OUCH! In the Creative Tension Model

20151104_145813The creative tension model illustrates the basic idea of strategy  as we typically understand and act on it today in organizations. In an earlier post we found common definitions for strategy:


  • A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
  • The art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle.
  • A plan for military operations and movements during a war or battle.

It is only recently that strategy has become what it is in organizations and this is well represented by the creative tension model.

creative-tension-modelThis model of strategy in organizations became popularized in the early 1990’s through two very influential thinkers and their two extremely popular books. Robert Fritz and The Path of Least Resistance and Peter Senge and The Fifth Discipline. There are many other components to these works but for now, in the case of strategy, let’s focus on this creative tension model.

There were two critical things that Fritz and Senge did with this model that was radically different than how strategy had historically played out:

  1. They set the start point for strategy considerably farther into the future and this future was idealized as vision.
  2. They defined the cause of human behavior as structures or systems.

These two points are today the mostly unquestioned foundation of strategy and organization theory regarding strategy. Basically:

You set a vision and then build the systems in your organization to reach it.  According to this model, if your vision is true enough and the systems you create good enough, you should reach your vision. This is a monstrous:


I don’t know if Fritz or Senge anticipated the amount of OUCH! this model now produces but somehow I doubt it. Fritz’s idea of the individual being the primary creative force in their life and Senge’s idea of the learning organization I think are really important ideas, well worth striving for. But grounding these ideas in the assumption of certainty I think compromises those ideas significantly.

So where does the OUCH! come from?

The way this model is supposed to work is that you first define your vision, and this is something you really want, thus it is idealized. You then move back from this vision to current reality and this creates a (creative) tension since current reality is not the same as what you want, there is a distance between them. When this was actually illustrated often an elastic was used that was attached to the vision to show that if you wanted something enough (i.e. a true enough vision) then there was a strong and natural pull toward that vision. In order to let that pull do its work you needed to create structures or systems (point 2 above) in current reality that would cause behavior that would align with the vision and you would eventually reach that vision.

There is quite a lot that doesn’t work out well here and we’ll be looking at other points along the way here but for now let’s look at four that directly relate to the two points above that create a lot of OUCH!, some fairly obvious and others not near as much. We’re going to do this over two posts so we can keep these to reasonable length. This post will look at the first two of the four important problems below:

  1. When you create a vision in this model you create an idealized picture of the future. This makes determining the time frame to realize this vision extremely hard, if not impossible.
  2. This idealized future may or may not be what ‘you’ really want.
  3. Almost all organizations will have some version of the same vision, making the exercise either meaningless or a set up for failure.
  4. Behavior is not caused by structures or systems as defined by this model.

To the first problem, when you ask a group to imagine their organization as they really want it to be; their vision, it is almost always really, really awesome.  Even when you ask them to imagine some of the problems that might be associated with this vision they will also imagine ways that they deal with these things in this future state. Pretty much nothing sucks. No one has a vision of bankruptcy, viscous conflict, high turnover etc. The point of the exercise is to establish a real vision of what you want. Well, you want awesome stuff and you are imagining so there it becomes.

One problem here is that in order for this vision to actually happen, even with things going really well would require not just incredible focus and discipline on the part of the organization, it likely means changes on the part of your competitors, customers, society and others, all aligning with your vision. Even if we stay in imagining mode the time frame for this is probably years, if not lifetimes.

Yet, when you move back to current reality and begin to plan to create structures to make this vision happen, the time frame simply cannot be that long so the group puts together plans in a time frame that is still imagining, even though it’s supposed to be reality.

In our current organizations there is no solution to this as long as strategy starts with an idealized picture of the future, a vision as we currently understand it.

To the second problem, when you ask a group what they really want, you will always get some version of what it is they are ‘supposed’ to want. In organizations it will be senior management creating this vision so the vision will be some version of what they are supposed to want for their organization. If you drop down even one level in the organization, this vision starts to lose meaning. This does not mean people don’t see it as important but it has nowhere near the power and appeal it does for those that created it.

One of the key elements that is supposed to make this model so powerful, that being the creative tension pulling people toward the vision, dissipates very quickly as you move down the organization. This is not bad or wrong, it is simply that others in the organization have other things that they really want! Vision simply is not as all powerful in organizations as it is made out to be.

Surprisingly even the way the model works admits this, although not overtly. Those who create the vision are supposed to build structures or systems to cause behavior that aligns with the vision. If the vision was so powerful the creative tension built into it should be enough. It is only powerful enough it seems for those that create it.

