A Firm Root and a Healthy Yield: How Organizations Need to Think Like Trees

An organization is just like a tree, it starts small from a seed and grows to be a giant tree. If an organization starts from a solid foundation, i.e. if it is organized well, its life cycle, just like a tree, will then depend evenly on the healthiness of its underground roots and above ground trunk and leaves. The firm roots of the organization is grounded in healthy learning and development opportunities and practices. The healthy trunk and leaves that provide healthy yield needs appropriate and effective performance management. Ineffective organizations result from deeply troubled "organizing" and/or imbalance of the two lobes of "learning & development" and "performance management".

Organizing Well is Key

Why would we call it organization if we miss the most important thing: organizing! Hence, the name "organization" came in the first place to emphasize the act of organizing! Think trees… if you plant a tree upside-down, chop off its leaves and branches, or try to force it to bloom without flowers, you'll end up with a dead tree.

Organizations, just like trees, have basic components that need to be "organized" and fit together to perform well. Think people, processes, and products, and you hit the basic ingredients that compose organizations. People with their minds, hearts, and interactions form organizations. Products are the tools and technologies that help people do their work. They also form the final output of an organization in the form of products and services. Processes tell people how to go about employing their talents with a mix of input products to have the desired output products.

Organizing well then means to have the right mix, by:

  • Designing work and assigning people to different jobs or roles
  • Clarifying tasks and responsibilities for each job or role
  • Formalizing or clarifying the internal and external interactions
  • Defining capabilities or skill sets required to optimally handle each job or role

Pull that into a formal or an informal organization structure based on the nature and size of the organization, and you end up with a healthy seed… a well-organized organization!

Fail to do that and you will end up with a "disabled" organization featuring one or more of the following:

  • Vagueness of roles or worse, having redundant and conflicting jobs/roles
  • Ambiguity in decision making or conflicts arising among employees for who should do what
  • Unhealthy or even poisonous work relationships due to competition for overlapping areas of power and resources
  • Low job-fit or team-fit due to ambiguity in hiring for the needed knowledge, skills, and attitudes

The Matrix: Aligning Demand and Supply of Performance and Development

By looking at "performance" as a demand factor and "learning & development" as a supply factor, one could analyze and classify organizations by aligning the levels of these factors in a matrix. For simplicity, we will consider each factor from a low and a high end. Aligning these ends results into four basic classifications of organizations.

Performance and Development as a Matrix of Demand and Supply

1| The Mediocre Organization

Low Expectations and Low Investment

When you demand very little performance from your people, and offer very little opportunities for their learning and development, you end up with a mediocre organization where complacency is the vision and the norm. It's like being complacent with your backyard garden with a handful of flowers … while missing on a stone's throw away of a hectare of open land!

Mediocracy can show one or more of the following symptoms of aging organization:

  • Very little growth or even shrinking and loss of business to competitors
  • Shrinking customer base and signs of unhappy or complacent customers
  • Unmotivated workforce and loss of star and talented employees
  • Aging technology and infrastructure that stumble your operations
  • Complicated and aging processes and lack of continuous improvement
  • Unhealthy workplace gossip and rumors

If your organization is a mediocre one and is still alive, then it is definitely living on "life-support" factors such as:

  • Monopolistic market conditions due to absence of impeding laws or regulations or presence of favored laws or regulations in your industry
  • Reliance on cash-cow products and/or services featuring low market growth with a relatively large market share
  • Public sector stake of ownership or support via investments in cash, assets, or subsidies
  • Privileged access to data or resources that are not available to your competitors (regulated monopoly!)
  • Winning projects due to either malfunctioning or corrupted bidding processes

2| The Exhausted Organization

High Expectations and Low Investment

When you demand high levels of performance and give very little in return to your people as learning and development opportunities, then you risk exhausting your organization. It's just like trying to harvest a field of corn without proper watering and fertilizing. If you get any harvest at all, it will be in bursts and your crop will die soon.

Signs of an exhausted organization include:

  • Workforce fatigue and burned out employees
  • High employee absenteeism and turnover
  • Bursts of high performance that cannot be sustained and soon fade away
  • Low customer satisfaction and increasing customer complaints
  • Loss of strategic clients and partnerships due to failure to meet high expectations
  • Intense and justified conflicts internally (between teams and employees) and externally (with customers and partners). Justified? … Yes, because they are for valid reasons such as missing on a critical deadline.

