Understanding Performance in an Organizational Context

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What I am going to be talking about is not far-fetched. The things I am talking about are day-to-day tasks that make up every employee’s working day. It is in these day to day tasks that we get to understand behaviour and the manifestation of culture.

These four are examples of things we might find ourselves involved in at work. Think about this tasks or actions for a bit. We will come back to these 4 examples at the end of this post to revisit the basics of performance. 


Understanding PERFORMANCE

What is performance?  While performance is a familiar word, it means different things to different people. To ensure the meaning intended here is clear and understood, we will start by defining performance.

In an ISPI publication, performance was presented as an activity achieving the desired result delivering a known value all within a specific context.  Where the context introduces complexities that must be overcome by the action and effort executed with adequate proficiency such that the quality of output is able to achieve the desired results in that context. 

From this view, there are three main aspects of performance: Activity, Result and Value 



Let’s examine  these 3 closely 

ACTIVITY: Activity is what people choose to do & what is produced by what they do. Activity is made up of 3 components:

Action/Behaviour: What a person chooses to do under specific context

Effort: How much physical, emotional and cognitive capability a person invests in the action

Output: What the action produces, ideally tangible and observable (perceptible by senses e.g. see, hear, touch, smell, etc.) 

RESULT: Result is what people want to achieve when they embark on an activity. Any activity is undertaken in pursuit of result. Results can be of two types: 

Desired Result: This is the result in whose pursuit the activity was undertaken. 

Actual Result: This is the result achieved by the activity. 

Note: Actual Result can be same as desired result in which case the person is able to achieve desired results. 

VALUE: Value is what makes the result worth achieving, the real reason for pursuing the result. This can be

Value to self – the individual is driven only by the value the result has to self

Value to organisation – the individual is driven by the value the result has to the organisation (bigger than self)

Value to world – the individual is driven by the value the result has to the world (bigger than organization) 

Simply put, Performance is ACTIVITY achieving a desired RESULT delivering a known VALUE all within a specific CONTEXT.

You can not speak about performance just focusing on the activity or just the context, you have to speak about both the result and the context, only then are you truly talking about performance. 

Understanding Results

So now that we are on the same page with what we mean by performance, let’s look deeper at activity  and results 


Starting with Results: There are 2 types of Results that can achieved, desired results and actual results

Desired results is what a person actually wants to achieve by doing the activity or more specifically by executing the action 

Actual result is what the person actually achieved by virtue of how well they executed the action. 

Understanding Activity

Next let’s look at Activity: Activity is made up of 3 things, the action, the effort and the output 


Action is what a person chooses to do in pursuit of a Desired Result, 

Effort is how hard they try indicated by how much emotional, cognitive and physical commitment is show in the execution of the action

Output is how well they managed to do it. This determines the actual result that will be achieved in that context. 

Now let’s  see some examples and understand the concept more holistically 


Example 1: 

Desired Result is to “win the race”

Action performed in the activity is running, specifically – “he chooses to run” and effort is indicated by the ”…as fast as he can”. Here the choice of the actor determines the action – to run. The ‘as fast as he could ’ is the effort the actor puts in to achieve the results s/he desires in this case – to “win the race”

Output of the action performed is, therefore ‘how fast’ s/he actually managed to run which is the quality or level of output – “ran really fast” (actual speed), which happened to be faster than everyone else in the race leads to the Actual Result “won the race” which also happens to be = Desired Result 

Let’s look at example 2 to understand this more in-depth

Desired Result is “He wants everyone listening, to hear and understand what he has to say”

Choice of action – “He chooses to speak….” 

Effort – “…as loud as he can in English”.
Output – “He is very articulate in English and was very loud and audible”.
Actual Result “Everyone heard and understood him” which is = Desired Result. 

Similarly in 3rd Example: 

The cook wanted everyone to be able to cook tomato soup and hence was able to achieve the Desired Result. The action he chose to perform with the level of effort gave him the output which helped him to achieve the desired result 

In summary, you could make some assessment of desired results by simply observing the actions, effort and outputs people produce within the activity. This is particularly insightful if you are familiar with the domain within which the activity is occurring and thus understand the relationship between possible actions that can produce different results.

Understanding Value

The true measure of results and thus performance is the delivery of the value. The result is only relevant in as much as it holds value for someone. Either the individual, the organisation or the world around the organisation e.g. customers or stakeholders or society overall. 


