Getting Average Work Performance: a Performance Management Platinum Rule?

I think it might have been Peter Drucker who said: The purpose of management is to get great results out of ordinary people.

The mantra, in OD, compensation experts, HR, etc. is to elevate this thought into a sacred mission. When was the last time any of has heard someone propose that average performance is great and should be the ideal? Would anyone who who is in the business of selling (literally or figuratively) performance management schemes support this notion? Don’t most of them propose schemes where only the best get any form of tangible recognition. Only the best get benefits, everyone else is lucky to still have a job!

I have no argument with Drucker. I would just look somewhere else to strive to achieve this aspiration. Performance management as we all to often see it and live with it is built on the notion of winners (excellent performances) and losers (everyone else).

Actually I have come across a HBR Blog that espouses the view that average performance is an ideal ( HBR Blog Network, Titled: “Today, just be average”; by Greg McKeown). He uses the notion of “perfectionism” as the level beyond average. What are some of the key thoughts identified?

  • Perfectionism can be a disorder.
  • It can backfire, by encouraging us to lose focus on what is really important or  useful.
  • Can get in the way of the critical: “Done is better than perfect!”

I would like to complement McKeown’s thoughts by looking at overachievement/excellence from a system performance perspective.

Any deliberate system has a sense of what is necessary (average), inadequate (poor), and too much (overachievement/excellent) performance levels. Note that I have deliberately clustered excellence with overachievement. Why? Because in a system is designed to work best when performance throughout meets “necessary levels”. It is most efficient, it is most effective – it was designed that way.

This notion of performance is easy to grasp and discern when we are dealing with physical, chemical, and the like systems. for example, many such systems have a “temperature” related performance  parameter. The notion of just right (baby bear’s porridge), too hot(papa bear’s porridge) and too cold (mama bear’s porridge) is understandable. By system design, just right is average, any other temperature is a variance that may need to be controlled.

With social systems this notion of efficient and effective working parameters is often harder to discern. We just don’t design social systems with the same levels of preciseness. Yet we have all witnessed situations where performance is too cold (most often as we are trained to observe this) and too hot (McKeown’s perfectionism, over functioning, over achievement situations).

Yet very few performance management systems seem to acknowledge this truth about system performance. One reason, may because the cultural based value that the individual is what we want to recognize in most of these schemes.

So what if over achievement happens in a social system? Everyone else in the system pays a price. In a physical system, a choke point is created resulting in downstream system parts being adversely affected. A perfectionist in a social system creates the parallel effect by being tardy, too voluminous/detailed, even expensive in their handoffs. There are often upstream effects too. A perfectionist can often make demands on those who provide them “whatever” that are unnecessary, inappropriate, disruptive, etc.

In OD we talk a lot about getting great performance and some of us peddle schemes to purportedly help clients get that. At what costs is success. This about unintended consequences that can easily arise out of social systems as they are often harder to anticipate (hence they are more about uncertainties than risks). Any scheme that encourages too much performance and rewards it, deserves repudiation. Any scheme that is put in place that creates unintended consequences needs to be replaced, not “tuned” through continuous improvement


About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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