Six Boxes Performance Thinking Welcome to the Six Boxes RSS feed. Thu, 1 Dec 2022 23:43:14 PST en-us <![CDATA[ Performance Thinking: Continuous Improvement for The Rest of Us ]]> I just got off participating in a great panel discussion, recorded as a podcast, joining several of our most senior learning and performance colleagues from Europe and the U.S.  We were talking about the challenge of pivoting from training and development in an organization to performance improvement. How do we make training more performance-based, more connected to the work people have to do, and more directly effective? That goes along with the question, how can we optimize the return on our investments (ROI) in training and performance, and in talent development altogether?

This is the challenge that I've been trying to address for decades, and that animates the mission of The Performance Thinking Network.  The foundation of our work has been to drive toward simplicity and more effective communication about performance and how to improve it, across the enterprise.  Let me explain.

The simple idea is to shift from a focus on learning to performance. But what does that really mean?  If you look at the literature of Performance Improvement (or Human Performance Improvement, or Human Performance Technology, etc.), you find a plethora of models, algorithms, methods, and concepts that add up to an awful lot. For anyone but nerdy performance improvement professionals like me and some of our colleagues, the complexity and diversity of performance improvement models are daunting. The complexity of behavioral systems analysis, or of the "full" HPT model, stops most people. Thus, we do not really have a straightforward vocabulary or a memorable framework for enabling people to design systemic solutions to accelerate performance and engagement. Nor do we have a way to engage our stakeholders and senior leaders deeply in continuous performance improvement.  Our stuff often looks like analysis paralysis to them.

We spent years creating and refining our two simple visual models, the Performance Chain and the Six Boxes Model.

The Performance Chain defines performance with it's three key elements of analysis: the organization-level business results that reflect the success of the whole enterprise; the valuable work outputs (accomplishments or contributions) that people, teams, and processes deliver to the organization and/or society; and the behavior for producing those work outputs. This is pretty easy for people to understand. We teach precise ways of defining each element, but the basic logic and descriptions make sense to everyone, from entry-level high school educated employees to executives in the C-Suite, and at every level in between. There is a lot more to know about each element than is in that picture, but the model itself is crisp and clear.

The Six Boxes Model, which evolved from Tom Gilbert's Behavior Engineering Model, is a complete and easy-to-understand framework that can encompass any factor or variable known to influence human behavior.  We spent about 5 years in the late 1980s testing out plain English labels for the cells of the model, well before one of our clients suggested a name for it (The Six Boxes). And because of that plain language, labeling only 6 easy-to-visualize and easy-to-remember categories, people pick up on it quickly, and it spreads like a virus.

We teach executives, managers, supervisors, coaches, training professionals, quality and process specialists, HR Business Partners, team leaders, and individual employees these models and how to apply them in their own work. The applications range from strategic planning and execution, to executive coaching, to accomplishment-based training and coaching to continuous improvement by front-line teams.  

Thus, we think our Performance Thinking Practitioner Program , our Performance Thinking Coach and Leadership modules, our approach to enabling HR Business Partners to be agents of continuous improvement, and our emerging focus on Sales Enablement and Individual Self-development – all of which teach our simple models and how to use them –  can enable everyone ("the rest of us") to contribute to continuous performance improvement.

It takes time to implement and drive these programs through organizations. But the impact can be stunning, as it has been in some organizations that have been using this approach for over a decade .

- Carl Binder


<![CDATA[ GUEST BLOG: After 20 Years – A Whole New Perspective on Training ]]> As an instructional designer for the past 20 years or so, I’ve seen a lot of changes, both large-scale and incremental. I recently had the opportunity to learn Performance Thinking, and I wanted to share a few insights that I think you may find helpful.

When you discover something new in business, especially in training and development, it’s typically a new tool or technology that you incorporate into your existing processes or products. But what happens when your discovery is something intrinsic?

I recently found that the best way to improve performance in an organization is to change the way you think about it, the models through which you view it.

As part of a Performance Thinking® Practitioner Program, I saw the power in taking a step back and getting the big picture perspective — and I learned a brand-new new way to look at what you truly want to achieve with your efforts.

I knew that employee behavior affects business results (in my case, more hours = more revenue), but what I hadn’t considered was an accomplishment-based approach. This involves an added factor in the Performance Chain:

                Behavior Influences > Behavior > Work Outputs > Business Results

Working Backward

Prior to this course, I would have said behavior links directly to business results. When developing training programs or initiatives, we’re generally trying to fill a knowledge gap and/or change a current behavior. Most teams quickly go right to the tactics for delivering that knowledge (virtual Instructor-Led Training? eLearning modules? hands-on practice?), and for having employees apply it on the job. We assume (or hope!) that these efforts will achieve the objectives and have a positive impact on the company.

