Obsession with performance hinders innovation in organisations

 

Workplace culture abstract concept vector illustration. [Courtesy Visual Generation Inc]

A leading CEO responded swiftly when asked why a recently established institution had outperformed his. "If you set routine targets, you outperform," he said.

At his institution, he said, they set ambitious innovative targets. While the response was somehow defensive, and a PR stunt, to some extent focusing on performance alone tends to derail an organisation’s long-term goals. Focusing on performance equates to setting routine targets and hinders other critical aspects such as learning from errors when targets are ambitious. In such organisations, there is no room for employees to make errors lest they derail the performance train.

Having routine targets, year-in year-out derails the organisation’s success in the long run. Innovation is not taking place. Innovation is not simply being the first to do something. It involves solving present and future problems, often at a cheaper cost and comes with trials and errors. Innovation comes with risks and aims at beating competition in the midst of changing technologies.

Unfortunately, obsession with performance focuses on attaining present needs and is in favour of engaging in “true and tried” risk-averse initiatives. It simply encourages playing safe. This minimises opportunities for productive experimentation associated with innovation and hinders what is known as smart failures. If you are aware that it will work in advance, that is not innovation. Without innovation, the risk of stagnation – for both the organisation and employees – becomes real.

It is no surprise that organisations that focus on how their actions look by handling routine procedures as opposed to meandering into newer territories, solving problems and making progress, have employees that actually do not learn.

Focusing on performance alone is an example of the dark side of reputation management and a distant form of deception. It reduces honesty. It is exacerbated by an environment that engineers credit and blame, bragging and where engagement in manipulative tactics are the norm rather than the exception. Organisations that are afraid to display their natural vulnerabilities that comes with admitting their weaknesses, hinder the much-needed nurturing of their employees’ curiosity and desire to learn. By extension, such organisations cannot innovate and cannot withstand future competition.

A number of strategies exist that HR can utilise to make organisations address the vulnerabilities associated with sheer focus on performance. These upstream factors are the means of indirectly improving the very same performance, today, tomorrow and in the future.

First, is developing a culture that recognises that to err is human. The faster such errors are caught and corrected, the better the organisation. HR should formulate smart risks. This entails identifying opportunities in newer territory for conducting informed small experiments. It becomes easy for employees to have several intelligent failures from where to learn. Smart risks initiatives are valuable to both employees’ career growth and organisation’s long-term goals.

HR should put in place blame-free reporting structures. Blame-free reporting does not equate to blame-free actions. Employees who behave badly, engage in unethical conduct or bullying, should face consequences. Blame-free structures are about not blaming individuals/teams but rather ensuring that employees understand the importance of reporting problems, mistakes and failures promptly and honestly. There is no organisation that can convert failures and problems into solutions and learn when they do not know about them.

Managers and supervisors should be taught that after any failure, they should ask “What happened?” not “Who did it?”. The former offers opportunities for brainstorming with an open mind, and allows employees to understand the insights of misses and opportunities for further improvement.

HR should ensure that failure analysis is a team sport within the organisation. Having different views on the factors and events that led to a failure enrich employees’ understanding of it and offers useful and robust lessons.

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