By Frank J. Rich
In the popular children’s book of the above title, children searched repeatedly for the hat-clad Waldo in scenes made confusing by extraordinary detail. Even having found Waldo once was no guarantee that he could be found again in the same place, but for the diligence and training of a learned eye. Not coincidentally, business solutions are often as elusive, despite the greatest of efforts to pattern achievement.
Each year, organizations spend $56 billion on training with the hope of gaining the performance that secures their futures. Sadly, training does not guarantee learning, nor does learning guarantee performance. Perhaps, organizations are looking in all the wrong places. Training usually results in greater skills and knowledge. But is that enough? As Dr. Mager, the “father” of training, is given to say, “Could a person do the task if their life depended on it?” “If they could, and don’t,” he says, “they don’t have a training issue but they do have a performance issue that needs a development approach to correct it.”
So, what does it really take to maximize performance? We may have been here before, but let’s narrow our search for “this” Waldo.
The Right Person in the Right Job
It is not enough to hire and promote for functional ability. Increasingly, the knowledge worker must go beyond the performance of the specific tasks that are given him, to a comprehensive solution to the goals before him. First, start with an effective selection process; then, focus on people of good character, attitude, and ownership. If you have the “right” kind of organization, new people with these qualities will fit culturally, and they will align with an organization’s strategic objectives.
The more “owners” in your organization, the more productive and profitable it will be. Begin with an effective “hiring model” that prepares each department to make the best selections. Finally, take care in preparing a job that can be achieved by capable people, so as to avoid setting up people (and the organization) for failure. Companies are notorious for feeding their people to the sharks in the hope that an extraordinary person will surface. Better to prepare for the selection process and you’ll find extraordinary people up front.
Clear, Specific Performance Expectations
Workers and managers need to know and fully understand what is expected of them. Those expectations should be written in “results form” (what the worker is expected to accomplish–not how) and with all known constraints. For example: a marketing manager’s goal of research that quantifies customer response to a new product promotion. Workers also need to know how their results will be measured-the scorecard.
Timely and Specific Performance Feedback
A Conference Board study
found that “poor or insufficient feedback” was the No. 1 cause of poor performance in the workplace, resulting in 60 percent of the performance problems. (This factor was 20 percentage points higher than the next cause – unclear goals). Effective performance feedback requires that the employer’s expectations were communicated, understood, and agreed to up front. Agreement is the most powerful tool in business. When you have it, there is little risk of failed efforts at the end of the achievement period. At the most basic level, feedback must be specific, timely, in-context, sincere, and from a respected source.
Most people acknowledge the value of environment in maximizing performance. Within the workplace, this means having the time, tools, physical setting, and emotional environment to deliver peak performance. An overly stressful environment (many causes) frequently leads to burnout, mistakes, unhappy customers, and employee attrition.
So what does such an environment look like? A clean, well-designed workspace; colorful, with encouraging signage and people around you. The personality of an organization is as apparent as the individuals in it. Ask yourself (your customers) what first impressions they have when entering your workspace. You might be surprised to learn just why they’re not doing more business with you.
Motivation and Incentives
Most people have not found a way to love their work. It’s a topic for another discussion. But, they can learn. It takes a system of reward and recognition, a sincere belief by management in the value of human capital, and the will to “walk the talk” everyday. You may have heard that some people don’t need incentives. Don’t believe it; we are all motivated from within, by character, influences, and external encouragement. Formal rewards and recognition are minimally necessary to create an environment of motivation, but studies show that informal rewards and recognition are generally more powerful and meaningful. Why, because they can be more responsive, more individualized, and less confrontational than typical evaluation methods.
First, think about your objectives; then design a system that informs best practices. And, don’t forget an attitude that finds “solutions” – not “fault” – in people and results. Tolerating poor performance or non-performance with no consequences, while good performance is “rewarded” by giving more work to someone who’s already overloaded, only serves to de-motivate both groups. In general, the message must be: “Your performance is valued and appreciated, and you are valued and appreciated.”
Skills and Knowledge
They are not enough. Real growth is woven of different cloth – attitude and habit. Set expectations and provide opportunity and frequent feedback. It is not practice that makes perfect, but practice with feedback.
Fixing the Problem
It has been said that performance improvement ought to target three areas – the work, the worker, and the workplace. Resist taking the simple view – “fix the workers.” Instead, look to the simple dictum above to find the elusive productivity that is lost to poor focus and myopia. It just may be the quickest way to “Waldo.”