What is Human and Organization Performance Improvement & Why Does It Matter for Nonprofits?

What is different about performance improvement?
Wherever work is done people are involved. With the only exception that robots or computer sometimes do the work. We can ignore robots and computers for our purpose here. Wherever work is performed, people are involved. When undesired things happen, i.e., desired results are not achieved, it might seem obvious there has to be someone who is not able to do the job or who is not willing to. This is not the case though.

The search for shortcomings of people when results are not achieved is a typical fall out of the fundamental attribution error that is well researched in psychology. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics of a person to explain someone else’s behavior rather than considering the situation’s external factors. You might have experienced this in your own organization. When something goes wrong managers often try to find people and make them responsible. This tendency is wide spread, well researched, and nevertheless a failure. Human behavior depends in the majority of cases much more on external (environmental) factors than on internal ones.

What does that mean when we talk about performance of and in organizations?
First of all, it means that organizations provide an environment for people to perform and this environment should be supportive to high performance. Organizations like Apple or Porsche do not produce high class products because they only have extraordinary people. These organizations produce such outstanding products because they organized work in a way that enables everybody to perform and to contribute to his or her best abilities.

Performance of people depends on their work environment and if one wants to understand performance and performance gaps in a given environment one has to understand all the factors in this environment that influence performance. These factors include clear goals and quality standards, sufficient feedback on performance, appropriate resources, easy to use guidelines, checklists and templates, an incentive system that incentivizes desired results and motivates people, etc. The list is longer than what we can show here and certainly varies from organization to organization but it gives an impression of what determines human performance in addition to knowledge and skills.

Performance improvement is a systematic approach that guides people in understanding and improving performance. Its biggest strength is that it prevents people from falling into the trap of the fundamental attribution error thus enabling more targeted and sustainable solutions.

Still performance improvement goes far beyond only preventing such errors. There are different types of performance in organizations and they are only loosely connected to human performance. For example the speed at which a given process can deliver desired outcomes depends much more on the organization of the respective process than on the speed of the people working in it.

Think of getting a passport. The process can be designed in a way that it takes many people to work on the application and several times for the applicant to show up personally. This might take weeks. Or it can be designed as a one stop shopping experience that involves only one clerk. This might bring down the time to three days. The main reason for the required delivery time is not the speed of work of the involved people. The main reason is the organization of the process. This is just one example to illustrate that there are types of performances in an organization that have little connection to human performance but are essential for organizational performance.

So what is different about performance improvement?
Performance Improvement provides a systematic understanding of different types of performances in an organization and of the factors that influence these different types. This enables correct analysis and diagnosis of performance gaps and improvement opportunities providing a reliable basis to sustainability and continual improvement.

Otherwise one runs the risk of the fundamental attribution error. And this will entail the development of human centered solutions like training that look good at the surface but will only contribute little to solving performance problems. That said, there are cases where training is the best solution because the main cause for a given performance gap is lack of knowledge and skills. But these cases are much rarer than people believe.

It always seems so obvious that it is the people but building successful organizations requires the playing together of human capacity and passion and efficient organizational design.

In many cases this is specifically true for non-profits that usually are founded by passionate people who find the support of other people who believe in the same ideas. Non-profits usually start being people centered. When they grow they need to multiply their know-how and they need to build an efficient organization. This is where ISPI comes in and this is why ISPI’s pro bono consulting has such high leverage for nonprofits.

Great communities depend on the engagement of their citizens. Great communities need their non-profits. The better non-profits perform, the better communities can do. With your support ISPI will be able to support communities to “get better” by improving the capacity and the performance of non-profits.