High Performance Result of Human Transitions

In my last post I wrote about the fundamental discontinuity between good and exceptional organizational performance, after hearing a talk given by Ray Ivany, President and Vice-Chancellor of Acadia University.  That post focused more on the systems side of performance and this one focuses more on the people side of high performance.

High performance organizations are filled with great human beings, not dysfunctional ones and not dysfunctional dynamics – which doesn’t mean that things don’t sometimes get messy. Creating a culture of high performance means paying attention to the “soft skills” of leadership and human dynamics and learning to deal with the messiness before it becomes dysfunction.

Ray Ivany commented, “If you ignore the transitions people need to go through, you will not get to high performance.”  He suggested that in the book Good to Great, Collins overrates leadership and underrates the human transitions people need to make, not just in their professional lives but in their personal lives as well.

The culture in many workplaces supports a fundamental separation of self: “please do not bring your whole self, just bring the part you need to get your job done.  We will all pretend that professional growth is isolated from personal growth and we’ll just focus on that part. And when we don’t get the best out of you, we will just assume it’s because you are lazy, are just putting the time in and really don’t want to take any initiative.”

But take a good look around: People do not wake up in the morning desiring to put in mediocre performance; most people are thirsting for a deeper meaning in their work and believe it is unachievable, believe their initiative is not welcome and so they leave a part of themselves at the door, trying to collect it at the end of the day when they go home.

Too many rules in our organizations – the stated and the unstated – create the conditions that make it extremely difficult to tap into the full potential of our people.  And when we do put the toe of empowerment in the water and are met with resistance we withdraw it quickly rather than persevering.  We often do not support people in transition, we make it more difficult for them to navigate it.

It is the job of the leader(s) to create the environment and set the conditions that allow people to do extraordinary work.  People need help in unlocking the part of the heads and their hearts they cannot get to themselves.  Leaders create these conditions by lightening up on the rules and instead providing clarity and context.  With clarity and context people have enough freedom and flexibility to be responsive to the needs and requests of others and the organization. and to do it in ways that make sense to them.

As a leader, in order to do that well, you need to be in fundamental alignment with the core of who you are and your values. The greater your own personal integrity and center, the easier it is to let people run with their own ideas.  With the right conditions, things you could never dream will emerge in the most delightful and unexpected ways.

This kind of emergence is not likely to happen in organizations that reject failure.  The one thing we are assured off as we move toward higher performance is more failure.  That may be counter-intuitive but failure is where creativity and innovation often meet.  Creating a culture that makes it safe for people in your organization to fail for the sake of learning with no blame attached is a component of high performance organizations.

Where and how does the shape of your leadership need to shift in order to support your organization in a quest for exceptional performance?  What systems can you put in place that allow your people to become the best they can be – an integrated human being showing up in the fullness of who they are ready to offer more than most imagine possible

 

Exceptional is not an Extension of Good

“There is a fundamental discontinuity between good and great,” was one of the assertions Ray Ivany, President and Vice-Chancellor of Acadia University, made during a talk at a recent Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette event.  He was invited to speak on the topic of being the best and his talk was an insightful blend of the human dynamics and structural components necessary for exceptional performance.

“Exceptional is not an extension of good but it’s in a completely different place,” he said as he shared the following diagram with us.  Imagine that organizational effort is represented by a helium balloon that is attached to a stake in the ground by an elastic tether.  It manages to rise to the expectations of good performance without too much effort.  And, with some effort and exertion, it can stretch into the category of great.  However, it takes sustained effort to keep it there and as soon as the pressure is taken off, the elastic tether immediately yanks that balloon back into the category of good.

Great is not on the same continuum as Good

In order to allow it to stay in the zone of great, you actually need to sever the tether that holds it in place.   If you believe that great is discontinuous from good, the organizational and human strategies needed to move to and stay in great or exceptional performance are fundamentally different.

In looking at this diagram, it occurred to me that not only is good the enemy of great, it is probably the enemy of itself as well.  As soon as we think we are onto something good, we want to institutionalize it by creating standards and policies to maintain it.  This standardization means we often prevent the organization from conceptualizing the strategies that lead to great.  On the other side, the more we insist on standardization without the ability to continually adapt, the greater the likelihood we actually unintentionally shift our organization from good to mediocre by insisting on standards that often lose their meaning and relevance over time.

From this place of mediocrity, leaders still try to aim their people for excellence without any hope of getting there and the people are often frustrated in their efforts to shift organizational thinking and performance and no one really understands why.

We only shift the shape of our organizations from good to great, and stay there, when we build in the systems and the capacity to take different risks – one of those risks being failure.

Looking at this diagram and the capacities necessary to shift into a whole new category of performance reminded me of the Chaordic Path where one of the key questions is: “what is the minimum amount of elegant structure required to enable us to act in purposeful ways that lead to wise action and meaningful results?”  This is also the amount of structure that allows an organization to stay nimble and responsive to its environment, creating the conditions for chaos to emerge into its own sense of order and cultivating the adaptive and collaborative leadership that is also a strategy for exceptional performance.

Ray’s comments were entirely consistent with many of the steams of thought that show up in the Art of Hosting community and body of knowledge, providing a beautiful avenue of reflection for me.  The next entry will focus on some of the human dynamics elements that comprised the other main thread of this thought provoking talk.