When I worked with the creative tension model I did dozens and dozens of these vision sessions leading to building systems that would lead the team or organization to their vision. The problems above and the ones we will look at in the next post always arose and I adjusted and reworked how I looked at and worked with the various parts of the model numerous times to no avail.

I eventually had to look at the efficacy of the model or admit I wasn’t good enough to make it work. The OUCH! in this model is that it pushes us toward the later, not the former. And frankly that is simply not good, nor is it accurate!

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. Have you ever felt like a failure because you couldn’t or didn’t achieve your vision?
  2. Do you agree with Fritz and Senge that structures or systems are the cause of behavior?
  3. If you have used this model, or some version of it, what is your experience?

Strategy: More Interaction More Uncertainty

20151104_145813Near the end of the last post I said that I thought good and numerous interactions regarding strategy are likely more needed now in organizations than at any other time in history. Quite simply, I think this to be true because at present we have access to more interactions than at any time in history. Interactions create complexity and strategy engages complexity.

There is an interesting paradox here however, one that is not resolvable. More interaction also means more uncertainty. So if we interact a lot for and about strategy we will be producing more of the very thing that good strategy is supposed to eliminate. At least in terms of how we typically understand ‘good’ strategy in current organization theory.

Interaction Model

Let’s look a little closer at the interaction model and specifically the gesture and response which describe the workings of our interactions. This particular part of the interaction model is based on the work of George Herbert Mead the American social psychologist.

Mead describes interaction between people as a ‘conversation of gestures’, a dynamic that is comprised of numerous gestures and responses where the dynamic between the gestures and responses creates meaning. In some ways, Mead was describing parts of systems thinking and complexity, in the realm of interaction, long before those two areas of focus were popularized!

If we move back up into the interaction model and look at the top arrows in both the left and right loops; they represent part of the complexity we as an individual bring to any interaction we may have. Basically we are bringing our entire past and intended future to bear on any present interaction. There is a lot of complexity and variability just waiting to happen in any interaction!

If we recall two of the key lessons learned from complexity science:

  1. Small disturbances in a complex system MAY produce significant changes.
  2. It is not possible to predict which disturbances may produce these changes or what these changes will actually be. The changes are not unrecognizable, but they are unpredictable.

The complexity from those top two arrows can be said to represent the ‘disturbances’ noted above. Since it is not possible to know specifically how any of these disturbances will surface or manifest themselves, interaction is firmly rooted in one key thing:


We have good science that tells us that strategy work cannot produce certainty. However, as we typically understand it today, ‘good’ strategy is supposed to eliminate uncertainty. Interaction creates uncertainty. An irresolvable paradox. Typical organization theory tries to resolve this paradox primarily in one way:

Blame – you didn’t do your strategy well enough or you didn’t implement it well enough.


As noted before regarding performance management this does not mean we should just give up on strategy.  It does mean we should give up on our expectations and intentions of what strategy should do.

In the last post I described strategy as ‘looking for all the dots of opportunity out there and trying to connect them with some coherent threads’. The reason interacting around strategy is so important is that now there are considerably more dots of both opportunity and danger so it is imperative that we engage with those dots in an effort to exercise some level of influence. Otherwise we are simply not actively even in the organizational game and it is better to play a game grounded in uncertainty rather than not play at all!

We, and our organizations are some of those dots of opportunity and danger. We are going to move forward with all those other dots no matter what so it makes logical sense to consciously try to influence what is emerging rather than simply go with the flow and ‘see what happens’.

This activity, this engagement to influence does not need to be burdened with the expectation of certainty. In fact, this engagement to influence is hindered by this expectation.

Imagine what this engagement to influence might be like if it were not burdened by the expectation of certainty. Shoulders drop, possibility becomes possible, judgement waits, innovation is typical as is failure and success.

Blame decreases and there is much, much less OUCH!

This is strategy unburdened by the very non scientific yoke of certainty. It is what I love most about what strategy is; in all its messiness, struggle, frustration and beauty.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. Do you love strategy?
  2. How do you define strategy?
  3. Why are you a good strategic thinker?
  4. Have you ever experienced the burden of certainty on your strategic work?

















He also said the gesture had no meaning until the response was received.

OUCH! Strategy

20151104_145813So we started with the low hanging fruit of performance management so why not jump right to the lofty hanging fruit of strategy!

