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28 Apr High performance memes

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It’s the start of flu season here in Australia and people on trains and in offices are edging warily away from the person coughing and sneezing next to them.

Meanwhile, there are actually some things worth catching from each other.  Ideas and behaviours can also spread like viruses through groups of people.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, coined a term to describe these transferable units of cultural knowledge: ‘memes’.  Some memes can be caught, like colds, from the person sitting next to us on the bus: a catchy tune, a new piece of slang, a cool app glimpsed on a phone.  Most behaviours and ideas, however, require prolonged or repeated exposure to be transferred.  For example, it might take a new employee a week, to learn it’s OK to turn up late to meetings, because they never start on time around here.  Or it might take a month to pick up a colleague’s habit of asking herself ‘what’s best for the customer’ when confronted with a trade-off or decision in the working day.

Some leadership teams are deliberately exploring how high-performers’ behaviours could be spread, like positive viruses through their teams:

Step 1. Find high performers

To begin with, it’s not always easy to identify top-performers.  Most organisations track a number of different metrics and are reluctant to set clear priorities among them.  Agreeing the key elements of ‘high-performance’ can be a useful process in itself, a chance to examine and potentially align priorities between different parts of the business.

Step 2. Identify key behaviours

Next, you need to identify the best practices employed by high-performers in any given area.  For one client in the banking sector, we recently interviewed teams who were out-performing their peers on growth measures, and we separately spoke to the top-performers on retention measures, as well as groups who were especially successful in selling certain products key to the current business strategy.

When we interviewed those staff to understand what they were doing differently, we found one team had developed successful new tactics for cross-selling, another had improved an existing process for identifying clients likely to leave, and so on.  At a later stage, we brought all those together people in a room and had each share their approach for one particular process – on-boarding new clients.  They drew diagrams on a whiteboard, comparing at what intervals each followed up with new clients and in what form.  In 45 minutes, half the room decided to revise their current approach.  If you have active enterprise social network, like Yammer, you may be able to achieve a similar result with online discussions among high-performers.

For another client, this time in the retail sector, we recently brought together champions from across geographically distributed teams.  Over a couple of days together, we worked through some challenges they were encountering in driving a key customer experience initiative.  For each challenge, we saw the same range of performance across the group: a few had tried and failed to solve the problem locally, a majority hadn’t really tried yet, and a small group had found a way.  By comparing experiences across the group, we identified what allowed some to overcome a given challenge, while others hadn’t yet succeeded.  After the session, each champion takes the best practices back to their respective location, and training or other support programs can be developed to address gaps.

Step 3. Disseminate useful memes

These ideas and behaviours can be packaged up and shared in a number of ways with other teams across the client’s network.  We find this is best done in the voice of the employee: filmed interviews, presentations at Town Halls, social media posts from high-performers, even champion roadshows, etc.  People are simply more willing to accept ideas from their peers than from head office, because when I hear it from a colleague who’s making it work, I’ll believe that it’s possible and it can really help.

Awards programs are also a great way to spread best practices – as long as your awards program is identifying and spotlighting specific behaviours that you know lead to high-performance.

The top performers in any given aspect of a role are doing something differently from the rest of the team. Some people have found simple solutions, developed useful tools or picked up good habits, which aren’t magical but make it just that little bit easier to achieve what everyone else is trying to do.  And as we work with teams across Australia and New Zealand, we find that many of these specific practices are transferable, independently of efforts to increase general skills or engagement levels.

In fact, you can start to create real change just by doing the opposite of what we would do to protect ourselves from cold and flu viruses: get people together, have them talk, maybe even share a meal, and pass the whiteboard marker back and forth to each other.

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