This article was written by David Gianetto and Anthony Zecca

How did we get here? How did we accumulate all the problems of the modern-day business environments we work in?

At what point did villagers stop laboring together, toward common goals in their villages and the fields that surrounded them, and enter the modern-day silos that we all typically find ourselves in? It happened much further in our past than most people would believe.

In the early 1600s England allowed the ruling class, barons who controlled vast estates of property, to simply take the land of nearby peasants who looked to these barons for protection. The haves quite literally took everything from the have-nots. The have-nots (who then quite literally had nothing, no land to work, no ability to feed their families), were left with nothing to offer in exchange for the things they required to stay alive, except the sweat of their labors.

This hostile takeover forced the peasants to reduce their labor into daily-sized parcels, which they could then sell back to the barons for money (a fairly new concept at that time). These barons would later earn the very literal title of robber-barons. This fundamental change caused the peasants, the laborers, to commoditize themselves; they were trading their lives in order to live — their effort for food. They did not willingly trade away their uniqueness; it was taken from them forcibly. There was no need for uniqueness in the new wage-labor economic model.

These events shifted a worker’s focus away from the quality of their work only the quantity of work they could perform. The more they produced, the more they earned. From their perspective it made no sense to produce anything above the minimum accepted quality because it only detracted from the total quantity of work they could perform. Quantity was all that mattered; quantity put food on their table; quantity was all they were judged upon (except for a select few, the most sought-after artist types). That forced mental shift within the workforce at large underlies the very foundation of our modern business environment. From that moment on, it was all downhill; the modern-day economic model had just been created and workers entered the modern business environment.

Today the effects of this commoditization are so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to even conceive their impact. An organization, when viewed as a living, freestanding entity, is not reliant upon any of us as individual parts. We can all be replaced; our uniqueness is not critical to success (if it is, the organization is accepting a level of risk that is not in its best interest). This is not to say that our individual abilities do not affect the degree of success (or failure) that the organization will achieve, simply that the basic, underlying premise of employment today is based upon individual dispensability. This affects an hourly, unionized worker just as much as it does a millionaire CEO.

This background is presented to put the Performance Power Grid methodology in its proper perspective. It is working to undo 400 years of bad learning; it is working against an economic model that undermines the very things businesses need most to succeed, and to sustain success. To achieve these things, a new perspective and a new approach is required.

Our firm was, in many ways, a prototypical organization that suffered from many of the ills of low-performing organizations. We lacked focus and insight into the market forces that were impacting our firm. We had no clear and convincing game plan to create the future we wanted. We lacked understanding of what was driving our performance and what could make us more successful. We made the decision to change.

Although dealing with these issues was a challenge, we found them easier than changing the culture that existed in the firm. All our partners were hardworking, but most worked on the wrong things — things that mattered more to them as individuals than contributing to the overall success of the organization. Most partners were comfortable with the status quo and were not really committed to or enthusiastic about making the changes a new future required. We recognized this challenge as we visited various key partners. All were excited about the potential economic benefits of change, but almost all were cautious when the discussion turned to what was going to be expected of them.Not every partner came along easily. We recognized that we had to overcome resistance or we would fall short of our goals. That was just not acceptable. We decided to implement a training and communication program where key leaders met one-on-one with every partner. They explained what we were working toward and how everyone was an important part of the team. At the end of the day, we learned that our partners were not really afraid of change. They were just confused about what change meant to them personally. We were convinced, by what we saw in our own company and in so many others’ that people don’t fear change if they understand the why and how of it. We worked to answer both questions. We were successful because we understood the challenge of change and met it head on and because we understood how to drive performance.

Solving the performance puzzle for our own firm required the same thing that each organization needs in order to achieve and sustain improved performance. Everyone at the top of the organization needs to see the same big picture. Some time ago we met with a CEO and asked him our most basic question: “Do your senior managers have a clear understanding of what drives the success of your business?” Without hesitation and a bit offended by our question, he assured us that they did. Over the next few weeks, we met with all 58 senior managers and received a myriad of different answers to that question.

When we presented the results to the CEO, he couldn’t believe it. He deflated before our eyes and then became angry. “How could they not understand?” he yelled. Why didn’t his 58 key executives know what drove their business? It is a question that organizations spend significant time trying to answer.

The Performance Power Grid does not focus on how the performance puzzle came to be for those 58 executives. Instead it centers on how to change the results, how to get managers off their treadmill, and how to get the organization back on track. To a large extent, CEOs and corporate managers are victims of a system, not of their own making, but one in which they are forced to flounder, day after day, throughout their careers.

The solution to the performance puzzle is like the picture on the jigsaw box. Once executives and managers, and even workers, see what they are creating, they can bring order from chaos. They can devise a plan that works. They can make progress each day toward their objectives. Systems can be set in place to focus everyone on what truly matters, on what drives the company toward uncommon prosperity. The fog ahead can be cleared away, and what were once stumbling blocks emerge as stepping-stones.

David Gianetto is director of enterprise performance management and Anthony Zecca is partner-in-charge of Cohn Consulting Group, a division of J.H. Cohn, which has offices at 997 Lenox Drive in Lawrenceville. Their book, “The Performance Power Grid: The Proven Method to Create and Sustain Superior Organizational Performance,” is published through John Wiley and Sons and is available a book retailers nationwide for $27.95.

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