A quick search of the term strategy (noun) turned up the following definitions:

  • A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
  • The art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle.
  • A plan for military operations and movements during a war or battle.

For the purpose of this work  the first point above fits quite well and also the first four words of the second point; the art of planning. Strategy is a plan of forward movement, for an entire organization. I love strategy work; looking for all the dots of opportunity out there and trying to connect them with some coherent threads that tie it all together and make an imagined pathway seem possible. When that picture has a hint of clarity it is a beautiful thing I think.

I also think strategy has been compromised significantly and is now loaded with OUCH! The main reasons why:

  1. Strategy has become completely coupled with success.
  2. Strategy has become equated to a destination, a result, rather than a process of movement.
  3. Strategic plans stretch too far into the future and have too much detail.

The Greek origin of the word stood for ‘generalship’; again, the military links are numerous and continue today. Another interesting detail is that the whole idea of strategy and strategic plans in organizations was not common until the 1960’s. What this means is that some of what would be considered the most successful organizations ever, reached that defined success without ever having a strategic plan as we know them today. Today, if you do not have a detailed strategic plan you are more or less deemed incompetent.

Let’s take a look at the interaction model and see what gets compromised regarding typical strategic work; what is causing the OUCH!

Interaction Model

What is really interesting is that our typical understanding and formal activity in strategy is not much different than performance management regarding what is compromised in the interaction model. It just plays out differently.

Like typical performance management systems there are two main compromises to the interaction model:

  1. The bottom arrow in the right loop is effectively ignored.
  2. The left facing arrowhead in the gesture and response is effectively ignored

So what you end up with, in essence, is a giant, conceptual performance management system. You also end up with most of the same problems and compromises. It’s just that since senior management does strategy it is deemed more important than performance management. No one asks the question, ‘should we get rid of our strategic planning process’?

Perhaps we should.

At least in terms of expectation and intentions, not the content of our interactions regarding strategy.

If we look at strategy through the interaction model the intention of the group working on an organizations strategy (typically the role of the most senior management) is to create a plan that will lead to organization success. There is no other activity in organizations where the assumption that certainty can be delivered by those in power is stronger and more established than strategy. After all, senior management has the most power so are best positioned to create certainty.

As the senior management group interacts regarding this intention (typically some kind of retreat) their role is to plan a pathway forward that leads to the organizations success, however that success may be defined. In order to deliver certainty the senior team must account for every variable that might get in the way of their plan and mitigate the effect of those variables.

Once the plan is in place it defines the actions of the organization for whatever length of time the plan spans (often 3 – 5 years). The bottom arrow in the right loop is effectively ignored since any adaptation to the intention would mean one of two things or both:

  1. The definition of success has changed.
  2. Senior management was incompetent in their original work with the strategic plan.

Neither of these two conclusions are at all comfortable but if you assume certainty can be delivered by those in power it’s what you end up with and it’s actually point number 2 we see most of. All this current content we now see about things like ‘nimbleness’, ‘adaptability’, ‘flexibility’ and so forth are not about the bottom arrow of the right loop, it is about managing that arrow away in any real sense. All most of that content is really saying is that you can never plan to mitigate all the variables but if you are good enough you can mitigate them when they do unexpectedly show up. If you do that you can still deliver certainty.

Once the strategic plan is in place the entire focus becomes implementation and this then becomes the gesture of senior management initially to ‘communicate the strategy’  and then this cascades down throughout the organization. The left facing arrowhead is not relevant in any real sense because the gesture is about the strategy and that strategy is leading to success. The only acceptable response is agreement. Any differing response is just something that has to be dealt with, typically by better gestures until the response is what is needed.

If you look back at what strategy was before what we have now it typically started with being excellent at what you did and this excellence enabled the organization to act on opportunities that surfaced, or were likely to surface, in the relatively near future. These opportunities were more or less local, especially compared to today. The start point was excellence, the time frame was quite short and the opportunities were more opportunistic than planned. Certainty was not assumed. If you think about this a little, it is why the military connections to the definitions of strategy make sense. If you were excellent and were able to act on the opportunities that surfaced you had a better chance of winning a battle.

Today, the start point is certainty, the time frame is long (typically 3 – 5 years) and the opportunities are planned. And if you don’t deliver on those planned opportunities, you have failed on numerous fronts.


And yet, if you assume that certainty can be delivered by those in power, the strategic plans we have in place today make perfect sense; just like the performance management systems we have.

