How To Build A High Performing Organization Or Be A High Performing Individual

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Saturday, 8.20pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds. – Aristotle Onassis

I’ve been reading the same paper again and again for the last week, trying to figure out how I should read. You would think I would know how to do that by now, but it’s harder than you think.

There is a passage in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance where the main character, Phaedrus, is wrestling with the writing of Kant, the great German philosopher. Phadreus approaches each sentence like a chess move, testing, probing, looking for flaws, looking for a weakness he can thrust through. Trying to see if what is said is true, if it is worth knowing.

The difficulty with words is that there are so many of them out there. And not all of them are good. If you are serious about the work you have to get better at telling the good ones from the bad. But why would you do that?

It turns out that high performing individuals are rare, and so are high performing organizations. And this is because the way we learn new things and apply them vary in how effective they are.

Most of the time we try and do what we’re doing better. This is called single-loop learning. If you make an omelette day after day then you’ll get better at making an omelette. That’s the same with form filling or doing a task at your work – you get better over time.

Getting even better starts with taking a step back and asking if the task you are doing is the right thing to do. Is it helping you achieve your goals? For example, a lot of people spend up working on tasks that customers don’t really care about. You might send out detailed emails that they don’t read, for example. If you find out what customers actually want and then send them that instead you’re starting to engage in double-loop learning – going from a task focus to figuring out the right thing to do.

From there, it gets harder to improve. Higher order thinking, or triple-loop learning is something that high performing individuals and high performing organizations do but it’s not easy to get your head around.

The model that starts this post is one way to think about it.

It starts with being open to learning new stuff, from books and other resources and from others in your network who know more than you might. How much new knowledge have you gained since your last degree?

You need to be able to take that knowledge and move it into your own space – whether it’s to help you work better or to help your organization work better. And you often start with figuring out where the gaps are when it comes to doing the best job you can.

Getting to that working better part is a little like evolving, hopefully to something that adapts better to the situation you’re in. The variation-selection-retention cycle explains how this happens. Now that you’ve learned something new you pick something to try, a kind of experiment. Then you learn from that, and keep what works, what is best for you. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy to do, for a couple of reasons.

The first has to do with taking the time to think about and reflect on what’s going on. What are you trying to achieve, how well did your experiment work and what did you learn. What would you change? What would you keep?

This kind of reflection on what went well, what went badly and what you are going to do next is important if you want to be able to make a sustained improvements in your practice.

But there is always a problem, especially when you work with others. People don’t like change, especially change that they haven’t asked for. This will make them unhappy. It’s called adaptive tension, and you need to manage that. If you don’t then people will go back to the old ways of doing things as soon as they can because all your new ideas are simply a pain in the rear for them.

This is a big reason why large change projects fail, because consultants or leaders bring in new stuff without thinking through how the people affected will think and feel and react.

But if you can do these things then you’re engaging in higher order thinking, and you have the pieces in place to be a high performing individual or build a high performing team.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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