Defining and Creating a High Performance Organisation

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Australian Journal of Management & Organisational Behaviour, 4(1), 100-106 
© L. Willcoxson 
Dr Lesley Willcoxson 
Although the number of books on the topic would seem to indicate the existence of clearly 
defined strategies for achieving organisational high performance, the concept of high 
performance is in fact subject to diverse interpretations. This paper will examine the 
concepts of high performance arising from a humanistic and from a rational process 
framework, before looking at the leadership issues associated with each of these 
frameworks and the impact of context upon the capacity for high performance. Finally, 
discussion will focus upon actions and leverage points that have the potential to impact 
fundamentally upon performance. 
organisational high performance; organisational effectiveness; effective leadership; 
leadership roles.
In any discussion of high performance, whether it be in Olympic swimming events, in 
examination results, or in the financial or service performance of an organisation, high 
performance is defined in relation to a pre-determined set of expectations or in contrast with the 
achievements of others. Organisational high performance may similarly be assessed by 
comparing the achievement of several organisations in specific measurable areas (e.g. production 
output, number of clients seen, percentage increase in profit), or by assessing the performance of 
the whole organisation against a pre-determined set of expectations. While the basis for 
comparison on measurable factors is necessarily explicit, the expectations underlying much 
discussion of whole organisation high performance (e.g., Peters & Waterman 1982; Collins & 
Porras 1994) are rarely made explicit, as will be discussed in this paper. 
The paper commences by examining the concept of organisational high performance with 
reference to the assumptions made about organisational best practice, about organisational 
effectiveness, and about how to achieve organisational change. Subsequent discussion will focus 
upon the effect of context and leadership upon performance. Finally, a summary outline of issues 
in achieving high performance will be presented. 
Dr Lesley Willcoxson is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Human Resource Management & Employment 
Relations. She lectures in the areas of organisational behaviour and human resource management. Defining & Creating a High Performance Organisation Willcoxson 
In management research and practice, as in any field of study and work, there exist diverse 
theoretical and philosophical approaches and these approaches condition the research questions 
asked and the recommendations subsequently made. A clear example of the impact of the 
approach taken is provided by the fall from grace of transactional leadership (associated both in 
time and substance with Tayloristic, mechanistic views of organisations) and its replacement in 
research activity and recommended practice by transformational leadership (associated with 
views of organisations as human systems). A less clear, but nonetheless similar divergence of 
approach also exists in literature relating to high performance, for high performance is variously 
described with a predominant emphasis upon sociological and psychological outcomes or upon 
the technical and â€Ã‹Å“bottom lineâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢ financial outcomes. This predominant emphasis does not deny the 
likelihood of some effort being made to achieve other outcomes, but it does imply that 
organisational high performance will be assessed with greater reference to one particular set of 
variables, associated either with a humanistic framework or a with rational process framework. 
When high performance is assessed by researchers or practitioners working within a humanistic 
framework â€Ã¢€Â exemplified by concepts such as the learning organisation (Senge 1990; Watkins & 
Marsick 1993; Starkey 1996) or the principled organisation (Covey 1999) â€Ã¢€Â high performance 
will be attributed to organisations which value, trust and empower their people, work 
collaboratively, and connect effectively with the wider community through, for example, the 
involvement of stakeholders external to the organisation. While not denying the importance of 
financial and productivity returns, organisational effectiveness goals within the humanistic 
framework are likely to emphasise either the effectiveness of the organisation as a social system 
located within the wider community, or the reconciliation and effective use of competing values 
(Robbins & Barnwell 1994), leading to workplace harmony. Organisational change strategists 
working within a humanistic framework are likely to perceive organisational culture as the key to 
organisational success or failure and, therefore, work to achieve cultural change in order to 
facilitate change in other areas. In any case, change processes will probably involve a holistic, 
participative approach designed to enhance performance through increased competence, rather 
than through the implementation of structures and systems pre-determined as necessary. As in 
the change process described by Tichy (1982), change will be predicated upon the assumption 
that an organisation is composed of interdependent elements not readily manipulable through a 
sequential planned change approach. 
When high performance is assessed by researchers or practitioners working within a framework 
that may be loosely described as a rational process framework â€Ã¢€Â exemplified by discussion of 
high performance organisations (Hanna 1988; Neusch & Siebenaler 1993), visionary companies 
(Collins & Porras 1994) and excellent companies (Peters & Waterman 1982) â€Ã¢€Â high 
performance will be attributed to organisations which exhibit characteristics such as the ability to 
interpret the business environment, the ability to foresee and act upon new business opportunities, 
the flexibility necessary to maintain â€Ã‹Å“core valuesâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢ while adjusting output to meet new market 
demands or conditions, and the willingness to implement employee remuneration strategies such 
as stock ownership schemes which increase productivity and financial returns to the organisation. Australian Journal of Management & Organisational Behaviour Volume 4, No. 1 2000 
Organisational effectiveness is likely to be characterised in terms of the attainment of specified 
goals such as financial or productivity outcomes and the satisfaction of strategic constituencies 
such as owners, shareholders, customers, suppliers and creditors (Robbins & Barnwell 1994). In 
keeping with the emphasis upon rational processes, organisational change strategists who work 
within this framework are likely to perceive the organisation in terms of discrete elements, such 
as those comprising the 7S model â€Ã¢€Â structure, strategy, systems, skills, shared values, style, and 
staff â€Ã¢€Â proposed by Peters and Waterman (1982). For these change strategists, organisational 
change will usually depend upon rational diagnosis of functional and dysfunctional elements of 
an organisation, and a subsequent sequential, planned change process targeting dysfunctional 
elements, described by Collins (1998) as n-step guides. 