With Performance Thinking, you start with business results and work backward on the Performance Chain to ultimately find the behavior influences that can ensure a project’s success. Business results can vary widely among organizations, and they are not always tied to revenue.  They can include such organization-level results as client satisfaction, regulatory compliance, and quality of service.

Another key point was that many people don’t understand their link to the company’s mission. They don’t understand how their performance ties into any kind of business result. To connect to those business results (what stakeholders really care about), keep asking “why?” In fact, you’ll need to ask probing questions to gain clarity on each element of the Performance Chain.

Getting Input on Outputs

While correctly identifying business results is a critical piece of this process, so is separating them from work outputs (accomplishments). Work outputs are what connect behavior to business results. They’re not activities or processes; they’re things that you actually produce (design documents, quarterly reports, PowerPoint templates).

Work outputs must be valuable countable things.  And everyone should be able to agree on what “good” looks like. Even relationships and decisions can be work outputs when properly defined.

One of the Performance Thinking® tools is the Individual Performance Map, which we produce by interviewing performers about their customers and the work outputs that are produced for each one. A customer is anyone who receives value you deliver inside or outside your organization. This discussion can be eye-opening for both the interviewer and interviewee as they go through the process, identifying the obvious ones first (reports, design documents, course materials), and then diving deeper into others that are just as important but may be intangible (client relationships, project decisions/approvals). 

Identifying Behavior

Behavior is any type of action. When you’re defining it for performance improvement purposes, you need to know enough about it to ask good questions about the factors that influence it.  

The best way to uncover current behavior is to talk directly to the performers themselves because their descriptions of behavior are based on direct experience. Managers may be able to give you an overview based on what is needed to produce expected work outputs, but if they are not current successful performers, they're likely to omit critical details.

In many cases, we may be looking at inner behavior — thoughts and inner visualizations, for example. It’s important to identify this behavior in conversations and observations, often requiring performers to describe what they're thinking as they do work, since such inner behavior often includes critical parts of a task or step.

Measuring Up

It’s important to be able to evaluate performance objectively so that you can plan, prioritize, and provide the right feedback. Measurement should also be ongoing; you’re not just making sure something worked once and not evaluating it again. Measurement will help you to monitor progress and quantify the impact your efforts are having on the organization.

Measurement can also ensure that feedback is more objective, and arguably, more effective. It can help establish expectations and give performers the opportunity to see their progress and growth.

You can measure each link in the Performance Chain, not just the business results. It’s essential to consider all elements of the performance you want to develop or improve. Often counting work outputs that do and do not meet criteria or standards is easier that watching behavior or relying on lagging measures of business results.

Changing Behavior: The Secret Sauce

In instructional design, most of us are familiar with the ADDIE model (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation), but traditional training and change management programs usually lack specific follow-up or sustainment plans. Sustainment really should be a key element – you’re not just training someone to pass a test, you’re trying to permanently change performance. With Performance Thinking, you’re adding an “S” to ADDIES by following up to be sure that interventions continue to work.

The secret to sustainment is the Six Boxes® Model, which enables you to identify all the behavior influences that affect a performer’s behavior, both environmental and internal to the individual. The goal is to ensure that you have the right types of support in place to sustain performance improvement, and that they continue to be effective.

Environmental behavior influences range from expectations and feedback to tools and resources to consequences and incentives. Individual influences may involve skills and knowledge, selection and assignment (based on individual characteristics), or motives and preferences.

My biggest takeaway on this topic was: A behavior influence is only a behavior influence if it IS! 

For example, consequences and incentives do not always work as planned. Programs like employee-of-the-month single out one person — what about all the others? And, saving employee feedback for annual performance reviews misses the opportunity to recognize it earlier (and either praise or correct it).

For that matter, it really all starts with expectations. Are the expectations clear? When you interview performers about expectations, do they say the same thing as their managers?

The target is to identify behavior influences that are specific enough to be actionable and as complete as possible across all six cells of the model. You need to look at each part of the Six Boxes system. They represent an integrated approach, so using them independently won’t be as powerful as using them together.