As with performance management, this does not mean we should just trash the idea of strategy. I actually think good and numerous interactions regarding strategy are likely more needed now in organizations than at any other time in history! The content of those interactions are critically important; the expectations and intentions we typically have of our current strategic work however, seriously misfit our experience.

As mentioned in earlier posts the next post(s) will focus a little bit on the theoretical ideology from which I question these formal organization processes and the posts after that will focus on what can we actually do about these misfits, these OUCH’s!

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. What is your experience with strategy?
  2. Do you know the strategic plan of your organization?
  3. Have you ever worked in an organization that did not have a strategic plan? Tell us your story.

Performance Management Systems – Let’s Not Bother

20151104_145447The last post focused on performance management system design and the one before that focused on doing your best to make a performance management system tolerable if it wasn’t going away any time soon. The ideas put forth in those posts will reduce the OUCH! but they cannot deal with the reality that exists in any of these systems.

The actual numbers of interactions about performance in these systems are so few that the probability of having any real impact on performance is incredibly small.

The logical (heck, even mathematical) choice would be to simply not bother at all!

Unfortunately, these systems have got so entwined with other systems and processes that it’s just not that easy, to not bother at all. However, if you are in a position to actually play with getting rid of your performance management system, get some people together who know what they are doing in this area and ask the following question:

‘What would be the impact if we got rid of our performance management system?’

Don’t be at all surprised if no one says anything about an actual impact on performance! What will get surfaced though will be the other systems and processes that the performance management system does impact. Chances are the biggest one will be compensation. After that will be career/succession. Someone may mention termination/reorganization as well but that will be about it in terms of what really matters.

So if you want to get rid of your performance management system you need find other ways of interacting with people about those things. If you get that same group of people together that you asked the question above, it won’t take long to get some good answers. And those answers will likely produce far more realistic interactions about compensation, career etc. than what is happening now if what is happening now is informed by the performance management system.

As an example let’s look at compensation since often people will say the biggest impact of getting rid of the performance management system will be on the compensation system. And let’s look at this as logically as we can.

First, base salary is not affected by the performance management system, it is informed by pay grades and comparisons. Let’s say someone’s base salary is $50,000.00. Where the performance management system is supposed to kick in is how much of a raise/bonus is someone going to get since most organizations say it is important to ‘pay for performance’. In most organizations today you will be lucky, very lucky to be able to allocate someone a 10% raise (and even that is high). So at its simplest, if you have let’s say 20 people at this pay grade and similar jobs the best performer will get a $5,000.00 raise and the worst performer will get nothing. Everyone else is somewhere between.

The actual money is almost, almost meaningless. And yet many people will say that the very complicated, time consuming performance management system is what justifies and brings equity to this almost meaningless monetary reward. They will say this will be the biggest impact if the performance management system is eliminated.

Do you really need a performance management system to justify and bring equity to a compensation process? Quite simply, NO. The same can be said for career, succession and any other process that might have been identified as being impacted by the elimination of the  performance management system

Keep in mind, whether you have a performance management system or not people are going to get raises or not get raises, they are going to  navigate a career and they are going to ask questions about their performance and people are going to evaluate their performance. So the interactions, the meaningful interactions about these topics are going to occur. You don’t need a performance management system to deliver on this need. In fact it usually gets in the way of effective interactions on these very topics.

Why? Because the idea of a performance management system is founded on the theory that certainty can be delivered by those in power. And our experience everyday tells us this is not our reality. So almost everything that occurs as part of that system is viewed with cynicism and distrust. OUCH! oozes everywhere. It is very difficult to have realistic and effective interactions in that environment.

Solving the problem of finding ways to interact more realistically and effectively without a performance management system about performance, career, succession, evaluation, pay raises is not very complicated. Simply communicate that everyone has the right to have these types of interactions and set a timetable. Provide enough appropriate information to everyone for consistency and understanding parameters and capturing outputs (if needed) and away you go.

Some people will say that their managers won’t have those conversations. Well they’re not having them anyway, even if you do have a performance management system! The system is just hiding this fact and helping everyone to avoid this fact in the first place!

I am quite convinced, if performance management systems were simply eliminated tomorrow, no matter the size of the organization there would be a significant positive effect on accountability in organizations and probably a positive effect in overall performance as well.

However, until we let go of our assumption that certainty can be delivered by those with power, we’ll probably still have them for quite some time.

Next posts will be focusing on strategy!

