18 May 2015

Diversity Matters - Attack of the Clones

Here’s looking at you, Kid
Performance management. You simply have to have performance management if you want high performance teams… don’t you?

Formal performance management is a fundamental part of the culture that pervades most large and medium sized organisations. It involves “regular” one-to-ones where we discuss successes and then focus on weaknesses, and if you are one of the lucky few you get a hearty pat on the back and a top rating. For an unfortunate few, there is of course the bottom rating and the dreaded “performance improvement plan”, a wonderful piece of 1984 new-speak if ever there was one. For the rest (the vast majority) there is simply the mediocrity of a “you weren’t great but you weren’t awful either”.

Now, let’s consider what effect that has had on the motivation of your employees? Has the top elusive rating spurred the shunned majority into greater things, and has that highly supportive “get better or you’re out” given the under-performers the help and support they need to become the best that they can? In my opinion, the answers to those questions are “no”, and “hell, no”.

Instead, the middle majority (many of whom may have performed well in all areas apart from self-publicity) have been demotivated by the lack of recognition for the things they achieved during the year. They may have had some great moments backed up by a solid performance, but at the end of it all they get nothing but a “what you could have done better”.

And as for the under-performers, they are now working under the looming threat of dismissal and although a rare few might scrape back into a middle rating the majority, who are already struggling, will simply buckle under the stress of continuous scrutiny. Don’t think so? Try standing over someone who is typing and see how well they do.

There can be Only One
There is of course another issue here; what exactly are you measuring these people against? For the system to be “fair” there has to be a benchmark; a standard to which all should aspire and against which all can be measured. If not, how can I justify the rating I give to people? I can’t just say “you did really well this year” without a definition of “really well”.

So what’s wrong with that? Surely it’s good to have a standard to aspire to? I disagree, and I disagree strongly. The implication of a standard is that there is one version of good. That would also imply that you need everyone in your organisation to do the same thing.

We all accept that artists are different to accountants are different to athletes. We would laugh at the idea of measuring these people against the same standard, and yet, when we place a group of people in an office and dress them in work attire, we suddenly forget about the differences and assume because they look alike they should all perform alike.

But they look alike because we make them look alike.

In reality, different jobs require different skills and different skills come in very different packages. What is more, the idea that you should look at a person’s weaknesses and strengthen them ignores one very important point. Weaknesses are simply the flip side of strengths. It is all just a matter of perspective.

This becomes all too clear when you consider athletes. We all understand immediately that the strengths that make a weightlifter great might be terrible weaknesses for a long distance runner, and expecting an archer to measure up to the same performance standards as an equestrian would be ridiculous. An Olympic team is strong, not because of uniformity but instead because of diversity. It needs a wide variety of athletes if it is to come home with a large haul of medals. Turning up with a team consisting only of great 100m sprinters would result in two medals (don’t forget the relay).

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates
In athletics, physical diversity is the key to creating a successful team. In the office where the work is cerebral in nature, the most important thing is cognitive diversity and this is far harder to select for. Why? The reason is simple. You are looking for people who think differently; who don’t think like you. You are looking for people who disagree with you, and we are not very good at getting along with people who disagree with us. In fact, we positively reject those who disagree.

How many times have you sat in an interview waiting for the right answer only to be frustrated by the candidate’s insistence on the opposite? How many times have you sat in a performance review only to be told that your approach to work is not the right one? That despite delivering results, the way you delivered those results did not match the required “behaviours” or “competencies”. Creative people are told they are not organised enough and should brush up on their planning skills while structured project managers are chastised for not demonstrating enough “innovative thinking”.

Performance management regimes and competency based interviews, the mainstays of professional life, stifle diversity. But diversity is the key, and whenever you come across a new interview candidate or team member, remember what Mrs Gump said:

"Life is a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you're gonna get."

And that is exactly the point. You never know what value you will get from a person, but the best way of maximising the value you get from a team is by ensuring that the members of that team are diverse; that their skills are varied and their strengths complementary rather than duplicated.

Take the Red Pill
When you are interviewing, or when you are assessing a person’s performance, remember that he or she may have something to offer that you don’t even recognise yet. I often think that the best answer to an interview question is the one I disagree with. This person might have something to teach me. They definitely have something to bring to the team that I do not; a different perspective. As Morpheus said to Neo:

“You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

If you take the red pill and embrace diversity you may find that the world of possibilities expands enormously. You may find that the team you build is stronger and more capable than the one consisting only of those that match the “standard”. You may even learn something yourself and benefit from your very own performance improvement plan.


What the hell… stick to the script. Take the blue pill and help to build the clone army.

The Enterprising Architect

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