A Different View

Performance Thinking is like the difference between problem-solving and design engineering for performance improvement. Instead of looking at a way to “fix” a problem, we look at optimizing the end goals. In other words, instead of creating a generic course loaded with product information, we look at what we want each performer to do and produce, and consider each of the Six Boxes cells to support the behavior and work outputs that the organization needs.

Once you start using Performance Thinking, you’ll see how broadly you can apply it to performance improvement in an organization. And you’ll realize why some practitioners call it their Performance Thinking® super power. It’s a power you can’t help but use — and one you’ll want to share!

- Cathy Godlewski, Write Mind, Inc.

<![CDATA[ What is Performance Management? ]]> A recent blog post that was highlighted in the monthly digest from the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) caught my attention, not so much because of what it said, but because of the question it asked.

The writer proposes an answer to the question, "What is performance management?"  While we can certainly point to numerous definitions, including the one proposed by Dr. Aubrey Daniels, the renowned international consultant who literally wrote the book on performance management, it seems that in most companies performance management is not what it's cracked up to be.

The blog post distinguishes between performance management and performance appraisal.  Sadly, in many organizations they are essentially the same. At infrequent meetings between managers and their direct reports, managers assess performance, provide some feedback, and write it up until next time – which could be months in the future. There is often little focus on specific capabilities or contributions that the employee makes or needs to make. And these discussions, which typically lack the frequency of a coaching process, do not serve as effective vehicles for talent development as suggested by the phrase agile talent development highlighted in the excellent Harvard Business Review article, HR Goes Agile, several years ago.

What's worse, typical performance management processes often depend on rating scales ("refined opinion") rather than objective measurement to assess employee performance on a number of competencies, often with the caveat that you can't "give too many 5s." Organizations may then use the rating scales to rank employees and decide on compensation.  In the worst form, they look like the infamous topgrading approach made popular by Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, who used the system to get rid of the bottom 10% of employees every year. In that form, the process becomes more of a culling exercise than a development engine.

At The Performance Thinking Network we think it makes sense to focus performance improvement, leadership, management, and coaching on the valuable accomplishments (i.e.,work outputs) that employees contribute to their organizations.  In our view, the job of leaders and managers is to accelerate business results through the performance of people. All of our programs teach a process that starts by identifying valuable work outputs, followed by a collaborative effort for improving employees' ability to produce those contributions more effectively and efficiently. At the same time, because we use the Six Boxes Model to drive performance management and coaching conversations, effective application of this approach leads to continuous improvements in both productivity and in employee engagement.

We want productive and engaged employees. And that is what we think performance management is about.

- Carl Binder, CEO



<![CDATA[ Focus on Sales Milestones to Accelerate Sales Results ]]> In the several decades that I've been involved with building sales training and performance interventions for business-to-business sales, I've learned about the important advantages of defining sales performance by identifying the milestones and progress indicators or accomplishments that exemplary sales people work day-to-day to achieve in their territories and accounts.

This is an accomplishment-based approach to exemplary sales performance. We've described it in a recent YouTube playlist and in our white paper on sales performance. We teach sales performance analysis in our Performance Thinking® Practitioner Program for performance improvement professionals. Our accomplishment-based performance coaching program offers a results-oriented coaching methodology for sales managers.

Here is a list what sales organizations can do to accelerate results once they have done the hard work of identifying the milestones in their best practices sales process, based on analysis of their top performers.

Anchor all training and development to sales milestones: Build this framework into all your training and coaching. Do this throughout beginning and advanced sales training, in field-based coaching, and in development of tools and resources for sales people. Define progress from initial prospect to closed deal and beyond with sales milestones that describe the purpose of everything we learn or teach, of all the strategies, tactics and tools we provide to enable sales.

Leverage the expertise of exemplary performers throughout the sales organization: Once we know what sales people need to accomplish at every step, we can harvest successful strategies, tactics and tools for achieving the milestones from successful sales people. "What will this help you accomplish?" is a good way to frame it all.

Shift from knowledge-based training to performance-based training:  A lot of so-called product knowledge training is focused on the features and benefits of the product, and perhaps on the comparative features and benefits of competitive products. However, once we set the context for sales knowledge based on which milestones one is attempting to achieve, we can teach and assess competitive strategies and tactics, what one would say and do in specific situations related to the milestones, as well as what one might not need to say. This helps make training leaner and more performance-focused.

