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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 April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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