Despite the deliberately disparate characterisation of approaches to high performance presented 
above, it must again be noted that researchers and practitioners working within the humanistic 
framework do not neglect to aim for viable technical and financial outcomes, and those working 
within a rational process framework do not neglect to effectively engage and use their human 
resources. Nevertheless, the literature examining high performance currently tends to 
characterise organisational success with greater reference either to technical and financial, or to 
human outcomes. It generally fails to translate into performance criteria insights available from 
systems theory which conceives of an organisation as a social and a technical system operating 
within a larger ecosystem. 
In keeping with diverse emphases upon rational and human processes, it might be expected that 
the leadership considered appropriate for high performance would be characterised differently in 
accordance with the underpinning management philosophy. In practice, however, while 
transformational leadership is undoubtedly currently more strongly associated with humanistic 
values (Sarros et al. 1996) than is transactional leadership, there is little to suggest that either style 
of leadership is necessarily inimical to or predictive of high performance. As researchers working 
within either the humanistic framework or the rational process framework point out, while all 
leaders of high performance organisations are powerful builders or reinforcers of sustainable 
human, technical and resource systems, not all leaders of high performance organisations are 
charismatic or transformational (Collins & Porras 1994; Nelson 1999; Pfeffer 1999). 
The extent to which effective leadership is context-dependent means that there is no one way to 
build a high performance organization and no one leadership style associated with high 
performance. Thus, for example, while participative management is likely to be associated with 
high performance, especially in bureaucratic or service organisations where leaders typically have 
to achieve their ends by the use of persuasion rather than power, participative management is not 
necessarily associated with high performance (Leavy & Wilson 1994). Fundamentally, as Jaques 
and Clement (1991, p. 7) observe in relation to the exercise of leadership throughout an 
everyone is capable of exercising effective leadership in roles that carry leadership accountability, 
so long as they value the role and are competent to carry the basic requirements of that role, and so Defining & Creating a High Performance Organisation Willcoxson 
long as that role is properly structured and the organization has properly instituted practices ... [in 
leadership] the prime ability is that required for carrying the total work of the particular type of role 
and role relationships within which the leadership accountability happens to be embedded 
Leadership roles and relationships may be different in organisations that value empowerment and 
customer service to those in organisations that value efficiency and return to shareholders. 
Organisational high performance is not necessarily associated with any one clearly definable set 
of leader characteristics, but rather will in large part be determined by the capacity of the leader to 
respond appropriately to the internal and external context of the organisation. 
Discussion of leadership and high performance often implies an ability to predict relevant 
environmental influences and also implies a human capacity for control over the environment. 
(e.g. Hanna 1998; Hammer & Champy 1993; see Collins 1998) However, as is so clearly 
demonstrated by Peters and Watermanâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢s (1982) investigation of high performing organisations â€Ã¢€Â 
which within a decade had lost their way in the marketplace â€Ã¢€Â studies of high performing 
organisations are often decontextualised. They usually represent either a snapshot of 
organisational performance at a particular time or a description of internal processes and values 
compiled without reference to the external environmental conditions which may prejudice or 
promote success. Thus, the set of generic principles commonly generated by such studies do not 
adequately reflect the extent to which unpredictable political or social conditions may influence 
or constrain the action of a leader. Similarly, generic principles of high performance have no 
regard for the role that organisational history and culture may play in circumscribing potential 
action or determining the effectiveness of any action taken (Leavy & Wilson 1994), and, 
therefore, their usefulness must be called into question. As many writers have noted, in a 
turbulent environment one of the greatest predictors of high performance â€Ã¢€Â or even of survival 
â€Ã¢€Â is adaptability, especially of human systems and interactions (Limerick & Cunnington 1993; 
Conner 1998). 
In addition to the impact of the external context upon an organisationâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢s capacity for high 
performance, the internal context of an organisation also strongly influences its capacity for high 
performance. As Lenz (1993) argues, the size of an organisation, its existing structure, levels of 
competence and the distribution of power in an organisation may all facilitate or militate against 
development of high performance. Thus, high performance actually rests not on the capacity, for 
example, to establish a â€Ã‹Å“learning organisationâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢ or a visionary company as ideally conceptualised 
in the literature, but rather on the capacity to draw upon or build internal strengths, minimise the 
impact of internal weaknesses, and take action which is timely and effective given the 
characteristics and requirements of the external environment. 
