Getting the right focus for performance improvement

I was talking with someone a few days ago, who said that performance improvement in their organisation is impossible because they cannot afford all the training that they need to do. I asked if he was sure all the poor performance was a competency issue, and he said: “Of course, they can’t do the job!”

He was getting competence and capability mixed up, and that’s a mistake because they are different, and that is a very important distinction.

Let me explain…

Imagine taking your car to the workshop to get repaired. The mechanic is good;  he really knows what he is doing. He tries to repair your car, but cannot do it because he does not have the spare part that he needs. Is he capable of fixing your car? I find that many people, particularly those in HR and L&D will answer yes to this question.

But think about it. He is unable to fix the car when asked to do so. That means he is not capable at that time to fix your car. He is a good mechanic. He is competent, but in the moment when asked, he is not capable. Some other time, when the part is available, he will be capable, but not now. He was rendered incapable by factors in his environment, so, therefore, he could not perform the delegated task when asked.

In this difference between competence and capability, you can see the struggle that many people have when trying to tackle poor performance. Most people have a default response to poor performance which focuses on the person, on the performer. There is an immediate assumption that the performer is incompetent. An assumption that they are missing some knowledge or skills or understanding. There is seldom an acknowledgement that the lack of performance might be due to factors around them in their environment rather than factors within them.

I have found over the years that environmental factors are a more common barrier to performance improvement than performer competence factors. If we focus on competence when we’re trying to fix performance, we tend to suggest training or learning solutions, and in doing so we are not looking at the bigger picture. We are not looking at the whole performance system. To do that, you need to be thinking like a performance consultant.

Performance consultancy is looking at the wider performance system and starting from the premise that the system is not giving us the outputs we want, so therefore either the performance system itself is not functioning adequately or all the inputs into that system are not sufficient to feed the system adequately.

The whole performance system, which includes the performer and their surroundings, or if you like, the stage on which they are performing, is complex and a true system in that components are interdependent. It is this complexity, and the default desire to blame the performer, that results in people struggling when they are trying to tackle poor performance.

Performance consultancy is about looking inside the system so that you can find the levers to pull that will change the system, and therefore change the outputs, and potentially change the required inputs.

When some of the inner workings of the system are exposed, it becomes much easier to disentangle what your knee-jerk response is telling you from what is actually needed to achieve change within the system. In my experience, this results in solutions that have a far greater chance of success than the kind of semi-automatic response solutions, like training, that are often applied to a performance problem.

People want better performance which usually means change, but most organisational change is hard. If you can find the levers, it becomes much easier.

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how Learning & Development can help achieve business targets. He is the author of the Learning at Work Trilogy: “Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance”, “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”.