Dec 24, 2018
A high performance work environment can, for some, be an elusive ideal. For others, it's a reality that can always be improved upon. The thing is, fostering and developing an organization that actually achieves seemingly impossible goals still proves a daunting task across the board.
I spoke recently with consultant and leadership expert Andy Erickson about unlocking some of the tools for creating High Performance organizations. It turns out, the keys to accomplishing high performance might not be that complex afterall—but that doesn't mean it's easy.
JWF: How would you describe JMJ’s High Performance™ work?
AE: In any organization, project or team, it’s easy at the beginning to get excited and say, “Here's what we’ll do; this is what we’re committed to.” It’s easy to dream and have grand designs and aspirations.
But at some point you get into the actual work, and things begin to drift. Things get tough.
I think the Second Law of Thermodynamics says energy flows in one direction. (I’m a liberal arts guy, so I’m on thin ice here.) Something that’s hot, unless acted upon by an outside force, is only going to get cold. Something that’s structured will tend towards chaos. The energy only flows in one direction.
It’s the same with organizations. The excitement, that commitment and clarity we have when we start something only flows in one direction-—it dissipates. Unless we add something, the drift is towards apathy, toward frustration, towards, “Yeah, good enough.”
The force we inject to resist that drift is leadership, and the tools JMJ offers help leaders sustain that initial energy, clarity and commitment. We offer a set of ways to look at the world, at ourselves and at our work that make it possible to sustain the energy and resist the drift and ebbing of momentum that we have all experienced.
JWF: This High Performance work is done inside of organizations and done inside of projects. I know that each of those have distinct needs. How do you see High Performance work differently inside of an organization versus inside of a project?
AE: With projects, you can leverage the way they are “bounded” in terms of time. I say it’s easier to articulate and sustain commitment when you know this is an 18-month gig or a four-year project. As leaders, we can use the milestones and deadlines of a project to rally people and effort: nothing like the finish line being in sight to unleash the last bit of effort.
Also, with projects, generally speaking, there’s a specific, identifiable team; these folks are on the team and those folks aren’t. I say that makes it much easier to know your audience and influence them.
Organizations aren’t like that. There isn’t a finish line. There may be a team, but then again, there are lots of teams. There’s no end in sight and we need everyone’s help!
I prefer working with organizations. When I’m working on a project, at some level, I’m serving the refinery or site or whatever the objective is. But when I’m working in organizations I’m in the realm of serving people.
Six or seven years ago, I got very clear about my purpose in my life and it’s this: “work shouldn’t suck.” If I was ever to get a tattoo, that’s what it would be. “Work shouldn’t suck.” That’s why I get up in the morning.
When a project is over, if we have done our best job, if we’ve done terrific stuff, we can say, “that was our best project ever.” But if we’re working within an organization and we have a huge success, people can say, “I feel fulfilled in my work or my career has made a difference.” The stakes are a little different and it’s harder, but I like working within organizations.
When I’m working within an organization, I’m working beside people who are in their life, they’re in their career, and they’re in the long game. That’s what we’re working on.
JMJ suggested that perhaps there was a bigger opportunity here. Rather than just reinforcing the rules, what might provide a better overall outcome?
JWF: How do you do that? How does High Performance Organization work actually lead to peoples’ lives being better?
AE: It’s dreadfully simple, but difficult to do.
The first step is commitment. Getting leaders—and that doesn’t just mean managers, it means anybody who stands for something that doesn’t exist right now—getting them to articulate and talk about what are they committed to. This especially means getting them to commit to something that’s bigger than what would normally happen. It’s getting them to risk saying, “Let’s do something awesome.”
High Performance work inside of organizations is about helping a group of people articulate a shared commitment, and have it be something that’s really big, but also sincere.
We resist saying, “I want to do this amazing thing,” because none of us want to risk publicly saying, “I’m up for this.” We don’t want to have people kind of roll their eyes and say, “You’re never going to be able to pull that off.” But until we say, “I’m up for this...” our chances of making it happen are nil. That’s the first work.
The rest of what we do flows from the commitment. Essentially, you’re constantly asking the questions, “What do you need to do right now, in this moment, that would further your commitment? Who do you need to be right now? What do you need to ask of other people right now in have your commitment become a reality?”
We spend a lot of time helping people learn to make requests of each other. I’m working with one client where many of the managers are young and inexperienced and they aren’t comfortable delegating; they feel like they are imposing on someone, and they say things like, “Do me a favor and...” The point I’m trying to land with them is that you’re not asking anyone to do a “favor” and it’s not for “you.” You’re making requests of them—asking them to do things that will make our commitment happen.
We also work with clients to implement structures and norms that help us talk about how we’re doing in terms of our commitment. So often in organizations you’ll have meetings and look at the S-curve or burn-down chart or the action item list, but never have a conversation. We promote conversations during meetings and get folks talking about things like: are we behaving consistently with our commitment? How are our relationships? Are we making requests and following through on them?
For High Performance results to occur, you’ve got to have relationships with people. You have to get managers to invest time and attention into building more relationships so that they can make the requests, so that they can get the organization in a place where they’re talking about how they’re doing in the context of their commitment. We are working so that we’re always having more and more access to people and are becoming better and better able to enroll other people in our commitment.
That’s what High Performance work does inside organizations.