Performance Improvement – integrating task and people

The subject of organisational change is one that has been debated constantly throughout the last century or so in the academic management literature and in companies worldwide.  Indeed it has spawned what can be called the ‘management industry’, consisting of Management Consultants, Business Schools, IT solutions vendors and many other businesses that depend for their livelihood on the tasks of business management.  The need for differentiation between these vendors, has led to management becoming an over-complex subject.  Indeed, if one looks at the themes covered, they tend to recur every few years, often augmented by recent changes in technology. 

Simplifying management thinking on performance improvement and organisational change, most things fit into one of two camps – the task-oriented school which uses a model that the business is like a machine, and the behavioural school which has a model of a business as a group of people working together.  The task-oriented school includes such well-known topics as Six Sigma, Process Re-engineering, Lean Thinking and Scientific Management.  The behavioural school includes things like personal development, culture change, training and Organisational Development (OD).  Smart managers realise that these two are both necessary for business success, yet the reality is that most change management programmes tend to be very biased towards one side or the other, almost always resulting in limited success.  Indeed the need for the balance between task and behavioural orientation is supported by many academic studies.  For example, Maira (1994) concluded, “We found that the most significant variable that determined the overall performance of each plant was balanced emphasis on people, processes and technology.”  In his landmark studies on ICI, Pettigrew(1985) concluded that OD (Organisational Development – a behavioural intervention) only worked effectively as an intervention in response to a task oriented need perceived by the owners of a business area.

You might be asking yourself how, in practice, you can integrate these aspects of change.  The task oriented approach tends to be perpetuated by a group of people in organisations who either have a tendency to be autocratic, and therefore believe that the organisation will respond to their wishes, or who have strong logical thinking skills and weak soft skills like the ability to communicate sensitively.  The behavioural approach tends to be perpetuated by people with good communication skills, yet often without strong logical skills.  This is compounded by mental models stemming from the functional training many people receive.  The most obvious example of this is big company accountants, a large proportion of whom are trained by one of the big four accounting firms.  In my experience of working with them, their functional model of the world is consistent and not explained in any accounting textbook.   

The trick to success is to have people gain an increasing understanding of each other’s mental models, what they deem to be important in change, and why that is the case.  One of the best tools for increasing this type of sensitivity is NLP.  The NLP model includes questioning and listening tools that, when taught to managers, can significantly improve their ability to understand where their colleagues are coming from, establish what is really important to them, and then make sure it is incorporated into the design of any performance improvement related changes.  Using the NLP model also begins to allow managers to question the underlying assumptions of a particular approach to change.  They can look at its assumptions about what is already in place, about the capability of the workforce and the organisational culture, and about the underlying external environment.  After all, what works in a crisis is often different from what works in a successful company that is beginning to get complacent. 

Pulling together the task and behavioural strands of a performance improvement change through NLP assisted communication is perhaps one of the easiest and most cost effective ways to improve both the success and speed of your performance improvement initiative.  Since all changes flow from an idea into a reality, the sooner you start to get your team communicating, the sooner your idea will become widely and consistently acted upon.

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