Drive sales coaching with a focus on milestones:  Once you have identified the large and small milestones and progress indicators in the best practices sales process for your organization, managers and their people can discuss which one(s) are most important for their business right now. They can then zero in on discussions about how one might best achieve those milestones. This is a far more focused and reliable way to coach people than assuming specific behavior as being necessary. Once milestones are clear, sales managers and representatives can decide what behavior might be best for achieving them. Behavior-based coaching by sales managers is common. The organization defines behavior believed to make a difference in the sales process, e.g., delivering the message, asking open ended questions, asking for the business, etc. The sales manager then uses a job aid to record and provide feedback to the sales representative. This might or might not be helpful, depending on whether the behavior happens to be what is needed to achieve an important milestone in a sales call. Frankly, I've had more than one top sales person roll their eyes while telling me that when their manager is present, they exhibit the expected behavior, but when the manager is not with them, they focus on what they're trying to achieve. An accomplishment based approach drives results in a way that behavior-based coaching cannot.

Use sales milestones to adjust to changes in the market:  When market conditions change it is sometimes necessary to shift how sales representatives achieve milestones.  Perhaps there is a new emphasis on what's important to clients, and one needs to speak with new stakeholders to achieve a request for proposal. Possibly the world moves from in-person to virtual meetings, in which case one might need to learn new behavior to conduct an effective virtual meeting for achieving a given milestone. But with clear milestones to achieve, it is usually the behavior or tools and resources that must change when conditions change, not so much the milestones themselves. Having defined the best practices sales milestones in your sales process will make that adaptation easier and quicker. In other words, it will support agility in your sales force.

Design competitive sales training and coaching based on sales milestones:  Which milestones in your best practices sales process offer the greatest competitive leverage? Rather than merely teaching competitive features and benefits, identify the milestones in your sales process most likely to put the competition at a disadvantage or to give you an advantage. Once you have identified those milestones, individual sales representatives can target those in their own accounts and territories.  Sales training and coaching can drive more effective strategies and tactics for achieving those milestones, well beyond providing additional competitive product knowledge.

Organize internal social networking tools and resources around sales milestones:  Structure communication and collaboration among the members of your sales organization around the milestones they need to achieve in the sales process, not around knowledge topics or subject matter. Answer the question, "In this situation, what's the best way to achieve this milestone?"

Revise product training to deliver situational product knowledge: Product knowledge should not be "academic." It should not be separated from the situations in which one must know and do what is required. It should not be taught out of the context of the milestones that the sales person is attempting to achieve.  While some basic training might be needed in technical knowledge to lay a foundation for further understanding, product training should shift as rapidly as possible to teaching and practicing situational product knowledge – what one must do and say based on the milestones one is attempting to achieve.

Integrate sales milestones into your CRM software:  If you use sales support software that monitors progress through the sales cycle, you might be able to build more refined milestones into that system rather than using the "big" generic ones that often describe the sales pipeline in CRM software.

First determine the milestones and progress indicators that consistently exemplary sales people work to achieve. Then encourage sales leaders, sales training and sales operations professionals to base their overall definition, management, and development of sales performance on those milestones. 

And, of course, we offer Performance Thinking® programs and services to support such an approach for organizations that choose to go in that direction.

 - Carl Binder, CEO

<![CDATA[ Agility = Innovation + Execution ]]> Another great Harvard Business Review article, The Agile C-Suite, got my attention this month.  It talks about the balance that leaders need to find between efficiency and innovation, particularly in uncertain times. 

At the Performance Thinking Network, we say that agility is a combination of innovation and execution.

Since before last summer's 10th Annual Six Boxes® Summer Institute we've been exploring the combination of Design Thinking and Performance Improvement with our friend and colleague, Surya Vanka, of Authentic Design in Seattle. There is something in that combination that enables organizations and leaders to be more agile.

Surya has captured the essence of Design Thinking in his Design Swarms® process. He takes teams through a sequence of activities to produce innovative solutions, designs, or plans that can be implemented and have a compelling value proposition. Design Swarms enable teams to produce innovation on demand.

At The Performance Thinking Network, we've distilled the essence of human performance engineering, or organizational performance improvement into our plain English, simple but powerful Performance Thinking® methodology . We teach and certify Performance Professionals of all kinds to conduct organizational performance improvement projects, many of which involve systemic planning and implementation of new systems, processes, programs or initiatives. Some of our colleagues at large organizations use this approach for big, global implementation projects. Performance Thinking® is a process for reliable execution.

We're continuing to find new ways that these two flexible and widely applicable approaches can be integrated, always looking for opportunities with clients to drive agile performance improvement or change. So it was hard not to think about that aspect of our work when I read The Agile C-Suite.

