who have innovation in their DNA have leaders who are discovery driven vs. delivery driven.  The engage in questioning, observing, connecting the dots.  It has to be everybody’s job to maintain that sense of organizational curiosity.  It begins with leadership at all levels of the organization.  This filters down to people who want to be a part of the discovery process.

Process: Operational processes and accountability are the baseline from which an organization can innovate.  Process is essential for maintaining that sense of shared accountability.

Philosophy: How do you take innovation from the mission statement and make it part of how you do business?  You must allow people to take risks and make mistakes.  People learn when they make mistakes in the right places.  The key is to go back and help them understand what went wrong.  Everyone has to understand and be accountable for where  in their job are they allowed to make mistakes and learn from them and where are the critical areas where there is less leeway.

In this article, Dr. Rainer succinctly describes the traits of some current and future employees (see below).  I can’t improve on what he wrote so I won’t steal his thunder.

  • The Free Agent Employee
  • The Less Constrained Employee
  • The Reinvented Employee

I appreciate Dr. Rainer’s attention to this but I think the future is now for some of these traits.  I have felt like a free agent in the not so distant past.  I learned that employment should not be taken for granted.  Even the best employer has to make hard decisions sometimes.   On the flip side, an employer should not be shocked if an employee decides to pursue an opportunity.

The challenge for leaders is to adapt and utilize these traits.  I have written over and over in this space that leaders need to face and embrace change.  Meeting these challenges with fear or not facing them at all will have negative consequences.  I believe the consequences will not only affect current employees but will make it harder to attract new ones.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Kurt Eichenwald, Vanity Fair

The quote above is from an article in the August issue of Vanity Fair (subscription required to read the entire article).  In it Mr. Eichenwald quotes interviews with current and former Microsoft employees who describe a culture that is focused on maintaining the status quo and incapable of innovation.

Apparently the revelations in the article have had a ripple effect across the tech world but I am not surprised.  You don’t have to be a tech junkie or business genius to notice the relative invisibility of Microsoft in recent years.  The only publicity Microsoft has generated has been negative (Vista) or presented in the context of missed opportunities (Surface tablet).

So what’s my point?  Culture matters.  Instead of going on the offensive by creating new markets through innovation Microsoft assumed a defensive posture to protect the ground they had already taken.  According to the employees interviewed by Mr. Eichenwald this led to a nearly cannibalistic culture.  This kind of behavior is not attractive to talented prospects.  Even if an organization can maintain its market share in the short term this kind of culture will eventually impact sales.

This should serve as a warning to leaders.  Be aware of the culture in your organization.  Don’t ignore the warning signs.  Ann Bares makes good points in her assessment of Microsoft’s troubles.  Her recommendation is to develop and adhere to quantifiable performance standards that are consistent with the organization’s goals (my words, not hers).  She also cites and article in Fast Company on motivational synchronicity.  The quotes in her post are interesting so I’ll probably read and post my own thoughts on that article too.

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