Beyond “accountability” and “performance management”


Yet, this is exactly what teams in modern organizations lack. Imagine trying to build a great theater ensemble or a great symphony orchestra without rehearsal. Imagine a championship sports team without practice. In fact, the process whereby such teams learn is through continual movement between practice and performance, practice, performance, practice again, performance again. — Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

A key enabler of greater organizational impact is the ability to discern between learning and performing. That distinction helps organizations evaluate their existing systems and programs and identify places where this distinction is not respected. As is often the case in their performance management system (reviews, compensation changes, etc.). 

The first step that organizations that recognize this tension tend to take, is to decouple their “performance management” and “professional development” systems, both procedurally and temporally, so conversations about “how am I doing?” are separated from conversations around “how can I get (even) better?”. 

While it is a step in the right direction, allowing them to at least capture the upside of “professional development”, the downside of “performance management” remains. Finding an alternative, or dare I say, completely letting go of the latter, requires revisiting the core employer/employee agreement: “you are getting paid to deliver outcomes”, and its underlying assumptions since it is the core tenet on which the notion that performance can be measured and managed is based. 

Collaborate for social change has done some incredible work on this front, and summarized it in two reports: 

A Whole New World: Funding and Commissioning in Complexity

Exploring the new world: Practical insights for funding, commissioning and managing in complexity

As you may have gathered from the titles, the context is a little bit different: Their work aims to re-envision the relationship between funders/donors and non-profit organizations. But if we zoom out and abstract a bit, the core funder/non-profit agreement is identical to the core employer/employee agreement: you are getting paid to deliver outcomes. Therefore, many of their insights are transferable to our own context. The content below is a synthesis and organizing of content that I’m using almost verbatim from the two reports, with a few narrative sentences of my own where I will try to do my best connecting the dots.


The status quo paradigm in the non-profit space is called “New Public Management (NPM)” and is characterized by the ‘three Ms’: Markets, Managers and Measurement:

  • Markets — the creation of markets for social interventions helps to drive innovation and efficiency
  • Managers — social interventions must be overseen by people with training in professional management practice. Managers’ role is to identify what success looks like (strategic management) and to hold subordinates accountable, through performance management, for delivering it.
  • Measurement — Metrics must be created which identify what success and failure look like, and performance must be measured against these metrics

Nothing about this is non-profit specific. It describes the prevailing paradigm in the for-profit space as well. If you’re not convinced just replace “social interventions” with “corporations” in the bullets above. 

However, this paradigm fails to factor in the fact that the world we live in is complex, across three key dimensions: 

  • People are complex: everyone’s life is different, everyone’s strengths and needs are different.
  • The issues we care about are complex: issues — like homelessness — are tangled and interdependent.
  • The systems (organization) that respond to these issues are complex: the range of people and organizations involved in creating ‘outcomes’ in the world are beyond the management control of any person or organization.

The alternative, complexity-friendly paradigm requires working in a way that is human, prioritizes learning and takes a systems approach (HLS for short). See the full comparison table at the end of this post, but the key differences are the following assumptions: 

  • Motivation — Those doing the work are intrinsically motivated to do a good job. They do not require ‘incentivizing’ to do the right thing. Instead, they need help and support to continuously improve their judgment and practice.
  • Learning and adaptation — Learning is the mechanism to achieve excellent performance and continuous improvement. Learning comes from many sources — from measurement and analysis, and also from reflection on the sensemaking and judgments we make every day in situations of uncertainty. This new paradigm views learning as a feedback loop which drives adaptation and improvement in a system.
  • System health: quality of relationships — outcomes are created by people’s interaction with whole systems, not by particular interventions or organizations. Funders and commissioners working in this way take some responsibility for the health of the system as a whole, because healthy systems produce better outcomes. They take a system coordination role. They invest in network infrastructure which enables actors in the system to communicate effectively; they invest in building positive, trusting relationships and developing the skills of people who work in the system.

HUMAN 

People who work in a way that is informed by complexity use the language of ‘being human’ to describe what they do. This means: 

  • Recognizing the variety of human strengths, needs, and experiences.
  • Building empathy between people — so that they recognize, and seek to act on, the emotional and physical needs of others. 
  • Using strengths-based approaches — recognizing and building on the assets (rather than deficits) of people and places 
  • Trusting employees to act on their intrinsic motivation to help others and get better at what they do.

