How to Improve Your Business Performance

5 June 2014

What does it take to improve business performance?  There is no real secret.  Within any business, what the individuals do, particularly the leaders, makes a significant difference.  What many fail to realise is that how they do it matters just as much.  Let’s first look at a few things that help to improve performance, the typical differences between how sport and business approach these things, and then explore how they are best implemented.  It would be one thing if we were looking at an individual working on their own, however in any business it will come down to the quality of the essential conversations, particularly those dealing with performance and development.

What does the business want to achieve?

In answering this question many businesses analyse their current position and carefully plot a reasoned path forwards.  Logically this makes sense.  In sport however, we normally start from the desired objective and work backwards to today which tends to produce more creativity, higher ambition and fewer constraints.

What are your individual goals?

Down the years it’s been drummed into us that goals should be SMART and audacious, both of which I can agree with.  The trouble with most goals is that they are not performance goals, or do not have an associated performance goal.  What’s the difference?  A performance goal is completely within the control of the performer.  In sport, the big goal might be to win a gold medal.  The performance goal might to break your own personal best by 2/10ths of a second.  There are 3 primary consequences to having no performance goal.

-       Should the goalposts shift significantly enough to render the big goal seemingly impossible, the performer is left adrift with nothing positive to focus on which is psychologically deflating and will almost always have a negative impact on performance.

-       The absence of a performance goal makes it impossible to accurately work out what needs to be done on a daily basis.  It is not possible to work out an effective training programme based solely on the desire to win a gold medal.  It is however possible to work out a training programme based on a targeted performance of needing to run 11.65s on August 19th.

-       Having a performance goal makes the performance review conversation much more effective.  The performer can be held accountable for what they did or did not do regardless of external factors, and it also provides a platform for discussing development of the performer and their performance.

How do you motivate?

Too many leaders see part of their role being to motivate their people.  While often well-intentioned, at best this is short term and at worst it creates dependence.  Let’s see if we can use this topic to highlight both an example of what can be done as well as how it can be done as mentioned at the start.  A little exercise for you.

-       Think of something you have achieved.  It doesn’t have to be work related.  It could also be social, family, hobby etc., however it needs to be something that did not come easily to you at the first attempt.  There was some difficulty, some challenge, but you stuck with it and achieved what you wanted.

-       When things got tough, why didn’t you give up?  (Make a written or mental list of all the reasons.)

Whenever an individual is sufficiently motivated to overcome a challenge, 3 things are always present.  Think back and see if they were for you.

  1. Clarity.  At the time, you were very clear about what you wanted to achieve.  That does not mean that you knew how you were going to achieve it, but you had clarity about the objective, and what fed that clarity was that you had given it some thought.  Even if others contributed, you yourself had given this some serious thought.
  2. Meaning.  This had real meaning for you.  Even if others were involved, you were clear about what it meant to you personally to achieve this.
  3. Belief.  Regardless of how tough things may have gotten, you never stopped believing it was possible.  You were not merely hoping for a result.  You truly believed you were capable of pulling it off.

Clearly I could have just told you the 3 points, however I believe that by making you think, by making your brain do a little bit more work than simply accepting some input, this will resonate more with you.  And that is the ‘how’ that drives performance.  Not just giving people the answers.  Not just telling them what to do.  Can we develop the skills to generate real thought in others about an issue?  And no, that does not mean asking them questions so that they can think what you think.  That is lazy and leads to frustration and underperformance.  This is about generating genuine thought in others, raising their awareness of what matters, so that they are more able to take action, make decisions, choose options etc.

And now let’s complete the circle by linking this back to performance goals.  Think about the last time you set goals, particularly if you were setting them for someone else, although it applies for setting your own goals.

-       Was the goal a big goal (elements outside of their/your control) or was it a performance goal (completely within their/your control)?  If it was a big goal, what was/were the associated performance goal/goals?

-       For each performance goal, what level of clarity do they/you have over exactly what needs to be achieved?  (What is the timeframe?  How will success be recognised/proven?)

-       For each performance goal, what does achieving the goal mean to them/you personally?

-       For each performance goal, what is the true level of belief that they/you can achieve it?

When performance goals exist, and when quality thought-provoking conversations take place about those performance goals, then performance moves forwards.  Working this way keeps responsibility with the performer, and they make decisions based on what is needed to succeed as opposed to what they would like to do.

And finally, once achieved, how does a business sustain high performance levels?  Here are 2 closing questions, relevant for all, but particularly those with responsibility for others.

  1. What are you doing on a daily/weekly/monthly basis to ensure that whoever takes over from you does a far better job than the one you are doing today?
  2. What are the questions you need to be asking others in order to raise their awareness of all things relevant thereby giving them the best chance of surpassing your performance levels?

It’s challenging, and yet always remember, performance is great fun.

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