Understanding Context

 Now since we understand activity and result, let’s delve deep into how context is related to activity.  As explained earlier Context refers to the circumstances under which action is being performed. These circumstances contain the variables that introduce complexity. The complexity needs to be overcome by effort in order for desired results to be achieved. 


Basically, same ACTION and OUTPUT in different CONTEXTS will most likely require different levels of EFFORT to achieve same desired RESULT. 

Let’s understand the concept with some examples…

Desired Result is to “win the race” 

In all the 3 situations the context changes. 

In situation 1  “Running in a neighbourhood race with friends on Slippery Surface
In situation 2  “Running in a neighbourhood race with friends on hard surface
And in situation 3 “Running in the Olympics with professional athletes on hard surface 

Action and effort in all the 3 situations remains same “He chooses to run as fast as he can”

Level or quality of Output is different in all the 3 situations due to the effect of context – the type of surface

In situation 1  “He is not able to run very fast on this surface” and he is running against friends
In situation 2  “He is able to run really fast on that surface” and he is running against friends
And in situation 3, same hard surface so “He is able to run really fast” but he is running against world class athletes

The Actual Result is different is also different due to the effect of context – the people against whom he is running

In situation 1 & 3 some others are faster than him” so “he doesn’t win”
Whereas in situation 2 he is faster than everyone else” and so “he wins the race”. 

Context brings out the complexity under which the action has to be performed which means even if the action is same and effort is same, the output will be affected and thus different (how fast he runs in this case). 

In the above situations everything was same, he ran (action), as fast he could (effort) however with change in context (surface and skill of other contestants), the output produced by similar action and effort was different and the result achieved was different. 

Context is informed by a few things

Desired Result to be achieved – the relevance of contextual complexity is driven first by the desired result to be achieved

The desired result to be achieved can be defined at a level that renders the level of complexity in that context irrelevant e.g. in the above example, if the desired result was simply to achieve a personal race time, then the impact of the skill of others becomes irrelevant. If the desired result was simply to complete the race (e.g. like a in a marathon), then how fast he ran or skill of others both become irrelevant. 

The desired result determines which complexity variables within the context are most relevant

Domain of activity – this also informs the type of result and what type of activity needs to be performed, e.g. if you are trying to win a race (domain is athletics, running), then the activity you have to perform is RUNNING. Examples of domains include

Home & Self – e.g. physical health, mental health, emotional health, financial health, relationship with family, significant others, etc. , 

Work (professional domain) – e.g. e.g. risk management, financial services, frontline sales, service, relationship management, IT development, Human resource CoE, operations, etc

The drivers of complexity in that domain – this refers to the key variables that introduce complexity within that specific domain (generically, i.e. before specific desired results are considered). Examples include

Level of products and brand competitiveness defines organizational contextual complexity for frontline sales, service and relationship management activities to achieve desired results in that world

Type of workplace culture defines the contextual complexity for achieving desired results in that specific workplace

Type of performance expectations defines the contextual complexity for achieving desired results within the scope of that role / job (the work)

Understanding  Impact of Context & Result on Action & Effort

Change in DESIRED RESULT should drive change in ACTION/BEHAVIOUR and/or change in EFFORT

Change in CONTEXT, even with no change in DESIRED RESULT, should drive change in ACTION/BEHAVIOUR and/or change in EFFORT


Let’s dig deeper, in situation 1 & 2 the desired result was different and the actions chosen by the cook were also different. This choice of different action was required because of the change in desired result.  

Cook A wanted to give his audience an understanding of how to cook soup and he chose appropriate action to achieve the desired result, 

However cook B wanted his audience to cook the soup hence he also chose his actions as per the desired result. 

Though the results may sound similar, they are different as cook A was aiming for understanding and cook B aimed for skills to cook. 

Actions and effort  are often a reflection of desired results as the person understands the linkage between possible actions that can be executed to achieve the results. It could also be an indication of inability to execute the known possible actions well enough but we’ll talk about this when we talk about capabilities. 

Moving ahead cook B and C had the same desired result in mind however they chose different actions and therefore produced different outputs leading to different actual results.

Now let’s look at this from an organizational perspective.

This post also appears on DTB Service – Our Ideas

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