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The high performance dilemma

“To be and stay a high performing team, we need to focus on our work at hand and become the best at what we do”. It might seem tempting to de-prioritise training and focus on the most urgent tasks. However, if this becomes a habit, you may end up sacrificing future performance. Here is why:

We tend to get quite comfortable in our performance zone. The performance zone is the zone where we are giving our best and have no tolerance for mistakes. This allows us to complete our tasks with utmost efficiency. Over our career, we will grow our skills and at some point in time reach a plateau at which our knowledge and skills only grow marginally. You can compare it with conventional ideas of a career in which you learn a lot during university and when you start the job, but your learning curve starts to decrease over the course of your career.

The below graphic shows the development of our gained knowledge and skills if we spent most of our time with a performance focus in our performance zone. We think we are performing at a high level but cannot maintain the substantial learning curve throughout our careers.

Living in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, the conditions have changed, and we all need to be more adaptable to stay competitive in this fast-changing environment. This requires us to think and work differently or as Peter Drucker puts it "the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic."

Here are some examples of what the strong performance focus can cost you in the mid to long run if you do not also prioritise organizational learning:

Lack of Innovation

If we focus our time and energy on becoming the best at advanced Excel spreadsheets, we might be able to get very efficient at our work. But if we miss the next big innovation that might even make Excel spreadsheets redundant for our area of business, then we face a problem. This is what I call the high-performance dilemma. We are so absorbed in our microcosmos, trying to get even better and more efficient at the work at hand, we lose track of the environment and innovations that might completely change the way we do our jobs. This may leave a team without relevant skills for the near future and below their full potential.

Mindset, Adaptability, and Resilience

Another reason to foster a learning mindset in your organization is to create a culture that values calculated risk-taking and the sharing of what has been learned from previous failures. The more time we can spend in the learning zone, the easier it is to create psychological safety and a culture that values new ideas and progress over perfection. This is imperative in the event of unforeseen circumstances that may impact your business. If your team and organization are used to learning, sharing ideas, and trusting each other, you will be able to bounce back much faster from disruption compared to an organization not practiced in learning culture.

The performance zone is not a bad area per se. What turns it into a dilemma is if we lose focus on learning and spending time in our learning zone. Our performance zone can become our comfort zone. The longer we spend in the performance zone, the harder it gets for us to adapt to new environments and to practice our learning mindset. The more we focus on getting that last 10% of ultimate efficiency, the more likely we are to not see a more effective, new way of doing something. As we become more accustomed to the learning zone and a learning mindset, it becomes easier to deal with setbacks.

This graphic shows the knowledge gap between professionals that spend most of their time in the performance zone and those who see a regular learning zone as one of their priorities.

You might not see a big difference in a week or even one month of focusing on your learning zone. However, adding a learning zone to the routine of your team will make a difference, with skills accumulating over time, enhancing the learning mindset and adaptability to VUCA challenges.

It is essential, for the success of your team and organization, to move into a learning zone and allow for a learning mindset to develop as a basis for organizational learning.

Are you ready to move out of your comfort zone and make organizational learning a priority?


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