Managers talk about ‘liberating’ workers from attempts to proceduralize what happens in good human relationships, and instead focus on the capabilities and contexts which help enable these relationships. They talk about providing support that is bespoke. For leaders and managers, being human means creating trust with and between the individuals, teams, and departments. Trust is what enables leaders to let go of the idea that they must be in control of the support that is provided using their resource.

LEARNING 

People working in this way also speak about learning and adaptation. They describe how their work is not about delivering a standardized service, but rather that it is a continuous process of learning which allows them to adapt to the changing strengths and needs of each person with whom they work. Budgets and salaries and thought of as resources to enable organizations to learn and improve. They are not purchasing services with particular specifications, they are funding the capacity to learn and adapt to continuously improve outcomes in different contexts. This challenges traditional, narrow forms of accountability based on targets and tick boxes. To meet this challenge, organizations are recognizing the multiple dimensions of accountability, and exploring who needs to provide what kind of account to whom. This process involves dialogue, not just data.

SYSTEMS 

Finally, people working in this way recognize that the outcomes they care about are produced by whole systems rather than individuals, organizations or programs. Consequently, to improve outcomes, they work to create ‘healthy’ systems in which people are able to coordinate and collaborate more effectively. From these organizations, we have learnt some of the characteristics of the ‘healthy’ systems that produce good outcomes, and the System Behaviours that actors exhibit:

Perspective 

  • People view themselves as part of an interconnected whole 
  • People are viewed as resourceful and bringing strengths
  • People share a vision 

Power 

  • Power is shared, and equality of voice actively promoted
  • Decision–making is devolved 
  • Accountability is mutual 

Participation

  • Open, trusting relationships enable effective dialogue 
  • Leadership is collaborative and promoted at every level
  • Feedback and collective learning drive adaptation

To sum up what I view as the fundamental paradigm shift here: 

Thinking about salaries as “funding to do work in support of our shared purpose” rather than “pre-payment for a set of outcomes”. 

I intend to keep noodling on this content over the new few weeks and try to poke holes in it. So far, it deeply resonates. 

Source: A Whole New World: Funding and Commissioning in Complexity
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Beyond “accountability” and “performance management”

The Clam Company Manifesto (Fried & DHH)

This is essentially a book summary/synthesis of: 

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and DHH of Basecamp

In essence, the book is a collection of short, blog-size chapters each covering a different aspect of how they run Basecamp which together creates a fairly clear picture of the overall philosophy and the experience of working at basecamp. 

In full disclosure, they had me at page 27 (of 234): 

It begins with this idea: your company is a product… but when you think about your company as a product, you ask different questions: Do people who work here know how to use the company? It is simple? Complex? It is obvious how it works? What’s fast about it? What’s slow about it? Are there bugs? What’s broken that we can fix quickly and what’s going to take a long time? 

I’ve always used this analogy and seeing the authors use it was an early indication that I’m likely reading a book by kindred spirits. My only nit about the book is its built-in marketing: the unusual and not-so-visually-appealing cover design (above) and the mouthful, not-so-catch title. Don’t let them discourage from reading this otherwise great book. 

Paying homage to the agile manifesto, I decided to personally rebrand it as “The Calm Company Manifesto” and summarize its key points in the form of “x over y” statements: 

Work & Life

  • Mutual give and take between work and life over life gives, and work takes
  • 8(hours a day)/40(hours a week) over 24/7
  • Paid paid vacation, and 1-month sabbatical every 3 years over cash performance bonuses 
  • Co-workers as supporter/allies of families over “family” company identity
  • Look at actual work over butts-in-seats

Communication & Collaboration

  • Physical space: library for work over office for distractions
  • Personal “office hours” over “always available”
  • Eventual response over immediate response
  • Asynchronous comms (email) over synchronous comms (Slack, messenger, real-world interrupts)
  • Intentional friction in meeting scheduling over easily grab time on someone’s calendar
  • Monthly “heartbeat“ updates (joy-of-missing-out) over FOMO
  • Present out-of-person (asynchronously) with long silence and deep considering over present in-person and get knee-jerk reactions
  • Disagree & commit / consultative (single decision maker) decision making over consensus