As suggested above there are no clear guidelines that, when followed, will necessarily result in 
the development of a high performance organisation. However, it is possible to identify some Australian Journal of Management & Organisational Behaviour Volume 4, No. 1 2000 
actions and some leverage points that have the potential to impact fundamentally upon 
As a starting point, given the diverse criteria that may be used to assess high performance, there is 
a need to identify guiding philosophical precepts as well as organisational effectiveness indicators 
and characteristics and goals of the type of organization aspired to. Areas to be considered 
include internal structures, technical, human, communication and resourcing systems, as well as 
interactions with the wider environment. A comparison of the current organisational profile with 
that of the organisation aspired to should provide an indication of areas for change, but the pace 
of change (radical or incremental) and the change process will be affected in large measure by the 
existing internal environment, organisational culture and leadership support. Adjustments that 
may be made within the human systems area to increase both performance and adaptability will 
encompass processes such as selection, reward, appraisal, work allocation, work roles, strategic 
alliances and interactions. 
Leadership also needs to be considered in light of the existing abilities and styles of leadership 
compared with those required to develop and sustain the type of organisation aspired to. If 
initiative, empowerment and leadership are to be embedded throughout organization, issues such 
as the extent to which leadership control should be ceded and the areas in which it should be 
ceded need to be addressed. These issues cannot be addressed in a vacuum, but rather must be 
reviewed with reference to the underpinning approach to management, the type of organisation 
aspired to and the practicalities of implementation within the existing organisation. The training 
and development work necessary to achieve high performance must be outlined, together with 
any anticipated obstacles to implementation and strategies for overcoming these. Finally, 
evaluation processes need to be put in place: strategies for obtaining continuous feedback on 
success with respect to both hard and soft factors should be developed, as should strategies for 
implementing any further necessary change. 
Despite the prevalence of literature indicating that high performance is associated with a given 
organisational model, high performance is not a construct free of value judgements. The 
assessment of high performance is actually dependent upon the measurement criteria selected and 
these are in turn derived from the underlying philosophy of management. Although, within a 
given approach to management, the implementation of certain strategies and structures may be 
more likely than others to produce high performance, there are no guarantees that this will be the 
case. Performance is subject to influence from a variety of factors including not just internal 
elements such as organisational culture, structures, processes and leadership, but also external 
elements that are far less predictable. High performance, therefore, irrespective of the approach 
to management adopted, necessarily depends upon the alignment of internal systems with the 
larger ecosystem within which the organisation is located. Defining & Creating a High Performance Organisation Willcoxson 
Collins, D. 1998, â€Ã‹Å“N-step Guides for Changeâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢, Organisational Change: Sociological 
Perspectives, Routledge, London. 
Collins, J. & Porras, J. 1994, Built to Last, Century, London. 
Conner, D. 1998, Leading at the Edge of Chaos, John Wiley & Sons, New York. 
Covey, S. 1999, â€Ã‹Å“The Habits of Effective Organizationsâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢ in Leader to Leader, F. Hesselbein & P. 
Cohen (eds), Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 
Hanna, D. 1988. Designing Organizations for High Performance, Addison-Wesley, 
Hammer, M. & Champy, J. 1993, Reengineering the Corporation, HarperCollins, New York. 
Jaques, E. & Clement, S. 1991, Executive Leadership. Blackwell, Massachusetts. 
Leavy, B. & Wilson, D. 1994, Strategy and Leadership, Routledge, London. 
Lenz, R. T. 1993, â€Ã‹Å“Strategic Management and Organizational Learning: A Meta-theory of 
Executive Leadershipâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢, in Strategic Thinking, eds J. Hendry, G. Johnson & J. Newton, John 
Wiley & Sons, Chichester. 
Limerick, D. & Cunnington, B. 1993, Managing the New Organisation, Business & Professional 
Publishing, Sydney. 
Nelson, B. 1999, â€Ã‹Å“Creating an Energised Workplaceâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢, in Leader to Leader, F. Hesselbein & P. 
Cohen (eds), Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 
Neusch, D. & Siebenaler, A. 1993, The High Performance Enterprise, Oliver Wight Publications, 
Peters, T. & Waterman, R. 1982, In Search of Excellence, Harper & Row, Sydney. 
Pfeffer, J. 1999, â€Ã‹Å“The Real Keys to High Performanceâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢, in Leader to Leader, F. Hesselbein & P. 
Cohen (eds), Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 
Robbins, S. & Barnwell, N. 1994, Organisation Theory in Australia, Prentice Hall, Sydney. 
Sarros, J., Butchatsky, O. & Santora, J. 1996, â€Ã‹Å“Breakthrough Leadershipâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢, in Leadership Research 
and Practice, K. Parry (ed.), Pitman Publishing, Melbourne. 
Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, 
Random House, Sydney. Australian Journal of Management & Organisational Behaviour Volume 4, No. 1 2000 
Starkey, K. (ed.) 1996, How Organizations Learn, International Thomson Business Press, 
Tichy, N. 1982, â€Ã‹Å“Managing Change Strategically: The Technical, Political and Cultural Keysâ€Ã¢â€žÂ¢, 
Organizational Dynamics, Autumn. 
Watkins, K. & Marsick, V. 1993, Sculpting the Learning Organization, Jossey-Bass, San 

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