As I’ve suggested many times in this blog, it is not credible to acknowledge the socially complex nature of organization and then to claim that a particular concept, tool or technique is certain to deliver the sought-after results. Despite this, managers are called upon to act with purpose into this unknowable future. That is, their role places them in charge but they are not in control of the outcomes that might emerge from their own and others’ contributions.
So how are they to proceed? What might they use to inform the judgements that they make, as they seek to enable people to perform in organization-enhancing ways?
The starting proposition is that organization is enacted through the myriad conversations and interactions through which people make sense of what’s going on and decide how they will act. And it is through the widespread interplay of these ‘local’ (i.e. small-group and one-to-one) conversations that performance ‘outcomes’ emerge and that "success" and "failure" come to be recognized as such. A sobering thought for managers is that most of these interactions take place in their absence. And yet it is through these conversations that people co-create the meaning of what they are doing and that individual and collective action is mobilized – whether in support of the official agenda or in opposition to it.
So, against this background, how might leaders participate in this ongoing process of conversational interaction, if their intention is to enable people to perform at their best?
- begin by understanding and acknowledging both the business specifics and the underlying dynamics of organizational change and performance;
- accept that organizations are ‘wiggly’ - that is, they don’t operate in the neatly packaged and easily controllable ways that conventional management ‘wisdom’ suggests that they should;
- seek to improve their connectivity to the natural conversational networks, and their attunement to the themes and narratives that are organizing people’s everyday interactions;
- maintain high expectations of people’s willingness and ability to contribute – seeing measurement as a source of information to enable movement by individuals and groups themselves, rather than as a basis for managers to pass judgement on them;
- work on the basis that "what is meaningful gets done" ahead of "what is measured gets done";
- provide ‘vision’ (i.e. help people to ‘see better’) in relation to context, purpose and priorities – enabling them to act more insightfully in the light of the opportunities and challenges that actually emerge, not to those that might have emerged if the real world had been kind enough to comply with the planning assumptions;
- encourage, assist and enable personal response-ability – that is, the ability of people to anticipate and respond to emerging events without the need to seek permission;
- see account-ability as the ability of an individual to account, in an informed an insightful way, for what they are doing and how this might affect their own and others’ ongoing performance or capability;
- view "performance management" as an ongoing conversation between themselves, their team members, and their colleagues - punctuated by periodic structured events to frame issues, takes stock, jointly solve problems, and unblock progress; and
- recognize that, despite acting with the intention of improving individual and collective performance, they cannot predict or control the outcomes that will ultimately emerge.