- Carl Binder, CEO




<![CDATA[ Change Management in the Era of COVID-19 ]]> When we think of change management, we generally envision implementing a new system, process, strategy, or policy. Or perhaps we need to plan for a corporate reorganization, and all the changes that will be produced and needed for success. Change management methodologies, such as ADKAR from Prosci, offer processes for systematically preparing for and then executing big change – when timing is under our control.

We've seen over the years that our Performance Thinking® methodology for organizational performance improvement is also a powerful tool set for change management. It has the added  advantage that we thoroughly address the behavior influences needed to ensure sustained change, once the celebration and novelty are over.

But what about when we face changes out of our control?  What if the Universe slaps us down with events or conditions that change everything, that leave us fighting for survival?  That's what's happening now with the worldwide pandemic of novel coronavirus and COVID-19. That is what we all face now.

At the Performance Thinking Network we've been trying to derermine how best to help our clients, colleagues and friends, faced with unexpected and out-of-control changes caused by the threat of COVID-19.  In many cases there is the likelihood of great suffering, potentially to the point of bankruptcy or going out of business. We recognize that this is no ordinary change management situation, where we manage planned changes in operations, business models or strategy.

Instead it's a question of managing in the face of unexpected and potentially catastrophic change beyond our control. Many of us need to quickly shift our products and services, business models,  strategies and tactics for staying afloat.  We need to survive an unknown period of reduced revenue, inability to operate as usual, and painful impact on our employees and customers.

Performance Thinking, as taught in the Six Boxes® Practitioner Program, offers a powerful implementation and sustainment methodology. We're confident that Performance Thinking gives us a path for implementing and sustaining change that may even be more robust than some well-known change management methodologies.

But how do we know what changes to make in our businesses or organizations? How do we figure out what to implement, how the change will look, what the outcome of change should be?  That's where our colleague, Surya Vanka of Seattle's Authentic Design, and formerly Director of User Experience at Microsoft, can help. At last year's Six Boxes® Summer Institute, Surya made a big splash by conducting an all-day Design Swarms® process to invent ways that Performance Thinking might help to address environmental issues.  Using his "innovation on demand" process, we arrived at some truly unique solutions.  Since then, we've been exploring synergies between  Design Swarms® for innovation and  Performance Thinking® for implementation and sustainment.  We think that COVID-19 offers a perfect, and rather urgent opportunity to combine these two powerful methodologies.

We can combine Design Swarms® and Performance Thinking® into a simple but powerful two-step process to help organizations design innovative strategies and tactics, then implement them with speed and sustainability.  We can help organizations be agile in the face of the pandemic.

In the coming weeks we all face the reality of the exploding pandemic.  Surya and I are inviting a few innovative but struggling organizations, large or small, to combine virtual Design Swarms for rapid innovation with virtual Performance Thinking work sessions to quickly create implementation plans that will allow them to survive the pandemic.

If you're interested in working with us to help you innovate and implement, we'd like to speak with you about a possible path forward that fits your circumstance. If there are groups of non-competitive small business owners in the same field, we might also work with them. None of us are certain how this will play out. Please reach out if you want to work with us from the safety of your homes.  We can offer a significantly reduced fee or free-of-charge for truly struggling organizations.  We want to help if we can, and be innovative in the process.

You can contact us at or call me personally at 206-866-3229.  I'll pull Surya into the discussion, and we'll take it from there.

- Carl Binder, CEO

<![CDATA[ HR Goes Agile - A Classic from The Harvard Business Review ]]> This article is an "oldie but goodie" from the March-April 2018 of Harvard Business Review . But it is as relevant as ever, and timelessly so in relation to our Coach-Manage-Lead programs . 

The authors talk about how Human Resources functions in companies need to keep up with the pace of business change, and that "agile" talent development is going to be the way it happens. In 2018 they were talking about this as a new trend, with great examples. But two years later, it's more relevant than ever.

Our accomplishment-based coaching, management and leadership programs are intended to move organizations in that direction.  When we introduce coaching to a company, it's not just to provide a way to "get employees out of trouble" when their performance or their conduct is less than expected. It's a way to be proactive in the development of people, at the point of performance where managers and their people know what will be needed in the weeks, months, or quarters ahead to meet the needs of the business. Leaders and managers can coach their people by identifying the key accomplishments or work outputs that they will need to produce, or for which they need improvement, and then apply the "logic" of the Six Boxes® model to arrive at agreed-upon action steps, with the employee, for continuous development. Ideally, this process occurs at a regular cadence in organization so that employees and the people who lead and manage them expect to be having these conversations weekly or every couple of weeks, formally and/or informally.