3| The Spoiled Organization

High Investment and Low Expectations

When you pump in a variety of learning and development opportunities and ask for very little in return from your employees, you end up with a spoiled workforce. Too much learning and development without focused performance objectives and drivers will yield an organization that drains resources and gives nothing in return. It's like too much watering and fertilizing of a field that yields a spoiled crop. Or worse, when trying to plant a tree for its fruits … only to harvest its leaves!

Signs you need to look for to see if your organization is spoiled:

  • Poisonous office politics and power struggles that hinder performance and are usually for the wrong reasons. For example, who gets the big office, or who goes on that elite business tour that yields no business at all!
  • A residual of low-performing and high-paid employees that stick around for a long time
  • Untargeted training or even worse, training as sole reward on its own
  • Extreme focus on "show off" projects while missing on mission critical ones. For example, building that fancy multimedia room with fancy screens while having severe customer complaints. Or hosting that elite conference in a seven-star venue while missing to clearly communicate with customers and partners in their affordable channels
  • Lots of unnecessary and unproductive meetings because people would like to prove they are doing "something"
  • Fancy buildings or elite workplaces while failing to build an effective digital presence. For instance: no web presence with actionable services, weak presence in social media, and absence of customer voice and interaction
  • Following the latest and greatest of everything without properly studying feasibility or at least conducting a simple cost-benefit analysis. For example, acquiring the biggest and most expensive ERP solution in the market while missing on simplifying business processes. Or, hiring the best management consultants to end up with a strategic plan that becomes another useless manual or an expensive brochure at best

4| The Effective Organization

High Expectation matching High Investment

This is the desired state of an organism: to perform high while highly fed. High and sustained performance meets high and targeted learning & development. It's like a tree that yields a great bloom and harvest with the support of a careful gardener who supplies it with fresh water, fertilizes its soil, chops off its dead branches, and takes care of its adjacent partners from bees and trees.

But… someone needs to understand what kind of performance management and learning & development, and how they need to match and complement each other. Read on to know how...

Learning & Development in Effective Organizations

Great opportunities and strategic practices

The following are the features of learning and development in effective organizations:

1| They define learning and development opportunities wide and vast

1|a By embracing informal and on-the-job learning

The vast majority of learning in an organization is informal, which roughly constitutes 70%, compared to 30% for formal learning. Formal learning includes classroom and online training which usually takes the employee off of his job to teach him something and then pulling him back to apply what he learned.

On the other hand, informal learning happens in real projects and assignments, and with real interactions with individuals and team, internal and external to the organization. It is simply how infants and kids learn naturally to be grownups, and how we could and should learn. For instance, if you want to raise a confident child, you won't send him to some self-improvement course! You would instead give him a responsibility and follow through with mentoring and coaching until you see him blossoming.

1|b By providing a variety of learning and development opportunities, not just training!

It is a huge mistake to limit the vast horizon of learning and development to training only. Training should consume no more than 30% of your learning and development efforts. That includes the following:

  • The portion of budgets devoted to training compared to other learning methods
  • The portion of IDP (individual development plan) devoted to training activities compared to other development activities, for each employee.
  • The portion of your HRD staff and/or time taking care of training planning and coordination compared to planning and implementing other learning and development methods
  • The total number of training days compared to other days spent in actual and more beneficial learning such as on-the-job learning.

You might be wondering now, what "other" methods compete with training for your budgets, plans, time, and mind share. And here is just a list of great alternatives:

  • Coaching: coaching is unlocking a person's potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn on their own rather than teaching them. The coachee establishes a relationship with his coach to develop specific skills and attitudes.
  • Shadowing: working with another senior employee (usually a manager) to learn new aspects related to the job, organization, skills and/or attitudes.
  • Secondment: sending an employee to another organization to learn specific practices. Secondment is usually long and is about sharing expertise and knowledge of a person with the other organization by giving him duties on the other side.
  • Project Assignment: providing the employee an opportunity to develop knowledge and skills by giving him a whole or a part of a project. Usually but not necessarily, these project assignments are light-weight (i.e. 10-20% of employee's effort) and they are beneficial but not critical to the organization.
  • Job Rotation: temporary re-assignment of employees from one department to another. It usually takes a large organization to make this method effective, and can be done in exchange. i.e. two employees exchange their roles for a set period of time.
  • Job Aids: also called performance aids, are tools to support employees to organize their work and perform their jobs better. They can be in the form of posters, manuals, info graphics, or simulated environments.
  • Certification: pursue a certification or qualification in a specific field with a heavy reliance on self-paced study. This enables the employee to document his knowledge and experience and benefits the organization by relying less on qualified external resources.
  • Knowledge Exchange: sending posts to other organizations for knowledge and experience exchange. This can be very useful to gain experience on "How did they do it?" kind of learning. Works best in the public sector where there is no competition to worry about.