Planning & Execution

  • Continuous improvement over goals and targets
  • 6-week sprints over annual plans
  • Time-boxes (fixed time, variable scope) over deadlines
  • Independencies over dependencies
  • Sometimes “good enough” over always “gold standard”
  • What will it take? over whatever it takes
  • Figuring out what works over “best practices”
  • Not now over yes, later (promises)

Recruiting

  • Ramp up time over hit the ground running
  • Work sample test over credentials and pedigree

Comp Philosophy

  • Single market rate based on role and level, regardless of geo
  • Automatic, upwards-only, annual update based on new market data 
  • 25% of annual profit growth distributed to employees
  • If acquired/sold, 5% of transaction distributed to employees
  • No performance bonuses
  • No salary negotiations
The Clam Company Manifesto (Fried & DHH)

What’s holding us (HR) back?

This one is going to be a little ranty. I think that’s ok 🙂 

Not getting a seat, or a big enough seat, at the (executive team) table, is a common complaint I hear from many of my peer HR leaders and certainly a challenge I’ve grappled with myself. Granted, often times an interpersonal or a personal development gap for either CEO or HR leader (or both) is a contributing factor. But I also believe there are more systemic issues that are holding us back and must change. These are my Top-3: 

  1. Structure — it’s almost always the case that no matter how large the executive team is, no matter how large the company, all but a single member of the executive team is focused on the stuff the business creates (product, engineers, ops, sales, marketing, etc.) and only a single member is focus on the people who create the stuff. When stuff outnumbers people so overwhelmingly, people will rarely get the attention they deserve. Furthermore, much of the work that falls under the HR function is not really people-centric. It’s bureaucratic/administrative/compliance “organizational tax”, that yes, somebody has to do, but does it really make sense to roll it under the same person responsible for figuring out how to increase what this collaborative effort is capable of accomplishing? As Ram Charan compellingly argued almost 5 years ago, it may finally be time to split HR into two organizations led by two different executives: HR-LO (leadership and organization) and HR-A (administration).  
  2. Faux science — from MBTI-based hiring to anonymous 360 feedback surveys, so many organizational practices today seem to follow the 1944 Office of Strategic Services (CIA’s precursor) Simple Sabotage Field Manual rather than what decades of scientific research in psychology, sociology, and neuroscience taught us about the human condition. Liz Ryan does a very good job driving this point home in How Junk Science Set HR Back Fifty Years. There are so many wrong defaults in the “how to run an effective organization” (fictional) manual. Grounded skepticism towards existing practices, testing their underlying assumptions and ruthlessly eliminating/replacing practices that don’t really move us forward all have to be part of the solution. 
  3. The Dunnig-Krueger effect — Dunning–Kruger (DK) effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability mistakenly assess their ability as greater than it is. It is particularly strong when people have some experience with the ability (non-professional drivers are more prone to it than people who’ve never driven); and when the ability is more directly tied to their identity (most of us are probably worst kissers but better dancers than we think). When discussing topical matters that don’t pertain to their own function, executives are usually fairly immune to the DK effect. If I’m the VP of Sales and this is an Engineering issue — it should be relatively easy for me to recognize my own lack of expertise in Engineering and defer to the VP of Eng’s expert opinion. But all execs lead teams, and consider being a good manager an important part of their role (identity) so when it comes to discussing people issues, everyone thinks they are an expert

As noted above, while I have some ideas for combatting #1 and #2, I haven’t come across anything that offers a good way to remedy #3 just yet. 

What’s holding us (HR) back?

The 6-As of a true apology [Andreson]

What Awesome Looks Like: How To Excel In Business & Life

In full disclosure, I have not read the book, just an article that was highlighting this particular piece of useful content from it. 

Mistakes are a natural part of life. We all make them. And I don’t think any of us would want to live in a culture where no mistakes are tolerated. There has to be a path for recovering from mistakes, and the difficulty of that path should probably be proportional to the harm caused by the mistake. 

