We all want to get better at what we do, and as leaders we should all want our teams to get better at what they do, both individually and collectively. However, a pattern I have seen at many clients is that they focus on “improvement” to accomplish this rather than “development”. On the surface this probably sounds like splitting hairs, and perhaps it is, but I believe that the underlying philosophy behind each approach is fundamentally different.
When I hear about “improvement” efforts, they typically involve implementing new processes, new measurements, and new overhead. There’s also an implicit drive to create efficiency for its own sake, but often in the absence of a more meaningful business goal. I believe that the urge to add or change processes when we want our people to get better at what they do often only creates a distance between ourselves and our team members that will worsen the problem.
A big challenge is that it’s hard to define what “better” means when we are talking about our team members. And so we often lean on the things that we can measure and decide that’s what we need to measure.
Measurement can be a powerful driver for behavior, and so it should be used sparingly and only when well-aligned with meaningful business goals. Said another way, measurement and improvement efforts aren’t bad per se, but should be used to address systemic problems. It’s my belief that more often than not individual and team performance issues aren’t systemic but rather localized, yet we nonetheless throw process at the problem.
Development, on the other hand, is a focus on continually getting better at what we do. It’s laying out a clear path as to what “better” actually means and ideally is driven by outcomes more than task proficiency. It takes a real relationship to achieve this rather than simply a measurement that is viewed in a report.
It has often (although not always) been my experience that poor performance is directly tied to a lack of understanding of expectations. There have been several times in my career where I’ve had to put someone on a performance plan and in the process discovered that the team member didn’t understand what was expected of them. Once expectations were made clear, these people turned around quickly and became highly functional members of the team. There was no process improvement effort that could have changed that.
Even clearly documented expectations aren’t typically enough. The best way for knowledge workers to learn is by doing and by getting coaching when they struggle. I’ve seen places where team members have struggled for years because of a lack of attention. Their leadership knew they were struggling, but not until the leaders spent time working directly with them did they suddenly flourish.
In all of these development cases, there wasn’t a systemic problem that required a new process for how the team members did their work. If anything, the systemic problem was that a leader didn’t spend enough time with their teams and the people their team members work with to truly understand how the team members were doing, nor were the making an active effort to help their team members. So if a process “fix” was required in these cases, it was not in how the team worked day-to-day, but rather in how leadership performed their work.
Leadership is a human skill, not an abstracted, number-driven process. If we truly want to get the best out of our teams we need to know them, support them, and coach them to success.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.