Our programs give leaders and managers the language and framework for ongoing discussions about what accomplishments or "work outputs" are, or will be, most important for the business and for career path development of each individual. The programs are intended to lay a foundation which, if integrated into an overall implementation and sustainment plan, can support ongoing proactive continuous talent development and performance improvement.

Because I so often cite this HBR article as an "authoritative" analysis of the challenges and the solutions, I thought it would be more convenient to simply provide a link to it.

Read the article and see what you think.  It would be great to start a conversation about this topic.  Add your and discussion below.

- Carl Binder, CEO

<![CDATA[ Why Feedback Fails, and a Performance Thinking® Alternative ]]> A recent article  in Harvard Business Review called The Feedback Fallacy debunks a number of widely accepted ideas about the effective use of feedback on human performance.  In particular, it addresses “the overriding belief that the way to increase performance in companies is through rigorous, frequent, candid, pervasive, and often critical feedback.”

There are many problems with this belief, some mentioned in the article and others implicit.  Let’s take a closer look, and then look at an alternative approach to setting expectations and providing feedback that is at the heart of Six Boxes Performance Thinking.

There’s no dispute that individuals and teams can gain from a clear understanding of what they need to produce, and how; and from information about how well they are performing, and what might help to improve their performance in a positive way. Positive, specific, timely feedback for what we do right can rapidly accelerate performance. Lean process improvement uses various kinds of visible feedback tools, customer service representatives listen to themselves with a behavioral checklist, and so on. These forms of feedback can help. But words like “candid” and “rigorous” when describing feedback often hide what amounts to punishment of what people do incorrectly.

The HBR article unpacks and disputes the idea that “other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses, and that the best way to help you, therefore, is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself.” They question the ability of others to give precise or helpful feedback.

Certainly their criticisms makes sense, particularly if the expectations against which one is being judged are vague or open to wide interpretation.  Even with precise behavioral expectations, people often are poor observers and may not be skilled at identifying critical features of one’s behavior that could make a difference.  The article continues by debunking several other myths, but after a few paragraphs settles on what we think is one of the greatest problems of all, one that is virtually all-pervasive in practices followed in organizations of all kinds.

That big problem is that assessment and feedback are often based on competencies, defined in models embedded in performance management systems, training programs, and models of so-called “excellence.”  I’ve written elsewhere about how competency-based systems are inherently unfair, ineffective and even destructive. That’s because competencies are inherently abstract, generalized concepts that apply to whole categories or clusters of behavior. The original competency models took sometimes more than 100 defined types of behavior, sorted them into piles, and then labeled the piles. The labels became the so-called competencies. But such verbal expressions are painfully abstract and difficult to pin down. How we can possibly compare and evaluate “business acumen” when exhibited in a public presentation versus in a 1:1 meeting with a direct report, or in  a written proposal? How we can possibly compare “strategic thinking” embodied in a business plan and in a meeting design, with a rating scale that is actually refined opinion?

As straight-faced as people can be when they rate others using scales of 1 to 5 on such abstractions, it is  outrageous to think that rating others on abstract categories of behavior can possibly help develop performance in  a cost-effective or reliable way. It is not nearly specific enough to be helpful, yet vague enough to be possibly harmful. Moreover, a rating can depend in extreme cases on whether the rater got a good night’s sleep,  enough coffee that morning, or has a hangover. While those might be slight exaggerations, you get the point. Rating people's performance on subjective scales is not helpful, certainly not useful enough to merit all the time and effort usually put into it, even when done infrequently, which is usually the case.

These days I often ask groups of people to whom I deliver presentations or training, “How’s that competency-based rating scale performance management system working for you?” They roll their eyes. 

I follow with, “Is this causing any cynicism among you and your colleagues about performance evaluations and compensation decisions?”  They typically nod their heads.  Competency-based feedback is, indeed, the Emperor with No Clothes.  It appears that we are doing something useful, when actually we are merely assigning numbers that are only ordinal levels, and not quantities, to vague concepts with some kind of “holistic” judgement about the person.  Not exactly buttoned down performance engineering!

That is not to mention our ratios of positive to corrective feedback – which unless they are 4:1 or better are unlikely to be very effective, even when applied to more specific and concrete examples of behavior.  Not only do we tend to correct more than we praise, but we usually do so with significant delays. Thus, in most cases, the feedback is so removed from the details of behavior that neither the performer nor the person giving feedback can be precise enough to be helpful.

