Military tacticians often talk about ‘fire and forget’ weapons. These are missiles and bombs that you can just aim at the enemy target and that are more or less able to guide themselves to the target without further human input. However, soldiers quickly realize that you can’t really ‘fire and forget’ a missile. There are always other considerations. The same applies with many initiatives that are undertaken to improve performance or change the culture in an organization.

As just one example, training programs are often viewed as ‘fire and forget’ initiatives. Someone sees a problem, determines without further analysis that the solution is training, hires an outside trainer to deliver a pre-existing course, and then that’s it. There is no real needs analysis to determine if training is even the right approach, or what type of training, and then there is no follow up or organizational framework to support the ongoing learning and development of the trainees.

There are many reasons why an organization or company might be underperforming and skill and knowledge gaps are only one of these. It could be due to poor incentives, confusing or contradictory direction, inadequate policies and procedures, lack of resources, or improper tools.

When you want to truly improve performance in a sustainable manner, you have to take a holistic and systemic approach. I usually follow a variant of the following steps in order to determine what is needed and the potential solutions to achieve the desired results.

•What is the exact nature of the performance gap or shortfall? This could be qualitative but it is also often quantitative. In the case of qualitative gaps or problems, there should be an attempt to quantity as much as possible. For instance, if an executive states that her managers aren’t taking enough initiative, this can be measured as the number of original ideas generated over a set period of time. This can then form a baseline measure for comparison down the road in order to measure improvement or lack thereof.

•What are the reasons or causes for the gap? Reasons are what stakeholders report as causing the shortfall, whereas causes are what can be objectively ascertained as entailing the effects through objective observation and analysis. I make this distinction because people often give reasons that are not at all the real cause of a problem. Consequently, stated reasons are only one of the inputs to causal analysis. This is one of the advantages of getting an outside opinion, say by an auditor or a consultant (external or internal).

•Once there is a fairly good appreciation of the most likely causes of the gaps, then a change plan must be created that addresses the most impactful causes. As noted above, successful change depends on a holistic approach. Changing individual skills and knowledge is rarely sufficient to create the full effect that is required to achieve an important organizational goal. Do the policies and procedures fully support the objective? Are the incentives and benefits fully aligned with the goals? Are leaders at all levels plugged in and ready to coach and mentor the trainees once the new performance tools are in place? Does the performance measurement and evaluation scheme support the aims of measuring individual and group performance?

•Communicate the plan and its objectives to everyone involved (and even bystanders in some cases). Contrary to mushrooms, people do not grow better in the dark. When people know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, they can focus better and even provide useful input in the form of suggested improvements. Another advantage to communication is that it avoids destructive rumours that erode team cohesiveness and undermine the influence of the organization’s official leaders.

•A key piece is the ability to provide ongoing support to the target group, whether that be the organization’s leadership, mid-level managers, first-level supervisors, those who will be executing the changes. Too often we see a training program that is delivered as a panacea but without any subsequent implementation support. Just as it doesn’t make sense to teach an athlete a new move without providing ongoing coaching and feedback, the same applies in the arenas of business and organizational management.

•The final piece of any change initiative is to conduct regular performance reviews to ascertain the progress, or lack thereof, in attaining the objectives of the initiative. One way to do this is through the process of ‘after action review.’ This is a military approach to ongoing performance improvement that gets input from everyone involved to determine if the goals have been achieved, if they have truly learned something, and if there are improvements that managers haven’t thought of. This can take some courage on the part of leaders to be open to criticism, but if it is framed as an approach for improving the program irrespective of the source of the inputs, it will energize everyone toward the goal of improving the chances of actually achieving the objectives of the change initiative.

There is never any assurance of hitting your performance improvement goals at the first try, but this method at least has the advantage of providing a ready-to-use framework and process for identifying performance shortfalls, determining the range of possible solutions, creating an action plan that can be communicated and improved upon, and then finally the follow on support that everyone will need in order to ensure sustained improvement and the eventual achievement of the original objectives.

© Alcera Consulting Inc. 2012. We encourage non-commercial sharing of this information with proper attribution. All other rights reserved.

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