The nonsense of high performance

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How good a driver are you? Ask any group of drivers and almost all will rate themselves above average. If that’s the case, who are all the bad drivers out there? Ask a manager if he’s good at his job and almost all will tell you that they are. And yet, just as with driving, by definition, most must be average, some less good, some a bit better and a few will be truly exceptional. It is only possible to be above average or higher performing if there are plenty of people who are not. Does that mean they are all losers, wasters or slackers? Of course not. That’s just nonsense.

The term high performance is bandied about in business like some mythical state to which we all must aspire and which we can all attain, if only we just try hard enough. What rubbish. High performance exists within a context. The gold medallist sprinter makes a poor marathon runner. The elite, full-time professional marathon runner is unlikely to be much good as a specialist in procurement. The CEO of a multinational company may not be the best person to do open heart surgery. Whether it be running, procurement or leading a business, to be the best means by definition everyone else is worse. And yet, ‘high-performance’ is a term bandied around as if( a) it’s a generic concept and (b) we should all be high performing. It isn’t and we can’t.

So should we stop trying to improve? No. You have a duty to strive to improve. That’s what you are paid to do. History shows us that, in every sphere of life, what was once high performing is now average. The first Porsche 911 produced in 1964 had an output of 128BHP from its 2 litre engine. Today, the sports version of the family mainstay that it is the Honda Civic produces a simply staggering 306 BHP from its 2 litre engine. That’s 176 BHP more than the original 911. There is a continuous trend of improvement. What we should not do is equate trying to get better at what we are doing as high performance. It is just performance. Doing the same thing again and again and making no attempt to improve what you do means that, in time, you will under-perform relative to others. Think of average like a slow-moving glacier. Its shift down the hill side is inexorable but imperceptible. You can stand on the ice and think it’s going nowhere. But it is.

Many a blog is written espousing the importance of goals, a vision, clear roles and responsibilities as the elements of high performance. They are not. They are simply the things necessary to work together. In just the same way as bread needs water, yeast, flour and a little salt, so teamwork requires a common goal, communication, people minded to work together and an understanding of who does what and when. They are merely inputs to deliver an output just as the ingredients are needed to make a loaf of bread. Loaves of bread that are considered exceptional as defined by a specific context, such as its ability to make great toast, are a function of the quality of the ingredients and the exceptional execution of the right processes to deliver the perfect loaf. A high-performing team is one that deploys team-working skills to deliver a product or service that is considered within its context to be exceptional when compared to what others have produced. 

And here’s the rub. Most of us can neither afford nor want exceptional toast all the time. Most of us can neither afford nor need a high-performance family car. One sports retailer has a clever strategy of having top-end sports equipment mounted on the walls available for purchase. Underneath are stacks of average products. People aspire to the top end kit but need and purchase the mid-range products offered below. When they use it, in their mind’s eye they are the next Wimbledon champion or the Tour de France winner, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s this aspiration that drives performance. There is space for average, just as long as we realise that average must be a constantly improving thing.

My plea is for some honesty in the workplace. Let’s stop using terms like high performance as if it is something everyone can achieve. By definition they can’t. Let’s stop pretending that the basic tools of working together done well are somehow what high performance is. Without these tools you can’t perform let alone be exceptional. High performance is a truly special state achieved by very few and within a clearly defined context. It’s a worthwhile thing to aspire towards achieving but let’s not be naive in thinking it’s possible for everyone.


 

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