Amy Rees Anderson offers this nifty framework for properly apologizing for a mistake. A key component of recovering from one: 

  • Admit — I made a mistake
  • Apologize — I am sorry for making the mistake.
  • Acknowledge — I recognize where I went wrong that caused the mistake.
  • Attest — I plan to do the following to fix the mistake, on this specific timeline.
  • Assure — I will put the following protections in place to ensure that I do not make the same mistake again.
  • Abstain — Never repeat the same mistake.

Going to keep this one handy. Just like any other human, I’ll probably need it sooner rather than later.

The 6-As of a true apology [Andreson]

Making remote work, work [Gilrane]

Source: Google blog

When Google sets its sights on researching a people topic, you can be sure that the level of scientific rigor will be high. While not quite filling the massively big shoes of Oxygen and Aristotle, the work led by Veronica Gilrane on the People Innovation Lab (Pi Lab) on remote work is quite good: 

Working together when we’re not together (Playbook

While the high-level conclusion was that: 

We were happy to find no difference in the effectiveness, performance ratings, or promotions for individuals and teams whose work requires collaboration with colleagues around the world versus Googlers who spend most of their day to day working with colleagues in the same office. Well-being standards were uniform across the board as well; Googlers or teams who work virtually find ways to prioritize a steady work-life balance by prioritizing important rituals like a healthy night’s sleep and exercise just as non-distributed team members do.

They did, unsurprisingly, discovered that teammates on distributed teams face three types of challenges in establishing high-quality connections: 

  1. Getting connected — arranging logistics, like rooms and timezones
  2. Being connected — ensuring technology supports the work you’re doing
  3. Feeling connected — getting to know one another, building trust

To support teams in overcoming these challenges, they’ve developed a set of role-based playbooks (distributed employees, buddies of distributed employees, managers, leaders) though the advice in each playbook has quite a bit of overlap with the others: 

  • Be present
  • Get talking
  • Re-tool your meetings
  • Strategize your space
  • Reach out
  • Traverse time zones
  • Appreciate differences
  • Set team vision and norms

Pretty good checklist for anyone who’s on or leading a distributed team. 

Making remote work, work [Gilrane]

Good closure & learning conversations [Carter]

It was a little challenging to attribute credit on this one so I’m getting as close as possible to the main source since this is more of a synthesis (NOBL academy article) of a synthesis (Quartz at Work article) of a talk given by Dean Carter, Patagonia’s CHRO. 

I used to have a pretty negative opinion of exit interviews in the past because they seemed like a bureaucratic waste of time. The person/company has already made their decision and they’re not going to change it now, then what’s the point? In more recent years, I learned that similar to other organizational practices, my “hating” on them is not because the practices are inherently bad or evil, but because I’ve only seen poor/ineffective execution of them. 

Since I strongly believe that language matters, the “branding” here is problematic as well, “exit interview” sounds cold and mechanical to me, so I’m also proposing a rebranding focusing on the aspirational purpose of those interactions: “closure and learning conversation”. 

So below is a little cheat sheet, to help me, and maybe also you, run better exit interviews going forward. 

How to run effective closure and learning conversations? 

Purpose: A learning opportunity for the company and positive closure for the person leaving. This is a meaningful touch-point, one of the final impressions that the company/manager will be leaving in the person’s memory of their time with the company. Make it count. 

Timing: Roughly half-way in between when the person/company had given notice and the person’s last day. Far enough from the notification that everyone involved had enough time to emotionally process the decision, but not too close to the last day when the person’s already 100% focused on the next thing. 

Who? I see value in giving the person leaving choice here. The goal is for them to have the conversation with someone they feel they can be candid and vulnerable with. Sometimes it’ll be their manager, sometimes a peer and sometime someone outside of their org. Regardless of who it is, notes from the conversation should be captured in a centralized place so broader organizational learning based on patterns and trends can take place. 

How? This is a good starting list of discussion questions: 

  • Why did you join? What compelled you to come here and make the required trade-offs and compromises that it required? 
  • How did your experience live up to your expectations? 
  • What should change here to make up for the gap? What would you do differently to make up for it?
  • What advice would you give a new hire here? 
  • What advice would you give us when hiring for your replacement? 
  • Who here has been a mentor or supported for you? 
  • What did you manager/team/company/HR do well? Is there any feedback that you haven’t already shared? 
  • What is your best memory from your time here? 
  • What are you hoping for in your next opportunity?

