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What is Performance?

What is Performance?

Maybe this sounds a silly question, but it’s not. We live in a business society dominated by demands for ever greater performance. Yet until we’re clear what performance is, focusing on it will produce only confusion and frustration.

“Simple,” some people say. “Performance is getting the job done. Producing the result that you aimed at. Nothing else matters. There are no prizes for coming second.”

Of course, there are such prizes, but we’ll let that pass. It’s still worth thinking carefully about the prevalent idea that only delivering results counts as acceptable performance. If you don’t reach the objectives, may be you haven’t performed well enough.

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This is a seductive way of thinking. It sounds tough and practical. After all, if you don’t achieve what you want, what have you done? And in today’s ultra-macho business culture, sounding tough is important, even if the reality is rather different.

Looking a little closer, however, this approach to performance is simplistic and bound to cause trouble. No one can ensure a favorable outcome from their efforts. There are too many chance events to intervene between what someone does and what happens as a result. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns remarked more than two centuries ago: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” That’s Scots for “often go awry.” The future is full of unexpected events. Near impossible chances happen all the time. You do the best you can, then something unpredictable happens to frustrate your efforts. Are you responsible for this? Or for other people who mess up, or fail to deliver on their promises? Or the weather? The gyrations of the stock market? Wars and terrorist attacks?

Obviously not. So treating performance as unsatisfactory based on the outcome alone is neither reasonable nor fair. Management by objectives may be a useful way to focus effort towards a needed result, but appraisal by results is a poor strategy. There are too many variable left unaccounted for; too many areas that have major impacts on results ignored.

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It doesn’t work well in the rest of life either. If you set your heart on a particular outcome, and can find no satisfaction in anything else, you’re taking a notable gamble. Try as you may, the result can still be negative.

Responsibility versus Control

People constantly confuse responsibility with control. You may accept responsibility for running some part of a business, but that doesn’t mean that you can control exactly what happens in it. You can try to make things turn out as you want. You can work hard and use your best efforts. But you cannot control the outcome, whatever you do. Those who must work through others soon learn that they cannot control people, however draconian their leadership style. You can influence, attempt to persuade or motivate, but never control absolutely. Nor can you control external events. That’s the reality. Again, you can work, plan, strive, hope and worry, but you cannot control the result, whatever you do.

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To be responsible for something is to take on an obligation to do your very best to make that thing happen. It cannot be more. To pretend that failure is always down to the individuals responsible—that they should have controlled events as you wanted—is just macho nonsense. Incompetence may be punishable, but the inability to control the world is not.

Results affect us, even though they’re outside our control, but they’re no basis for judging performance—or for setting your life’s purpose. Far better to focus on the actions involved in seeking that result. They are within your control. You have to take the credit or the blame for what you do. So you might as well take the satisfaction available from doing something well, even if the eventual result was not what you wanted.

Forget judging people by results. Don’t base judgments of performance on something outside that person’s control. Judge by actions and inputs. Everyone is fully responsible for their actions. A failure that came about by chance after much purposeful hard work clearly shows higher performance than a chance success for someone who made little effort. Finding satisfaction and purpose in the action itself is far better than fixating on an outcome that lies mostly in the hands of chance. If doing something well increases the odds on success, that’s a pleasant bonus.

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Still not convinced? Winning is rarely as important as we assume, but if winning is all that counts, as in war, remember Napoleon. When someone asked him what kind of people he looked for to be generals, he replied: “Lucky ones.”

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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