The Performance Comes First …. Or Does It?



It certainly comes before the outcome.  In the semi finals of the ATP Tour Finals Federer did not perform sufficiently well against the improving David Goffin.  While he took the first set with ease, Goffin was increasingly aggressive in the second set and Federer started missing that usually reliable forehand, the one that normally has the attributes of an exocet missile!

One sports journalist argued some time ago that Federer’s beautiful game was a consequence of his assassin like approach to winning.  In contrast, the same journalist in another article described how Johan Cruyff wanted to play beautifully, for which he wanted to be remembered, both as player and manager. I believe it’s evident that incredible athletes like Cruyff in his prime and Federer worked incredibly hard to achieve a level of performance that has been awesome in it’s beauty (with Federer this is still the case). At the O2 over a week ago he may have lost but for much of the match the quality of tennis was outstanding, particularly given it was the end of a long season when players are undoubtedly a little tired.  The final the following day between Dimitrov and Goffin also proved to be a high level and close contest between two of the slightly younger generation of players.

In sports psychology there is a common ordering of process – performance – outcome.  For a particular outcome, or end result,  you need a certain level of performance and therefore you start with the process you need to go through to achieve the performance.  However, perhaps it should be prefaced by preparation, though some see this as part of the process.   Though in tennis terms the process usually describes what the player goes through prior to and during the match – this includes the vital routines that players go through between points that enable them to tune out of the previous point and re-focus on the next.  Then, of course, if the performance is better than your opponents the outcome is a victory.

Preparation includes ensuring an athlete is in peak shape to achieve the performance, as well as practice to develop the ability to execute shots consistently in a range of contexts.

Of course, in the world of work, we rarely give significant consideration to preparation, process, performance but all too often focus purely on outcomes.  While delivering the right outcome is critical by neglecting the steps to enable high levels of performance we are inviting mediocrity or even failure – a deep irony in the world I’ve spent much of my time on where failure is not tolerated.

Much of knowledge work is based around meetings and personal interaction, yet how often do we just wing it?  Most of the firms that I have worked in over the last two decades or more, senior managers often spend their time going from meeting to meeting, with little opportunity to prepare or reflect on the outcome.

This, in conjunction with the pervading culture (top down directive) in many large established corporations is an inhibitor to performance and of innovation.  This is in contrast to top athletes who will continually experiment to improve.

One of my more recent roles was establishing an innovation function at a large bank.  I’ve also been to a number of innovation events focused on financial services in the last year – one theme that consistently crops up is that of culture.  The pervading culture – hierarchical and top down directive – is seen as a barrier to innovation, quite rightly.

Lots of folks want to be involved in innovation or fintech – it’s cool – but getting folks who’ve spent their lives in these hierarchical cultures to change the way they think and behave is a major challenge.  There are good reasons and being like Google is not the answer!


Next time …. Why being like Google is not the answer!

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