Why do many interventions designed to make a sustainable impact on performance have a limited shelf life?
When we are committed to elevating the performance of our people, our focus can often be on changing the circumstances, for example bringing in a new process or system, or coming up with a different strategy. However when the circumstances are the focus for what needs to change, the context for that change, more often than not, is that there’s something wrong with the way things are. This will lead us to trying to do more of something, trying to do it better, or in a different way. And, any attempt to change something is based on what we’ve done before, limiting our view of what might be possible and the opportunity to be innovative.
Even if we experience short-term gains in doing something “more”, “better” or “different”, the way things have been done in the past creeps in and diminishes the impact of the intervention. The result is that performance continues to drift in a predictable trajectory, rather than delivering a lasting step-change. So while it is certainly useful to be informed by the past, it can be counterproductive to be determined by it.
So how can we achieve a deep and lasting impact in performance? What can we do in order for something new to emerge?
While change requires a condition of “something”—more of something, better than something or different from something that already exists—creative thinking and actions require a condition of “nothing”, not limited by the past, free from fixing or changing something. “Nothing” is where we aren’t constrained by what’s happened previously, where we’re able to take the learnings from what happened, but aren’t shackled by them. It demands being fully “present” and in the moment to be able to see what’s wanted and needed, and then respond accordingly. When we’re not devoted to fixing or changing something based on solutions that have worked previously, we are free to create new pathways to move forward.
When driven to fix problems, this approach often evolves into a “problem/solution” matrix, where the solution to a problem becomes the next problem. One example is the invention of the automobile. The horseless carriage was invented to solve the problem of pollution by horse manure. However, when you consider the amount of pollution created by automobiles over the last century, it far exceeds the pollution created by horse manure. The solution to a problem became the next problem!
So what can we do to establish a condition of “nothing” that allows for our interventions to have a deep and lasting impact?
The best way to disrupt the linear thinking that has us be addicted to fixing what’s wrong is to use a non-linear approach to performance.
To be truly successful at delivering sustainable performance interventions, we must engage others in thinking and acting outside any perceived limitations. The more we create opportunities for others to contribute and participate in the design and execution of an intervention, the more ownership they will take. A good starting point for this is to have a conversation that allows people to express what might be on their minds about the past—what happened, what didn’t happened, the results—bringing closure to what’s happened to date; and what their view of the future is—their fears, concerns, and apprehensions. Until you’ve had a conversation like that, there’s no room for authentic engagement to move forward powerfully. Once people’s considerations are heard and acknowledged, there’s often enough room to engage in a conversation where people can start to consider that there’s nothing ‘wrong’. In this way, you’ve introduced a platform on which to create anything—a space where new ideas, possibilities, actions, and outcomes can emerge. Without this critical step, any further intervention is unlikely to sustain itself.
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