But there is another approach.  And it is at the heart of Six Boxes Performance Thinking.  The HBR article hints at our alternative when the authors suggest that we “look for outcomes.”  They write that those who give feedback should focus on specific behavior that produces the desired results.

In the logic of Six Boxes Performance Thinking, performance in organizations has three elements:  behavior or activity; the valuable products of behavior – what we call accomplishments or work outputs; and the organizational or business results to which they contribute. In the Performance Chain, we judge the value of an accomplishment by the extent to which it contributes to organizational or business results.  And we specify needed behavior based on the extent to which it produces valuable accomplishments or work outputs.

We say that accomplishments, or work outputs, are “countable nouns.” That is, like widgets coming off an assembly line, they are things that can be counted and evaluated as to whether they do or do not meet what we call “criteria for a good one.” Such criteria apply not only to concrete deliverables, like widgets or documents. They also apply to less tangible things that, nonetheless, can be defined as either “good” or “not good,” and counted.

Such accomplishments can include decisions, transactions, innovations, descriptions, improved process designs, people who say they liked our service, and even relationships. We focus leaders, managers and performance professionals on identifying criteria for “good” ones that are easy to agree upon and for which there is relatively narrow room for interpretation.  We say that the performer and everyone else should be able to evaluate the work output or accomplishment – the product of behavior – as either meeting or not meeting criteria. Criteria for good work outputs might be based on the business results to which they are intended to contribute, the requirements of customers or recipients of the work outputs, or sometimes on cultural values that  define what we consider to be good accomplishments.

And this is the key to giving useful, effective feedback: If we focus on the accomplishment or product of behavior, not primarily on the behavior, we can clearly define what good looks like. Then both performer and manager or peer can decide whether any given accomplishment is good, or needs improvement. And if there is room for improvement, then they can engage in a collaborative effort to decide what behavior ought to change and how to help make that happen.

This approach, embodied most simply in our Six Boxes® Performance Coaching program, moves the feedback process from behavior to outcomes, from subjective to objective, and supports self-feedback based on shared knowledge of criteria for good work outputs. Our coaching and management programs leverage this level of specificity. We find that instead of dreading feedback, individuals and teams appreciate knowing exactly what they are expected to produce, gain insights and often bring innovative ideas for changes in behavior, and can share expectations and feedback with each other. This practice becomes a potentially collective learning exercise, an ongoing process as part of continuous performance development.

The HBR article also reminds me of the relatively narrow approach to performance improvement in so many organizations, depending mostly on training and feedback for development. Our Six Boxes Model defines a comprehensive system of behavior influences in six interrelated categories that are either supporting or getting in the way of performance at all times.

The full set of behavior influences includes skills and knowledge as well as feedback. It begins with clearly stated expectations so that feedback can be equally clear, to compare with expectations. We learn to adjust tools and resources to develop individuals and teams. Taken together, this more systemic approach allows performers to make more frequent contact with the natural positive consequence of success.

With Performance Thinking we can leap past crude competency based rating schemes and take advantage of accomplishment based feedback in the context of a system that supports performance. We can enable leaders, managers, coaches and performance professionals to drive continuous agile talent development by adjusting the variables in the Six Boxes Model in cost-effective combinations. And we can, to some extent, bypass the old arguments about what does or does not make for effective feedback because we  have a fundamentally better approach based on accomplishments, not competencies.

I applaud Harvard Business Review for taking up the issue of feedback, and addressing some of the myths and old ideas that surround it. We can do much better, and Six Boxes Performance Thinking provides a simple yet powerful framework for crisply defining successful performance and arranging conditions for continuous improvement.

For more about Six Boxes Performance Thinking, check out our programs for Performance Professionals and those for Leaders and Managers . 

Also check out our 10th Annual Six Boxes Summer Institute , which is going to be amazing. We'll be exploring in depth the possible synergies and intersections between Design Thinking and Performance Improvement, partnering with our friend and colleague, Surya Vanka .

Please share your email address with us to receive periodic updates and notifications , subscribe to The Performance Thinking YouTube Channel , and consider joining our growing LinkedIn discussion group.

Thanks for reading this far. I know it was a long one!

