Article: The science of high-performing organizations

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The science of high-performing organizations

A quick look at five comprehensive studies regarding high-performance organizations.
The science of high-performing organizations

The advent of the digital age brought with itself unique opportunities and challenges. Conventional management strategies and models have given way to alternative modern workforce strategies that focus on high performance as opposed to focusing on efficiency and productivity. While effective, these new strategies are still evolving, and a closer look is warranted at the existing literature and research. Here’s a quick look at five comprehensive studies regarding high-performance organizations: 

HPO Centre 

HPO Centre is a consultancy firm in the Netherlands, and Dr. Andre De Waal, Academic Director, studied nearly 1500 organizations in 50 countries to develop the HPO Framework. The framework identified 35 characteristics which were categorized in the following factors of high performance:

  • Quality of management
  • Openness and action orientation 
  • Long-term orientation
  • Continuous improvement & renewal
  • Quality of employees 

According to Dr. De Wall, a high-performance organization is “an organization that achieves financial and non-financial results that are exceedingly better than those of its peer group over a period of time of five years or more, by focusing in a disciplined way on that which really matters to the organization.” A subsequent comprehensive study of 26 High-performing organizations by Dr. Erik Belt found that Dr. De Wall’s framework was the most robust and practical approach to understanding and cultivating a high-performance organization. 

The High-Performance Organization Survey

The American Management Association (AMA) and the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) conducted a survey with nearly 1,400 respondents to identify the characteristics associated with high performance. The study shows that the most significant contributor to high performance is whether organization-wide performance measures match the organization strategy. Similarly, clarity in the organization’s strategic planning is critical to sustained long-term high performance. Thus, consistency and clarity are crucial to building a high-performance organization.

The survey also found that leaders in high-performance organizations are transparent, fair, and talent-oriented. Furthermore, the workforce of a high-performance organization is more likely to think that their company is a good place to work at. Such organizations are also better at clarifying performance measures, training people, and enabling teamwork. Finally, they are also more likely to follow higher ethical and moral standards throughout the entire organization. It is interesting to note that a similar survey by i4cp undertaken nearly a decade ago also points to related factors that support high-performing organizations; namely, strategy, leadership, talent, culture, and market. 

The role of trust in high performance 

Paul J. Zak, Professor of Economic Sciences, Psychology, and Management at Claremont Graduate University, spent eight years studying brain activity and the subsequent oxytocin levels (a hormone that controls the feeling of trust). He found that organizational trust is critical for employees to perform their best. The study found that employees who trusted their organizations the most had 106 percent more energy to work than those who had the lowest; were 76 percent more engaged at their jobs, and were 50 percent more productive. His research suggested eight components to building a high-trust and high-performance culture in the form of an acronym of Oxytocin:

  • Ovation – recognize excellent
  • Expectation – create challenges
  • Yield – delegate generously 
  • Transfer – enable job crafting
  • Openness – share information broadly
  • Caring – intentionally build relationships
  • Invest – facilitate whole-person growth 
  • Natural – be authentic and vulnerable 

The chemistry of high performance 

What better way to learn about the science of high-performing organizations than to fuse chemistry with the subject! This comprehensive and interactive study by Oracle devises its own chemical elements, periodic tables, and experiments around high-performance to help leaders and organizations build the same in their organizations. In addition to assisting individuals to understand and develop high-performance, the study also highlights five overarching themes that result in high organizational performance: 

  • Having the right people, at the right time, in the right place to sustain and grow the business—by starting with hiring the right people and making the difficult decision to let go of the wrong people.
  • Building the right culture, and hiring employees that fit within that culture; inculcating open communication, collaboration, and connection to create an environment where individuals can succeed and flourish. 
  • Making agility and adaptability an integral part of the company’s DNA and asking questions that help the organization grow and renew itself. 
  • Investing in people and helping them develop skills is essential to engagement and retention; support self-directed learning, focus on employee experience, and build the capacity for social learning.
  • Delivering results often comes down to a strategic action orientation; high-performing organizations act on the opportunity of the moment and take a long view with clear values, vision, and focus. 

BCG’s analysis of high performance 

Boston Consulting Group identified 14 organizational and people characteristics in their analysis and grouped them in the dimensions listed below. The study also listed possible interventions in each of these dimensions to help organizations cultivate and sustain high performance: 

  • Leadership: A high-performance team of leaders; a pipeline of future leaders with relevant skills; middle managers who embrace and translate strategy 
  • Design: Structure and resource allocation reflect strategic tradeoffs; minimal layers separating the CEO and the frontline with wide spans of control; accountability, decision-rights, and collaboration constructed with consideration; individual capabilities match role requirements
  • People: Considering employer brand as a core asset; identifying and taking care of critical roles and critical talents; HR as a strategic partner and enabler of business
  • Change Management: Change is a disciplined cascade; the organization is evolutionary 
  • Culture and Engagement: Culture accelerates strategic objectives; engagement is measured and cultivated to generate a discretionary effort. 

It is important to note that though the studies listed above span an entire decade, their findings on what makes a high-performing organization are very similar to each other. In other words, the fundamentals of high performance continue to revolve around leadership, talent, innovation, culture, learning, recognition, and engagement. Thus, to build high-performance organizations, leaders must learn to focus on getting the essentials right. To sum up, science and research suggest that successful organizations continue to challenge themselves and focus on building a strong foundation to succeed in a volatile and disruptive world. 

Topics: #ChangeTheGame, Leadership Development

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