Sunday, February 16, 2014

Contribution, Not Performance

A culture of contribution, which most of our organisations need to thrive, is antithetical to the culture of performance that we usually have.

The culture of performance is deeply flawed for two reasons. First, because it operates with the assumption that individuals make all the difference. But as computers take over our process jobs, we only employ people to do things that require social and creative activities, requiring what we call collaborative work. Teams, so to say, make difference, not just individuals. When you can't perform, perform alone that is, the idea of performance is not just misdirected but deeply harmful.

Second, because the idea of performance creates wrong incentives. The 'me first' culture is deeply embedded in performance, and turns everything into a competitive solo sport. While this is linked to our social attitude towards work and success, the social attitudes are not a given, but just a product of a certain age. In a sense, the failings of 'me first' ideas are all around us to realise that we need a new mantra.

Josh Bersin points out several problems that underlie our ideas about performance in this essay. The most hurtful is indeed the reductionist credo that all work can be reduced to parameters that we, as owners or managers, can define. This was perhaps fine in an industrial era when meaning at work was less important and we could measure everything with the volume or value of output. Whatever we may think, that's more difficult with most of today's work: Most human work can't be measured by volume (because there isn't any), and often value of work lie in the future or only indirectly manifested. We, as owners and managers, don't even know, most of the time, what to measure: Besides, we want people to have serendipity, those unexpected deja vu that produce sparks of insights, ideas and breakthroughs, at work. How on earth do we write that on job description?

Questioning the value of performance measures don't mean creating a free-for-all workplace. The point is that we need a new standard of accountability. I shall argue that this should be one of contribution. Contribution, because this acknowledges the essential social nature of work and puts an individual's work in broader perspective, and hopefully promotes the primacy of social living. For most of knowledge work today, as we work with people, this is a better measure to reflect our many-sided engagement.

As the lessons of businesses are adopted by non-business organisations, governments, charities etc., citing the dynamism of business environments, we are drawing the wrong lessons: We are mixing up the performance culture, which is an industrial era relic with limited use-value for other organisations, to the deep everyday accountability that drive business success. What we may need instead is marriage of the two cultures: A synthesis of the focus and accountability of businesses with the culture of service and contribution that come so easily to other forms of organisations, such as government and charities.

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