Performance in Uncertainty

How do you know when you do a good job? Customers are satisfied. You complete on time. The cost is within budget. You meet stated requirements or specifications. You feel proud and satisfied. You get more work of the same kind or better from the same clients or their referrals. You hear success stories or provocative questions resonating months after the engagement.

This kind of data informs performance management. Customers and managers use such information to make judgments about performance. I, as an individual professional, use questions like these to challenge and improve my own performance. Only two of these performance indicators are numerical and (relatively) unambiguous—time and cost

The others are all based on patterns that are “fit to function.” Your services fit the needs of customers. Your product fits requirements. Your performance fits your perception of yourself as a gifted professional. Sometimes, expectations for performance can be quantified, but usually they represent patterns of performance that are targets. You are looking for fit. Some margin of error or level of variation is acceptable, if not expected. In these more ambiguous cases, in the absence of objective truth and absolute measures, how do you know what is fit? How do you know when you do a good job?

Recently I completed a two-day training program with 25 supervisors in a mid-sized manufacturing firm. Most of them had been promoted into management from jobs on the assembly line. They had never had much formal training, so their leadership skills were intuitive and very pragmatic. The challenge was that the market and new technology were expected to drive radical change in 2015. This group was expected to adapt quickly and seamlessly and to help their crews do the same. My job was to help them prepare for this time of transition and possible chaos. I needed to help them come to grips with what might happen and to manage the risks and benefits of what lay ahead. Together, we would discover how they could influence the future. They would practice giving and receiving feedback, good news, and bad. Finally, and most important, they should leave the session with Adaptive Action plans for the next week, month, and quarter. And they would commit to revisit their plans monthly and revise them to fit the changing environment.

As I prepared for the session, time and money were the least important measures of success. Without a doubt, the training would take place, and the invoice would be submitted and paid. My real concern, and the one that drove my engagement and passion, was the more ambiguous performance measure—fit. Will the information I provide respond to the challenges these people face every day? Will their interactions during the class develop their ability to work together as a team? Will they ask the questions that are relevant to them, and will I hear and respond with true and useful answers? Will they be satisfied? Will their boss be satisfied? Will I feel complete as I finish the day? How long and how well will they practice the knowledge and skills they learn? What rumors and ripples will I hear about HSD when I work with the organization next time?

I used to depend on my gut for this level of evaluation. My performance felt right or it didn’t feel right to me, the learners, and the client. This approach was not very satisfying, but it was all I had. Over the past 20 years, we have discovered and applied a more disciplined approach to performance management. This approach is not based on outcomes and objectives. It doesn’t depend on an external or absolute measure of performance. It is not an assessment that can be carried from one place to another, but it works. This approach to performance management works for two reasons. First, it provides corrective feedback in the course of the work to ensure that we can adjust and adapt if we get off the path. Second, it provides real, concrete foundations for learning what works with customers and peers.

Those of you who visit this blog often will not be surprised to hear that our solution is Adaptive Action: What? So what? Now what?

From the first contact with a potential client to the final farewell, we continually ask:

  • What is the need the client sees? What is the tension in the current pattern they want to shift?
  • So what do we understand about the conditions that might increase or decrease that tension?
  • Now what can we do to change the conditions and release (or increase) the tension in the pattern to move toward greater fit for function?

During our first conversation with the client, in preparing the proposal, in receiving and responding to feedback, we are cycling through the Adaptive Action questions. What? So what? Now what?

As we deliver products or services we constantly check for fit and adjust to improve fit. When teaching classes or facilitating meetings, we watch the patterns in the room, seek to understand them, and take action to create the conditions that will lead to the greatest fit for the final pattern.

And, we hope that long after we leave, the Adaptive Action cycles continue. As customers see and respond to transformed work of teams; as supervisors manage their own patterns of fear and frustration; and as relationships with people, practices, procedures, and policies shift to improve fit with demands and opportunities.

So, how do we know we do a good job? The same way you do: We watch for the tension of patterns that don’t fit, and we take action to set conditions for a better fit. We measure what we can, but we know that the real test of quality lies in patterns that are fit to function, and that performance management depends on the adaptive capacity to seek and find what fits.

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