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. What do you think would happen if the performance management system was eliminated in your organization?
  2. Have you worked in an organization that did not have a performance management system? How was performance ‘managed’? Or did it need to be?

Reducing OUCH! in Performance Management Design

20151104_145447If you have enough power, or perhaps enough bad luck you might be charged with designing a performance management system. Hopefully it’s because you have enough power because the design of a performance management system that actually adds value has two very problematic elements:

  1. The design will be contrary to established patterns of formal interaction so you will have a significant change process you will need to navigate. This is why you will need power.
  2. Once the design is working well you won’t need the performance management system any more. This however is why the system adds value; to performance!

In the last post I mentioned that I had the opportunity to design a performance management system some years ago. At the time I was the junior person in the HR/OD function and this was a task no one wanted, so being junior I got it. It felt at the time like I had a big dose of bad luck because I didn’t want the task either and I certainly didn’t have the power.

The wonderful good luck I had was that the company had no history with performance management systems. I had no clue what they ‘should’ be like and as mentioned in the last post I was working in parallel with Dr. Edmund J. Freedberg in the area of Self Management. Back then I didn’t know how lucky I was.

What Feedburg’s work focused on was taking self accountability for our performance.

Sounds simple but I would say it terms of organizational performance it is as radical a concept now as it was 20 + years ago. As I thought about the real purpose of a performance management system it seemed to make perfect sense that the purpose of the entire thing should be about driving self accountability for our performance. When this becomes the purpose of your performance management system a lot of things happen design wise, the most important being (and as noted in the last post):

  • You drive this system!

A few other key points that this purpose creates in terms of design:

  • The link between the performance management system and the compensation and succession/career systems is decoupled.
  • The planning and goal setting of performance is separated, time wise from the evaluation of performance.

These last two points are not all that radical and some companies do this now. It’s the You drive this system that is very different.

If your purpose of the performance management system is to drive self accountability of performance then the performance management system needs to be designed so the individual, not the individual’s manager, drives the system.

In the system I designed, everyone, including the CEO had one identical performance objective:

  • Use of the performance management system

Of course there were other objectives related to their specific work but we all shared this one. In order to use the system, you, as an individual were accountable for the following:

  • Scheduling your formal meetings with your manager (there were three of these each year, one for planning, one for a check in and one for evaluation).
  • Setting your own goals and measurement process to track progress.
  • Evaluation of your own performance and proof of the rigor of that evaluation by using the measurements established.

The idea was that if you were required to use the system then that system was going to make you accountable for your own performance. After all, whose performance is it anyway! If you are responsible for the design of a performance management system and make this one design change you will have a system that adds value; to performance. As you can imagine, you also have a big change ahead of you and your organization. This is why you need power since self accountability of performance is not a typical pattern of interaction in organizations, let alone designing it into systems and processes.

Let’s take a look at the interaction model and see what happens with a design like this.

Interaction Model

Keep in mind, the model above is not an ‘answer’; it is simply a model that reflects the reality of our experience in organizations. As noted in previous posts the primary compromise of this model in typical performance management  systems is the virtual elimination of the lower arrow in the right loop and the left facing arrowhead in the gesture response. If you design a performance management system with the purpose of driving accountability for our own performance not only are the arrow and arrowhead added back in, the formal interactions in the system change significantly as well.

  • The individual’s intentions for their performance are the start point for the formal interaction.
  • The manager is now the primary driver (if needed) of the bottom arrow in the right loop.
  • The individual provides the initial and primary gestures and the manager’s responses restore the left facing arrowhead.

What this means is that the formal interactions within a performance management system designed this way more closely match our real experience. It does not necessarily make the experience any easier or magically better, but it does make it much more real.

There is less OUCH!

You may now have a very important question; ‘Did this performance management system actually work?’

Where it was used in the organization it worked very, very well. It did add value to performance. It was not however used globally, throughout the organization primarily because people in power did not want to use it and I did not have the power to change that.

Where it was used we discovered that as the formal interactions changed, the day to day interactions focusing on performance changed as well, they became more intentional and conscious and eventually the formal interactions became more day to day. In our own department the actual ‘system’ began to seem irrelevant and because we had decoupled compensation, succession and career there really weren’t many boxes to check that so often are part of a performance management system. Our department itself however had become different. Our interactions about performance were much more obvious and just like the manager in the last post’s scenario, for us that was a good thing.

