Adaptability of performance in a changing environment
The current APS environment is characterised by constant change, including Machinery of Government changes, agency restructures, changing priorities, and changes to roles and responsibilities. In the existing literature, the need to anticipate, respond and adapt to changing circumstances has been highlighted as a characteristic of high performing organisations and individuals (see, for example, de Waal, 2010; Holbeche, 2004; Pickering, 2008; Popovich, 1998).
Our research suggests that the ability of organisations to adapt to this change and to address environmental demands relies on the ability of groups to adjust and adapt to change, to help one another and to deliver work in a timely manner. To facilitate these outcomes, employees need to be provided with the skills and job knowledge to become multi-skilled, flexible and responsive to changing priorities.
To optimise the ability for organisations and groups to adapt to change there must be systemic focus on building the capacity of employees to respond to changing circumstances. This may include providing employees with development opportunities that increase their exposure to other areas (e.g. project work) and build their skills and competencies. It could also involve organisations maintaining records of their employees’ skills and expertise so that they can identify and address skill gaps and redeploy employees with relevant skill sets where necessary. A central mechanism for enabling adaptability to change is managers and employees engaging in ongoing informal conversations regarding changing priorities, roles and responsibilities.
Performance agreements can play a central role in supporting and enabling adaptability to change. This can be achieved through focusing on broad priorities, intended outcomes and the level of performance expected at different hierarchical levels. Performance agreements need to encourage reflection, learning and meaningful conversations, and provide the scope for employees to amend their goals as priorities change.
Our research found that current performance management systems were ill-equipped for a changing environment. Many participants commented that performance agreements did not take account of changes in supervision, roles and/or responsibilities over the 12 month performance cycle. Agreements tended to be static in nature and were rarely updated because of inflexibility with information technology systems. High work pressures and limited time also constrained managers and employees from updating agreements. In addition, managers and employees were often not engaged in sufficient conversations over the performance cycle. In many agencies these discussions solely occurred during the mid and end of cycle reviews. The performance management system did not ensure that regular and ongoing conversations were taking place between managers and employees.
Recognising progress as a means to facilitate adaptability
High performing organisations are characterised by a focus on continuous improvement (de Waal, 2010; Holbeche, 2004). Ahmed, Loh and Zairi (1999) described continuous improvement as “a pervasive attitude that allows business to see beyond the present and create the future” (p. S246). High performing organisations can increase their ability to adapt and respond to change by continually monitoring progress against target and goal attainment (de Waal, 2010). Our research, however, found that performance management in the APS tended to focus on short-term goals and processes rather than continuous improvement.
It is important to encourage organisations to set long-term stretch goals. Goals contained in annual performance agreements for individual employees need to be aligned with these longer-term organisational and governmental goals. Performance information will also need to be collected that will enable organisations to focus on the key areas that indicate progress. Organisational rewards need to recognise the achievement of both short-term and longer-term goals.
It is also important for organisations to develop a genuine interest in monitoring progress. This will enable them to address issues in a timely way by making adjustments to approaches and capitalising on what is working. Organisations need to create an environment that encourages employees to experiment with different approaches, to learn from experience (including mistakes), and develop aspirational targets so that performance improvement can be realised.
If performance management is used as a punitive tool it will discourage employees, groups and organisations from setting stretch / ambitious goals and targets. The tendency will be to focus solely on easily achievable goals, limiting the potential for performance improvement. To facilitate improvement, it is important for organisations to only incur penalties when they have not been tracking progress and have not collected appropriate performance data or do not know why targets have not been achieved (see Metzenbaum, 2009 for work undertaken in the United States).
Crucial to performance improvement and the achievement of high performance is the ability of organisations, groups and individuals to anticipate and adapt to change. To facilitate adaptability to change, organisations can provide mobility opportunities to employees to broaden their knowledge and experience and increase their receptivity to change. They can also ensure that performance agreements are flexible, outcome focused and can be easily updated as priorities change. The ability to adapt to change at all four levels – governance, organisation, group and individual – can also be facilitated by a focus on progress. The focus on progress can be supported by the establishment of stretch goals, continual monitoring of progress against these goals, and the identification of what does and does not work. The ability to monitor progress can be aided by the utilisation of performance information as a tool for obtaining feedback on progress.