Follow-up: 3–6 month later. With a bit more time to process, reflect and gain perspective, is there anything else you’d like to share? 

Good closure & learning conversations [Carter]

Beyond Self-Actualization [Kaufman; Blackstock]

A came across a couple of interesting pieces recently, both exploring the boundaries of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from pretty different angles. 

The characteristics of self- actualizing people

Self-Actualizing People in the 21st Century: Integration With Contemporary Theory and Research on Personality and Well-Being (academic paper)

What Does It Mean to Be Self-Actualized in the 21st Century? (blog post)

When Abrahams Maslow first proposed his hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, he also outlined some key characteristics that self-actualized people tend to possess. 

Scott Barry Kaufman set out to find using a more modern set of tools whether these characteristics do indeed sum-up to a unifying factor of self-actualization. That self-actualization factor, in turn, was found to be associated with multiple indicators of well-being, including greater life satisfaction, curiosity, self-acceptance, positive relationships, environmental mastery, personal growth, autonomy, and purpose in life. As well as multiple indicators of work performance and creativity, including greater work satisfaction, as well as greater reports of talent, skill, and creative ability across a wide range of fields from the arts and sciences to business and sports.

Out of the 17 initial traits Kaufman tested based on Malsow’s hypothesis, 10 were found to indeed contribute to the broader self-actualization factor, listed here in order from the biggest to smallest contribution: 

  1. Continued Freshness of Appreciation(Sample item: “I can appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others.”)
  2. Acceptance(Sample item: “I accept all of my quirks and desires without shame or apology.”)
  3. Authenticity (Sample item: “I can maintain my dignity and integrity even in environments and situations that are undignified.”)
  4. Equanimity (Sample item: “I tend to take life’s inevitable ups and downs with grace, acceptance, and equanimity.”)
  5. Purpose (Sample item: “I feel a great responsibility and duty to accomplish a particular mission in life.”)
  6. Efficient Perception of Reality (Sample item: “I am always trying to get at the real truth about people and nature.”)
  7. Humanitarianism (Sample item: “I have a genuine desire to help the human race.”)
  8. Peak Experiences (Sample item: “I often have experiences in which I feel new horizons and possibilities opening up for myself and others.”)
  9. Good Moral Intuition (Sample item: “I can tell ‘deep down’ right away when I’ve done something wrong.”)
  10. Creative Spirit(Sample item: “I have a generally creative spirit that touches everything I do.”)

As Kaufman points out in his post: 

Later in his life, Maslow’s focus was much more on the paradoxical connections between self-actualization and self-transcendence, and the distinction between defense vs. growth motivation…

Why is it that the most self-actualized people are those who are the most self-transcendent?…

Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others(important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence — the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.

Which neatly connects us to the 2nd piece: 

What’s beyond self-actualization? 

Maslow’s hierarchy connected to Blackfoot beliefs (post by Karen Lincoln Michel

The Emergence of the Breath of Life Theory (academic paper by Cindy Blackstock)

According to this research, Maslow drew some of his inspiration to the hierarchy of needs for the time he spent at the Blackfoot (Siksika) reserve in Alberta, Canada in the 1930s. Regardless of attribution, what’s interesting to me in this narrative, is that in the Blackfoot version of the hierarchy, self-actualization is at the basis of the pyramid (or in this case, tipi) supporting two higher level aspirations: community actualization and cultural perpetuity. 

Michel, quoting Blackstock, explained the latter in her post: 

“We have been given the ancestors’ teachings and the feelings and the spirit. We can do a couple of things with that. We can say that what we know is inadequate and that we’re not Indian enough and that we don’t know enough about it or we don’t want to pass it on. And we hold our breath and our people stop. Or you can nourish that breath. You can breathe in even deeper the knowledge of others and understand it at a deep level and then breathe it forward. That’s the breath of life,”

I’m still reflecting on this beautiful metaphor, so I’ll stop here and encourage you to do the same. 

Beyond Self-Actualization [Kaufman; Blackstock]