Building capabilities for Sustainable Performance


I came across this performance improvement document online a few years ago which I thought framed the ideas quite well, it was on the ISPI site and I believe it was by Lynn Kearny.

I however also recently read the book “Performance Architecture” by Kearny, Lynn,  Haig, Carol and Addison, Roger.

I built some of my recent thinking about performance around these principles of the performance system and performance technology as it applies to individuals at work and the development of higher proficiency.

What is performance

Simply put, performance is activity and the results they deliver

Examples (from the Lynn Kearny document):

  • Answering the phone is only an activity BUT answering a call and resolving a customer problem is performance.
  • Making a sales call is an activity BUT making a sales call and getting an appointment to do a demo with a decision maker is performance.
  • Training data entry people is activity BUT training data entry people so there is high adoption and fewer Help Desk calls is performance.

The image below from the link above  summarises the principles as applied to performance improvement.

Extract from “What is Performance Improvement?” From Lynn Kearny and ISPI 2013


I wanted to extend this as a framework for a behaviour (motivation) focused development approach. This is summarised in the image below:


What is activity?

Activity is what people choose to do and what is produced by what they do. Activity is always in pursuit of a result and is made up of 2 components,

  1. The choice of action (which includes how the action is executed) which I am calling behaviour and
  2. The output produced by that action (this is different from result, see examples below)

What is result?

Result is what is achieved by the activity, specifically what the output achieves. It is directly impacted by context of the activity and represents why the activity is being performed in the first place. Results must have value to the person acting (the actor) and/or other people on the receiving end of the output otherwise it is not really a result.


  • Running in a race is an activity. The race is the context. Winning is the result. In this example, running is the choice of action, distance covered per unit time (speed) is the output and the runner’s position (1st, 2n, etc.) at the end of the race is the result which has value to the runner (the actor), the team or the country (other people) etc.
  • Client engagement in any sales or service organisation is an activity. The business of the organisation and the organisation itself represent the context. Building deep trusting long term relationships is assumed to be the desired real result. In this example, engaging client is the choice of action, client experience of the engagement is the output and client level of trust and value of the relationship is the result which has value to the frontline person, the organisation, the client and the industry overall

It is important to state here that individuals can pursue different levels of what they might call result. On one extreme, individuals and teams could be pursuing desired results with a focus on impacting specific business outcomes and even potentially create new performance benchmarks while the other extreme they could merely be playing safe aiming for minimum results possible. Activity completion is an example of minimum result while achieving intended impact is an example of real results. The table below provides other examples.

Activity Minimum Achievable Result Value-Based Result
Launching a new technology platform Platform launched Platform delivered intended business value
Conducting Business Meetings Meeting held or agenda items discussed Goals of meeting achieved
Delivering training Training delivered Training objectives met e.g. Staff knowledge / skill improved or staff performance improved
Engaging clients Client engaged Relationship strengthened either by quality of service offered or more clients’ needs met (sales)

Desired versus actual results

To talk about performance, we need every individual and team working towards achieving desired real results that are set either to (1) higher than previous achievements under unchanged circumstances or (2) to match or exceed previous achievements under more difficult circumstances.

It is clear that actual results achieved tend not to match the desired result pursued, hence, what an individual does about this difference and how effective they are at doing it represents the core of what learning should be addressing and determines how successful they will be at sustaining their performance going forward.

So how does this relate to sustainable performance?

There are two ways I view this, first views this as the extent to which an individual can sustain their performance and the other views this as performance delivered in a way that regenerates the means by which results are achieved so as to increase the possibility of future results.

Results determine not just the choice of action but more importantly HOW that action is executed. What a person chooses to do might be the same like in the previously described client engagement or running examples. But within that, how they choose to do it and the output produced can vary and this nuance or detail is determined largely by the result being pursued. A sales staff will engage clients in a different way if the result being pursued is deep relationships as compared to just making a sale.

As employee’s strive to achieve their desired results, their choice of actions and how they execute these actions will determine whether the performance achieved is sustainable or not. The starting point for influencing this choice is making sure people are pursuing real results that deliver really high value.