The point above about people in power not wanting to use the system will be looked at in future posts as it is a much broader topic than performance management systems.

One short story is relevant here though. As we tested out this new system within our HR function I went to my boss for one of our formal interactions with my list of goals and objectives; two of which were:

  • To design the performance management system for the organization.
  • To educate people how to use this system.

As part of our discussion he said I think you need a goal to be accountable for the implementation of this system as well. We talked a little and I said ‘If you can give me the legitimate power to fire the CEO if he doesn’t use the system I will add that goal’. He thought for a bit and then smiled and said, ‘I don’t think you need that goal’.

I’ve never forgotten that interaction. It was a real discussion about performance, about realistic goals and about power in an organization. It was hard but there was no OUCH! If you are designing a performance management system, it needs to produce such discussions.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. What do you think is the real purpose of your performance management system?
  2. What types of interactions does the formal performance management system in your organization create?
  3. Who is accountable for performance in your organization? Does your performance management system model that?

Reducing the OUCH! in Performance Management

20151104_145447There’s a lot to be said here and tried here and I would guess that a lot of the things put forth in this post you may already do, or have considered doing. I hope so. Since a lot of what OUCH! is about is recognizing that we put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of the formal things we do in organizations when our actual experience says they make very little sense at all! That effort IS our actual experience of being in an organization.

This means part of this post is not about things that are new but legitimizing things we do now but more or less think we shouldn’t or have been told we shouldn’t.

As an example of this, some time ago I was working with an experienced middle manager who had just been to a fairly extensive course to help him be a better ‘coach’ in his role. A significant part of this course focused on performance coaching and how to conduct a good performance coaching session as part of the formal performance management system in the organization.

He was a good manager. He hated the performance management system (not sure if there is a significant correlation here or not!) so he was struggling to see the relevance of what he had just learned at the course, which he had enjoyed overall. He simply asked me ‘What do you think of performance management systems?’ After some discussion about where this question might be coming from and all that we got to the heart of the matter.

The performance management system was not going to go away so he had to do something with it even though he knew it was more about checking boxes than performance. What we landed on that he could work with and made sense to him are listed below:

  • The actual outputs of the performance management system were most important to the compensation system and the career/succession process. These things were important so for him to position his work in the performance management system as contributing to these two other things made that work much less onerous.
  • There should be very little difference between the interactions he had daily about performance and the interaction he had in the formal system. What this meant to him was that what he was doing anyway, day to day about performance, was of primary importance and the actual formal meeting was nothing more than a confirmation of this. This consistency also dramatically shortened the formal ‘meeting’.
  • He could be open with his direct reports about what the real importance of the performance management system was (compensation, career/succession) so they could see the relevance of it as well. For him, he said this was quite freeing since he didn’t feel like he, or his direct reports had to play some role that made no sense to them.
  • In his case (and in many others) the goal setting part of performance and the performance evaluation part were supposed to occur at the same time (if there was such a thing as ‘worst’ practices this would be one!) so he split them up and did the performance evaluation part a couple of weeks before the formal meeting schedule and then just filled in the necessary boxes like the meetings had occurred at the same time. Again, the importance of no difference in this type of meeting and what happened day to day was critical.

At one point in our conversation he asked me ‘Do you think it’s ok to be doing this?’ That question is at the heart of OUCH! He was concerned if it was ok to make a system we all know is deeply flawed, work better. What would happen if he was ‘caught’?

My response to him was ‘Well you know better than I do what will happen to you if you’re caught so you have to determine that risk, but my guess is that this is pretty much what you do anyway.’ He thought about that for a bit and said ‘Yeah, pretty much, but this makes it more obvious’. I said to him ‘Well in this case I think more obvious is likely better, don’t you?’ He agreed.

Over 20 years ago I had the task of designing the performance management system for the organization I was working in. In parallel I was also working with Dr. Edmund J. Freedberg around the concept of Self Management (more on this in later posts).

When people came into the training for the performance management system the first thing they saw were two really big signs:


For this post it’s the NO SURPRISES that is relevant. The manager in the story above was different than many of the managers I experience in that he did, consciously and intentionally interact daily about performance with the people he worked with. It was not a shift for him to have NO SURPRISES in his day to day interactions and his formal one(s).

Before we had such a thing as a performance management system this was the norm. Now, the norm is that we are unconscious and unintentional about our day to day interactions about performance. We forget that we are interacting about performance all the time and then are surprised, shocked, angry, scared, confused when what we say about performance in the formal meeting is met with those very same responses!

