I hear and read about a lot of organisations and teams that wish to be ‘high performing’. This is a great goal, but identifying this ambition is the easy bit. The hard bit is working out how to translate the relatively abstract concept of high performance into concrete strategies for achieving it. There may be lots of organisations talking about it, but there are relatively few that know how to make it a reality.
The good news is that there are some relatively straightforward and practical approaches to developing a high performing organisation. If you want to create a high performing organisation, read on about one of the best starting points that we’ve come across.
Creating alignment at the executive level is essential to building and maintaining a healthy organisationPatrick Lencioni
One of the most important steps to high performance is to create complete strategic clarity across an organisation. In his book, The Advantage (read our summary here), Patrick Lencioni identifies how clarity can be created in any organisation by answering six questions: Why do we exist? How will we succeed? What do we do? What’s most important, right now? Who does what? How do we behave?
Bonus: We’ve put together a free downloadable Team Alignment Canvas to help you capture and share your organisation’s answers to each of Lencioni’s six questions. Click here to get it, free.
Why do we exist?
This is the most important question, as it identifies an organisation’s core purpose or fundamental reason for being. An organisation’s purpose is often captured within its mission statement; however, our observation is that many mission statements fail to capture the essence of an organisation’s reason for being and instead reflect a melange of what an organisation does and how it might succeed.
In their classic 1996 Harvard Business Review article, Jim Collins (author of Good to Great, Built to Last and Great By Choice) and Jerry Porras define core purpose as an organisation’s “most fundamental reason for being [and] most idealistic motivations for doing the [organisation’s] work”. It “captures the soul” of an organisation.
Simon Sinek points out in his book Start With Why that a purpose statement shouldn’t be aspirational. It’s not to be confused with a vision statement that states what the organisation wants to become in the future. We do however, recommend that a purpose statement be inspirational.
It’s therefore important to reduce a purpose statement down to its essence. Lencioni recommends using the ‘five whys’ technique, to take any statement and repeatedly ask ‘Why?’ until stopping just short of something along the lines of ‘to make the world a better place’. Our experience has found that, instead of asking ‘Why?’, asking the question ‘What would be the benefit of that?’ is even more effective.
We’re big believers in the mantra ‘momentum, not perfection’ and therefore think that any reasonably well clarified purpose statement is better than none. However, spending some time crafting a good purpose statement that is short and clear, inspirational and goes to the core of an organisation’s reason for existence is well worth the investment. As a guide, we’ve contrasted good and poor purpose statements below:
Accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energyTesla’s mission
Good: Tesla’s mission is inspiring, to the point and defines a fundamental reason for being. Ask yourself of Tesla’s mission, ‘What would be the benefit of that?’ and the answer will likely be something close to ‘to make the world a better place’. It need not be reduced any further.
Provide efficient and effective intercity passenger rail mobility consisting of high-quality service that is trip-time competitive with other intercity travel optionsAmtrak’s mission
Poor: Amtrak’s mission is prosaic, wordy and leaves room to be distilled further by asking again, ‘What would be the benefit of that?’. It is more a description of what Amtrak does, rather than why it does it.
How will we succeed?
To answer this question, an organisation should identify a small number (say, three) of strategies for success that it will use to deliver its purpose as best it can. These are neither purpose statements or tasks – they sit in between. These can be used as ‘strategic anchors’, through which decisions can be viewed and tested.
Sinek defines how statements as articulating the actions we take when we are at our natural best to bring the purpose to life. Whereas purpose statements can often be similar between organisations, he notes that it’s the how that brings the why to life – in a way that makes an organisation unique.
In our experience, how is the hardest concept to articulate, so we have developed a ‘Discover how your organisation will succeed’ cheat sheet to better explain the concept.
What do we do?
This is the easiest of all six questions to answer, and comprises a straight forward list of the activities and tasks that an organisation must undertake to deliver on its strategies for success, and therefore achieve its purpose. Sinek notes that the what is “the tangible manifestation of our WHY, the actual work we do everyday”.
What’s most important, right now?
It’s important that an organisation is crystal clear about what its priorities are at any point in time, and how it’s progressing against them. In defining what’s most important now, we typically depart slightly from Lencioni’s model, and establish a set of three to five objectives and key results (OKRs), which we refer to as ‘priority objectives’. These are the things that must be done/monitored by the organisation in the present/near term. These objectives are time bound and will be started and completed, and refreshed regularly, as they’re achieved and to reflect shifting organisational priorities.
OKRs are an excellent tool for setting goals and measuring progress against them. You can read more about them in John Doerr’s excellent book, Measure What Matters. We’ve compiled a summary of Measure What Matters or check out Doerr’s TED Talk on OKRs.
In addition to the priority objectives, we recommend that organisations should establish a small set of what Lencioni calls ‘standard operating objectives’, which represent the measures of day in, day out/business as usual performance (e.g. financial performance, customer satisfaction, quality control, employee engagement etc.). These objectives change little over time and instead reflect the ongoing performance of the organisation.
Who must do what?
Role clarity is essential to the performance of any organisation or team. Having a clear understanding of where one role finishes and the next one starts minimises the risk of role conflict (e.g. turf wars) and important things falling through the cracks. Think of it like a cricket ball (or baseball) being smashed toward two outfielders: you don’t want them to collide or for both of them to hang back, letting the ball fall on the ground. This is where clear roles and responsibilities, complemented by good communication, will prevent these metaphorical dropped balls.
Under this question, list each person or team at the top level within the organisation and briefly state what their role is. A great way to do this is to recursively address the six questions at each level within the organisation, working from the top down, and then use the ‘why’ statement of each team/role to describe its role in the parent team’s set of six questions.
How do we behave?
This question addresses an organisation’s values and expectations of behaviour. In The Advantage, Lencioni defines a model that we like for categorising values into permission to play, core and aspirational. Permission to play values are those that typically apply to any organisation (e.g. honesty, respect, integrity etc.) and are a non-negotiable minimum standard for the organisation; core values are those that characterise the unique way an organisation already goes about its work; and aspirational values are those that an organisation recognises that it will need to internalise to succeed going forward (but hasn’t yet).
One of the best examples we’ve come across in this space is Atlassian’s set of values, which combines each value with a brief explanatory statement. Atlassian’s values avoid stating the obvious permission to play values and instead focus on what sets it apart from other organisations.
Where to next?
- Download and use our Team Alignment Canvas, which builds on the six questions, and use our facilitation guide to populate it. Click here to get it, free.
- Read our summary of The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni
- Read our summary of Measure What Matters by John Doerr
- Read more about Simon Sinek’s golden circle model
- Watch an overview video of the six questions by Patrick Lencioni