Basically, pursuit of desired results that benefit only the individual tend to drive less sustainable performance than pursuit of desired results that benefit others. There is this idea of higher value and greater good that needs to be tied into the ‘why’ of the desired results.

The proposition here is that the higher the value associated with desired results, the more sustainable the activity chosen in pursuit of those results will be.

Building capability for sustainable performance

To answer this question, we need to be able to articulate how we enable employees to choose the right behaviours (actions) and execute these actions with adequate proficiency such that the quality of output produced delivers predictable results.

What do I mean by right behaviours? Results are achieved by performing related activities (choice of action and output produced) but there are different actions that can achieve the same result. The point therefore is to encourage the actions that enable sustainable performance hence – right behaviours. Right behaviours in an organisation context could refer to the activities in line with organisation’s strategy, brand and values which is how it wants to achieve business performance.

What do we mean by predictable results? – This simply means the individual has sufficient expertise within the context of the activity to consistently execute actions with output quality that almost always achieves results.

What do I mean by adequate proficiency? – The ability of an employee to perform a set of activities within a context and consistently achieve results depends on the employee’s level of expertise. Expertise refers to how well the employee can overcome the challenges within the specific context. Often these challenges can be so complex that the blend of skills and level of proficiency required to overcome them are extremely high thus making it very difficult unless you are that skilled. If the challenges are quite easy, the skills required to achieve the results will be quite basic. Adequate proficiency refers to ensuring the employee has the right level of knowledge and skills expertise to overcome the level of complexity within that specific context.

Adequate proficiency cannot be achieved by training, it can only be achieved by learning and development i.e. individuals have to be motivated enough by the results to be achieved and engaged enough in the activities (actions and output) such that they exert discretionary effort at developing the necessary proficiency levels to consistently produce outputs that can achieve desired results. It takes practice and the learning efforts indicatd by the time spent practicing assumes the individual is pursuing desired results he or she currently can’t achieve.

The belief or assumption here is that greater the difference between individual’s current proficiency levels and adequate proficiency level, the greater the discretionary effort required to address that difference therefore the greater the motivation and engagement required to release discretionary effort.

Solving for adequate proficiency in right behaviours

As mentioned earlier, discretionary effort is key and it depends on level of engagement. So the question is this – can learning effectively influence level of employee engagement? – The belief here is yes, learning can if it influences discretionary effort and engagement by enabling conscious choice

There are 5 outcomes I believe we should be driving from a learning and development perspective to affect an employee’s level of engagement so as to encourage  discretionary effort (here I am talking about job engagement). The 5 outcomes focus on results (what is the individual trying to achieve) and activities (what actions does the individual choose and what output quality are they aiming for).

The 5 outcomes are:

  1. Clarity: We should  ensure all employees are fully aware and adequately understand what results they are expected to deliver (organisations desired results) in the role and what activities the organisation expects them to engage in to deliver it so they can make conscious informed choices. Understanding the activities is important as it deals with the right behaviour with a focus on truly understanding and appreciating the proficiency or expertise levels required and thus effort required.
  2. Value: We want to ensure what all employees understanding about the value the organisation associates with the organisation’s desired results and activities help them be more conscious about the value (if any) they personally place on both of these (results and activities). Basically answering the question ‘why’ are you doing this (activity) and then ‘why’ is this desired result important.
  3. Desire: We want to ensure at all times that employees are aware of whether these results fit into what they currently desire (timing). This means even if they value it, is this something they consider important enough to devote this present moment or time in their lives to?
  4. Belief: We want to help employees develop a level of self-efficacy. They should come to believe that these results can be achieved, that these activities can and will deliver these results and most importantly that they personally are capable of delivering (can learn to deliver) these results through these activities.
  5. Commitment: we want to help employees choose to stay committed to doing all they can to achieve the results including the time it takes to develop adequate proficiency.

As mentioned earlier, choosing the right action depends on the desired result being pursued but it also depends on knowledge and skills. An employee might not choose the right action because they do not know what it is or don’t know how to do it or lack confidence in it. The 5 outcomes above ensure that we enable conscious choice by increasing employee’s knowledge and skill in relation to the results, the actions and their ‘current self’.

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