 -   Carl Binder, CEO ]]>
<![CDATA[ 21st Century Performance Improvement! ]]> Iconic.     Well, maybe some day...   It's not iconic (yet), in the sense of being widely recognized as fundamental and authentic. But I've been thinking lately how truly 21st Century our Six Boxes Performance Thinking® approach is. And how it IS based on the classical work of great 20th century thought leaders, starting with B.F. Skinner, whose natural science of behavior continues to change the world in ways that we don't even recognize because it's so embedded in our daily lives. And on the work of Dr. Tom Gilbert, author of that remarkable book, Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, who taught us to anchor the analysis and improvement of performance in accomplishments or work outputs, the valuable products of behavior, not in behavior for its own sake.  Then came Dr. Joe Harless, who took Gilbert's Performance Engineering and turned it into a repeatable performance improvement technology for performance analysis, effective job aids, and accomplishment based instructional design. Those giants in the field were iconic.  And they laid the foundation for accomplishment based performance improvement as it has evolved into this century.

The 21st century is a different era.  We move faster, we have many more "channels" and competing information sources, we consume information in small bites, and we need to be flexible, agile, and capable of adapting to a rapidly changing world. To bring behavior science and performance engineering into widespread use in 21st century organizations, we need a new generation of tools and models that are simpler, easier to communicate, and – literally – iconic

It just so happens that at The Performance Thinking Network over the last 20 years or so we've been building just such a thing: a 21st century performance improvement approach that is, literally, iconic.

With just two simple pictures and 21 plain English words, we can summarize everything one must know to analyze and improve human performance at any level or for any function in an organization. Our two models – The Performance Chain and the Six Boxes® Model – are simple enough to remember, draw and label on a white board, and use to discuss any kind of performance.  Our approach is truly iconic in the sense of being pictorial – memorably so.  The pictures, our models, say it all, and they help us learn, remember,  communicate and apply the logic of performance improvement.

Performance Thinking is a 21st century development insofar as its iconic user interface helps us to think differently in a way that is compatible, and even synergistic, with 21st century Design Thinking.  We can drive a new generation of performance improvement, performance consulting, human resource development, or whatever you'd like to call it. It's agile, flexible, and powerful – all at the same time.

Imagine how you might be able to start a viral wave of new thinking about performance and continuous improvement across your organization , as we have seen in other organizations.  Learn to frame, analyze and plan for improving performance using Performance Thinking® programs and tools to align everyone in the organization with business results, drive continuous performance improvement and optimize employee engagement.

– Carl Binder, CEO

We think that things are really going to get interesting over the coming months. Click here to keep up with the conversation.

<![CDATA[ More from Harvard Business Review ]]> In the latest issue of HBR there's an article called Managers Can't Be Great Coaches All By Themselves.  I can't help but think of our Six Boxes® Performance Coaching as big solution for the issues they raise.

The first thing that pops out is the idea of the "Connector Manager" as someone who helps her people connect to other resources, mentors, tools, and other sources of performance support and development.  This is critical, since performance occurs in a system and we need to align the parts.

In our work, the Six Boxes Model provides a great way to frame and align all those enablers that the Manager or Leader can connect for their people in pursuit of talent development or performance improvement. The Six Boxes Model is a simple and comprehensive framework for thinking through WHAT factors to configure to get the best out of our people – both high levels of performance and increased employee engagement.

Beyond the Connector Manager, the shared models and language of Performance Thinking offer a leader or manager and their direct report a way of partnering to develop or improve performance. This is in contrast to the manager "doing something to" the person – coaching them.  This is about continuous, collaborative performance improvement. Our approach encourages individual contributors to become full partners in their own and their teams' development. Individuals often generate the best ideas for what accomplishments (work outputs) to prioritize and what behavior influences to eliminate, configure. The Performance Thinking conversation captures and leverages those ideas. And an organization that supports such a process can leverage those ideas to help others perform better and enjoy higher levels of engagement.

Finally, a shared language and thought process focused on valuable accomplishments needed by the business provides a vehicle for agile talent development at the point of performance.  This allows development to turn on a dime, relatively speaking – compared to the sluggish annual and quarterly reviews and learning plans still used in many organizations. The traditional approach can't keep up with change. The Performance Thinking mindset, shared across an organization, creates a culture of performance quite different from a manager or leader "being a coach all by one's self.  To borrow that old phrase, "it takes a village."  It takes a system. It takes a whole organization.  A shared framework can generate ROI simply by aligning the performance enablers in an organization more cost-effectively.

With the 2 simple models and 21 plain English words of Performance Thinking® programs, a Leader-Coach, supported by efforts to nurture a collective practice of collaboration, becomes a point of contact with the whole system to accelerate organizational results through people.  

- Carl Binder, CEO