The road to high performance - why is it so hard?

In 2006 HBR published a review of 10 major studies which have since tried to develop a theory of high performance: the search for the Holy Grail [1] continues. 

Of course, ‘excellence’ lists are fraught.  In the 10 years after Jim Collins’ Good to Great just 6 of their 18 ‘visionary companies’ managed to outperform the Dow Jones Industrial Average: the other 12 have apparently gone from great to merely okay[2]. 

An emerging commodity business recently ask me: “Can we map out a pathway to high performance?”  Integrating the results of my research and the work of others I compiled my own ‘theory’.  It has four simple elements:

  1. Strategy & Coherence… it is impossible to imagine a high performance organisation if the entire leadership team is not pulling together in the one direction

  2. Structure & Contribution … requires clarity of around shorter term organisational direction, structure and accountabilities, and individual role boundaries.  Without clarity there is confusion. 

  3. Systems & Processes … simple, non-bureaucratic systems and processes that enable ordinary people to deliver consistent, repeatable execution. 

  4. Discipline & Rigour … practises that instil discipline & rigour into our everyday performance and conversations provide feedback and create the foundation for trust. 

This seems simple enough.  But if this is the pathway, why do so many firms struggle to achieve ‘excellence’.  The truth is many businesses do some of these things reasonably well, most of the time. 

However, Paul Roos, a highly respected AFL coach, recently observed that Geelong’s status as a high performing team over the last decade came about not because they had some ‘magic dust’, but because they executed their game plan relentlessly and consistently.   

Excellence is also possible for those firms that execute these essential practises consistently and relentlessly.  Of course, this is not a 12 month ‘initiative’.  Ask Geelong! 


[1] Kirby, J. (2005). Toward a theory of high performance. Harvard Business Review, 83(7/8), 30-39.

[2] Hamel, G., & Valikangas, L. (2003). The Quest for Resilience. Harvard Business Review, 81(9), 52-63.