So if your performance management system is not going away any time soon, and is one of the vast majority that has been described in the last few posts then perhaps a few of the points above can help. But the one key mantra you should repeat to yourself every day is:


It will make your day to day interactions about performance much more obvious whether that be good, bad or ugly!) and will make the formal performance management system work much better for you.

The next post will focus on performance management system design and the one after that on getting rid of it completely.

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. How conscious are you of your interactions about performance?
  2. How have you secretly ‘tweaked’ the performance management system to make it work better for you?


Performance Management: Every Interaction Matters

20151104_145447Quite a number of years ago I became very interested in complexity science as it applies to understanding organizations. I had worked with systems thinking principles for quite some time before that and it seemed like complexity science was another important step forward.

For me the beauty of systems thinking was that it emphasized that the connections between things were as important, or more important than those things themselves. One of the ways these connections are represented in systems thinking is causal loop diagrams. If you’ve ever experienced systems thinking you most likely have experienced or drawn a causal loop diagram.

One of the things that for me always seemed to be somewhat of a mystery with a causal loop diagram was what was actually happening ‘within’ the connecting line in the diagram. Complexity science seemed to focus on that very thing!

Unbeknownst to me at the time however, was that this focus would eventually lead me away from systems thinking and even away from complexity science in some ways, but more on that later…

Enough theory for now; how does any of this have anything to do with performance management?

Of the many things we have learned from complexity science, two are important here:

  1. Small disturbances in a complex system MAY produce significant changes.
  2. It is not possible to predict which disturbances may produce these changes or what these change will actually be. The changes are not unrecognizable, but they are unpredictable.

Performance in organizations is very, very complex so those two lessons above should be taken seriously.

If we look at typical performance management systems, the system is considered to be designed well, and a manager is considered to be doing really good work if they have two or three formal interactions on the subject of performance with each of their managees each year. Most performance management systems are designed for one formal interaction; more is simply inefficient.

Of the actual number of interactions a manager has about performance, the formal performance management ‘meeting’ will represent a tiny percentage, probably less than 5%.

So if you were a gambler and you were betting on which interactions might actually affect performance, would you bet on the 5% from the performance management system or the 95% which make up all the other interactions about performance? Keep in mind those lessons above!

Seems simple doesn’t it?

So why do we bet on the 5%? Let’s not kid ourselves, the outputs of the performance management system defines our performance, defines elements of our compensation, dramatically influences our career opportunities and provides everyone that has access to those outputs, a picture of present and possible future performance. We are betting on the 5%.

We’re betting on the 5% because we want certainty and we want people with power to deliver it. At least that is what organization theory says. Our experience says


I often ask managers if their interactions about performance in the performance management meeting are different than what they have day to day about performance. Almost all of the time the answer is ‘Yes’. And because of this the managee wonders what the heck is going on.  95% of the time the manager interacts about performance in one way and then in 5% they interact differently. And that 5% is deemed as really important! We all know it’s a dance to check boxes, important boxes, but not boxes about performance.

The reason this post talks about complexity science is that we have good, hard science telling us that what we do in a performance management system has a very low probability of impact on actual performance. We have very good, logical, and defensible reasons to dislike our performance management systems.

When it comes to performance in organizations, every interaction matters. For all of us, how we talk about performance at 10:00am on a Tuesday morning or 10:00pm on a Thursday night, or in the middle of a crisis defines our perspective on performance far more than a performance management system ever will. Yet what is described above says the interactions in the performance management system matter more. Because of this, our day to day interactions about performance tend to become invisible, often we don’t even think of them as interactions about performance!

These two lessons from complexity science add back the lower arrow in the right loop and the left facing loop in the gesture and response. The two key elements that are eliminated by a formal performance management system.

Interaction Model

When those are added back, the true complexity and dynamic of interactions about performance become important and real. And that is what we all experience when we deal with performance in our organizations. It is hard, messy, inspiring, depressing and uplifting. It is not a box to be checked.

The next post will focus on what can be done. What can be done in our organizations when we know the performance management system is likely not going to disappear any time soon. The post after that will focus on performance management system design and the one following that on getting rid of the system altogether.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. If you are familiar with complexity science do you have anything to add in terms of what it might say about performance management systems in organizations?
  2. What do you think is the most important output of the performance management system in your organization?
  3. What is the best, logical and defensible reason for the existence of a performance management system that you have, or have heard?