Unlocking the Secrets of High-Performance
They may seem, at first glance, to have nothing in common—different industries, challenges, experiences, leaders, competition, you name it. But there is something about this group of organizations that drew attention and merited study.
And that was their performance. These businesses outperformed their competition. Consistently.
Brian MacNeice and James Bowen recently spoke with me about their research into these companies and their new book, Powerhouse: Insider accounts into the world’s top high-performance organizations. Brian and James are founders of the international Kotinos Partners consultancy. They are experts in high performance.
They outlined 12 principles that guide the organizations that outlast and outperform the competition.
“Engagement on its own is only a stepping stone to sustained high-performance.”
How did you arrive at the common characteristics of organizations achieving excellence?
Effectively these emerged gradually through the research. We studied each institution with an open mind and on its merits. Then we shortlisted, at the conclusion of our research in each case, what we thought were the fundamental drivers of that institution’s enduring outperformance. When we compared the lists we had created across several of the institutions, the common characteristics became evident.
Secondly, because our research process was quite extended, we had the opportunity to use some of the later studies to test and validate hypotheses emerging from the earlier ones.
Finally we used some of our client work, which was progressing in parallel, to further refine our thinking.
I often ask leadership experts whether leaders are made or born. You take on that question with regard to high-performance organizations and say that they are made, not born. What leads you to this conclusion?
Simply put, the leaders who we spoke to in the organizations we researched were consistent in articulating and reinforcing that view. Without exception they talked about how they viewed the enduring sources of their advantage as being their people and their organizations, and they each described their roles as being about setting direction and ambition and then facilitating and enabling their organizations to achieve and extend those ambitions over time.
Even more particularly, given that many of the organizations we researched could be reasonably described as “values-driven,” their leaders saw a fundamental aspect of their roles as being about defining, representing, facilitating and rewarding those values in their organizations. The Mayo Clinic, Tata, Doctors Without Borders (Médicins sans Frontières) and the US Marine Corps were particularly strong examples in this regard.
“Overengineered engagement initiatives can become impersonal and feel false.”
4 Pillars of High-Performance
Let’s talk about the four-pillars to delivering high-performance.
Every organization knows it needs a plan. Where do most go wrong?
There are lots of ways in which organizations go wrong when it comes to planning, but for this discussion we will highlight two that we observe again and again in our work.
First, we suggest that organizations go wrong by planning on a basis of “inside-out” rather than “outside-in.” That is to say, their leaders tend to look at last year’s model and last year’s performance and identify tweaks they can make with a view to delivering incremental performance improvements next year. This model of planning tends to be short-term and tactical in nature and anchored in a historic, likely outdated, view of the world.
High performance organizations plan from the outside-in, not inside-out.
High performance organizations come at planning from the outside-in, using a much more strategic, future-oriented approach. They start by looking outside their organizations to understand how the context within which they operate is changing. Sometimes they do this by looking at their organizations through a series of discrete “lenses” – for example industry, market, customer, competitor, technology, regulatory, people – to understand (a) what dynamics they observe, (b) what opportunities and/or challenges arise as a result of these dynamics, and (c) how these dynamics might play out over the course of their planning horizon. Armed with these insights – in particular a much deeper understanding of cause-and-effect – they are better positioned to create strategies that bridge from where they are now to where they want to be over time. Relative to the first approach we discussed, plans developed this way tend to be more ambitious, radical and lower risk all at the same time.
Second we would suggest that organizations go wrong because they view planning as a task rather than as a capability. They view it as a chore to be endured once a year to fill a template, and which brings with it a significant cost in terms of time away from the frontline. Their engagement and investment in planning reflects this attitude – for them it’s about getting to the end of the process as quickly and painlessly as possible.
The approaches we observe in high performance organizations, by contrast, are more consistent with Eisenhower’s famous mantra that, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” They understand that their organizations, and the worlds in which they are operating, are always changing, and as such they develop planning as a dynamic, enduring competence. They operate “with their heads up,” tracking changes in their context all the time, taking on board the lessons of their experience and factoring insights into their plans on an ongoing basis. Some of these organizations have moved away from a traditional, annual model of budget-based planning towards a more continuous, iterative model of strategy development and deployment.