2| They handle learning and development practices strategically

2|a By conducting needs analysis

Learning and development in effective organization is far from randomness. They offer learning and development to what the organization lacks and needs. They rely on defined skillsets and capabilities for each individual and team (remember organizing above). They conduct needs analysis in the form of surveys, workshops, 1:1 discussions, and by thoroughly analyzing performance of the organization to see where to focus on. They review and refine their portfolio of learning and development to match where the organization is heading. They strive to meet great balance between organizational and individual needs.

2|b By closing with feedback and evaluation

In effective organizations, delivering a learning activity especially training doesn't mark the end. They follow with a reflection exercise to see whether or not the activity achieved its objectives. They carefully design and implement a feedback and evaluation stage to follow through after each learning delivery. And on the basis of feedback and evaluation, a learning delivery such as a training program can be modified and improved or completely eliminated if it clearly doesn’t achieve what it is set for: improving performance and bridging performance gaps.

Performance Management in Effective Organizations

Appropriate and effective

The following are the features of performance management in effective organizations:

3| They conduct practical and effective performance reviews

3|a By looking at performance reviews as an antidote not a nightmare

Unlike ineffective organizations where performance review is an annual obligation and a nightmare, effective organizations see performance reviews as an antidote for a number of human resources issues such as developing employees, raising morale, improving communications, and goal settings. Employees in effective organizations see performance review sessions as an opportunity to develop themselves and to improve individual, team, and organizational performance. This makes the performance review time less tense and more effective for everyone participating.

3|b By moving from annual performance reviews to continuous performance feedback

Effective organizations have a firm belief that managers cannot wait for an annual ritual to give feedback to their employees. So, they move from that annual ritual of performance appraisal to a mix of formal reviews and informal and continuous feedback. Add coaching practice and mindset to the mix, and you end up with healthy manager-employee relationships where actionable feedback is given and appropriate development is advised.

4| They practice performance management appropriately

4|a By clearly defining desired performance objectives and availing resources to high performance

Effective organizations do not invest wildly in performance management systems which result in complicated performance dashboards and hard to understand and navigate scorecards. They belief in what Albert Einstein said: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough". They set off by zooming in on a handful of metrics that sufficiently tells them whether or not they are performing well, and that doesn't waste time and resources in measuring and reporting.

They also make resources available to those how perform well to achieve even higher performance. For instance, they have clear connections between investments and teams who perform well.

4|b By having appropriate consequences based on performance

How many organizations you know that ignore performance whether it is desired or poor? Worse, though, is the organizations with cultures that encourage or even reward poor performance, and discourage or even punish desired performance!

Effective organizations do not go neutral on different levels of performance, nor do they have counter-productive measures for desired and poor performance. They appropriately encourage and reward desired performance, and discourage and punish poor performance.

Performance and Development Complement Each Other

By design, learning and development is to bridge performance gaps. When an organization, a team, or an individual suffer from a performance gap, then learning and development can help bridge that gap. On this basis, learning & development and performance management are two complimentary practices that should go hand in hand.

5| They integrate development and performance

In effective organizations, development is integrated in performance reviews. So besides looking at past performance, a manager looks at future performance of his employees. Having an individual development plan as a major deliverable out of a performance review session is what makes performance management and learning & development intimately tamed.

6| They take coaching mainstream

Also, effective organizations take coaching seriously and consider it as a style of leadership. Indeed, coaching as a skill is considered a management and leadership competency, and hence is encouraged and developed in managers. Managers as skilled coaches can simultaneously develop their staff and improve their performance.

More on the tensions and integration of performance and development can be found in this post:Performance Management and Development. Also, you might like to check this post to answer one critical question: Is Training the Best Solution? 7 Questions to Answer Before You Train Your Staff.

So …

Does your organization align and integrate performance and learning & development and aim for high levels?
If not, how would you classify your organization?