Underperformance Needs A Relentless Solution Focus

by Stacey Barr |

Accountability isn’t the answer to underperformance. Performance can only improve with a relentless focus on finding solutions to the constraints that hold performance back.

In his book, “10-Minute Toughness”, sports psychologist Jason Selk says:

“…people spend too much time aiming at the bull’s-eye and not enough time shooting at it. Rather than placing so much emphasis on getting ready and aiming, go ahead and take a shot. Taking the shot gets you started and also lets you gauge how far off the mark you are. Make adjustments, but keep shooting until you get closer and closer, and eventually you will hit the bull’s-eye.”

In business performance management, this means we need to get comfortable with failing before we’ll truly succeed. We need to stare our weaknesses and problems and obstacles straight in the eye and attack them with solutions until they yield to our intentions for high performance. But this means changing a mindset that’s endemic, menacing and unconsciously ingrained in management culture: making excuses.
Excuses and reasons are not the same thing, even though they may refer to the same thing. A management team in the education sector with whom I consulted many years ago had set a goal to grow revenue over a 12 month period, but at no point during those 12 months did we see any kind of improvement at all. They were noticing that other education institutes like them were experiencing revenue falls as well. They saw in their business environment a decline in the numbers of people taking courses.

This management team had two choices. The first choice was the one they made, and it was to use the current business environment as the excuse for not achieving their revenue target, and giving up on it. The second choice was to see that the immediate reason for their revenue problem was in the business environment, and to ask “What can we do to compensate or respond to what’s going on in the business environment, to keep striving for our revenue goal?” The first choice is the easy one, and the second choice is the better one.

Excuses effectively release us from accountability when performance falls short of our goal. They are cop-outs, ‘get out of jail free’ cards. But if we take our goals seriously, surely we’re not going to give up pursuing them at the first sign of trouble, are we? This accountability-releasing excuse-focus is very often a cultural problem, deep in the psyche of the organisation’s people and the acceptable norms of performance management. I’m not sure if it’s fear or complacency or feeling stuck or something else. I do know that people who have this problem-focused attitude achieve very little, either personally or professionally and people who have the opposite of this attitude achieve far and away more.

The opposite of this excuse-focused attitude is not actually an accountability-focused attitude. If we dwell too much on the word ‘accountability’ we just deepen the sense of dread that drives people to find excuses in the first place. The opposite of this excuse-focused attitude is a solution-focused attitude. And as Jason Selk says in his book, it’s actually a relentless solution-focus that’s needed for high performance. We don’t measure performance for the fun of it; we measure performance to dramatically improve performance, to achieve lofty goals and exciting targets that mean the world’s a better place on account of our endeavour. Even though Jason Selk is a sports psychologist, his words are wise for those of us in business too. We need some toughness to break through to high performance, and a relentless solution-focus is the new cultural norm we must practice.

No excuses. Either perform, or don’t.

Do your bit to help shift the culture away from excuses and towards a relentless solution focus. Whenever you hear someone make an excuse for underperformance of any kind, practice asking questions that help them think about how they could find a solution for that obstacle, or make some amount of progress despite it.


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