This post is inspired by an article in 11 January, 2011 National Post byMary Teresa Bitti on page FP10 titled “leaders Matter”. The article’s author cites an recruiting consultant (Sussannah Kelly) who suggests that leaders have to challenge the status quo and inspire others and goes on to say:
“It sounds simple, but so many of our performance management systems are based on fitting in, on behaving as one of the the fold – but that is exactly what has to change.”
This statement is remarkable on a number of fronts. On an emotional level I full heartedly empathize with her cry for fundamental change in how we lead and how we have others in our organization shift their behaviours to more be more open and innovative. However, her advice on what needs to be done sends a number of concerns to my mind.
My commentary is going to be built upon two simple assumptions:
- Organizations are clusters of systems within a macro-system. I think many of this post’s readers will be comfortable with this assumption – they share it.
- Performance management is about ensuring people who participate within systems, do so appropriately (e.g., do the right things, get the right results).
Now for the implications of this assumption and the connect to Ms. Kelly’s advice.
Systems, set boundaries. Boundaries set expectations regarding what’s in/out, what’s acceptable/not, what behaviours are desirable/not, etc. ( I will explore the distinction between closed and open systems later).
By this logic, when we have people participate within a business process, we are setting guidelines (sometimes even clear rules) around what we expect to see. This level of setting guidelines of acceptability can cover behaviours for many roles (procedures), to getting specific results (such as many performance contracts). Fitting in, and behaving within a range of acceptable parameters is exactly the point in organizing work.
I have dealt with numerous performance management systems over the years and I have learned what others do as well, and there is one point shared by all:
They establish expectations of what is needed and often desired!
Systems do this out of necessity, no boundaries, no system.
Can we have systems that are virtually boundary free. If we can find such systems, we have found ones that are well suited to fomenting innovation, minimizing the effects of politicking, and unleashing personal energy. There are some systems that are very “loose” in their boundaries and they seem to share some key attributes:
- They are open systems (i.e., they have permeable boundaries). It is not uncommon to see systems within an organization exhibit this attribute.
- They are market-place type systems. These are systems that enable a high degree of individual flexibility and choice and often are governed with very limited (e.g., few and or specific) rules of acceptability. When specific collaboration activity takes place it is often more tightly controlled by establishing contracts. These specific “entered into voluntarily transactions” look suspiciously like the tight boundary situations). An example: I can usually choose to purchase food supplies in numerous ways (including growing them myself). However, once I have made my choice (along with the vendor), I now enter into a very specific set of expectations (payment, delivery, etc.).
- They do not establish specific individual/personal performance expectations on the system’s participants. Using my example above, there are no specific detailed expectations on what my food supply outcomes should look like (there is no corporate performance pay/bonus on the line here).
I appreciate this last bit of discourse has been conceptual in nature. BUT, very few systems in organizations have the second and third attributes in them. AND, if they don’t then Ms. Kelly’s advice is problematic. Most business process systems (e.g., maintenance, manufacturing, financial management, employee relations, etc.) are very cautious about the nature and range of individual flexibility that Ms. Kelly’s advice suggests. This caution is for good reason. The systems would collapse if exceeding established variance in behaviour (and results) was encouraged or supported.
So, how do we try and follow Ms. Kelly’s advice? There are several thoughts that spring to mind:
- We can determine what internal systems can operate like market places and with minimal individual result expectations and move to incorporating these attributes. I suspect that they will not be numerous, and I am curious to what they would be. Also there would be boundary management issues arise between these opener systems with the more closed ones within the organization.
- We can choose to move those areas within our organization that we strongly desire to “open up” to the outside through joint ventures, external engagement, etc. This has the benefit to minimizing the dysfunctional consequences to the possibility above.
Ms. Kelly’s advice has been out there for a long time with seemingly minimal pickup. I argue that this is due the demands of system requirements. In other words, it is not because people won’t change, it’s because people won’t change when the systems they participate in are unable to support the wished for behaviours.