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The pattern is everything. In the movie The Imitation Game, a young woman makes a joke about a pattern in the code she intercepts from a particular German radio operator. She thinks nothing of it, but that pattern, and the ability to see it for its significance, allows the team at Bletchley Park to finally crack Enigma, immediately changing the tide of World War II. The movie version is very dramatic, but in real life it happened essentially the same way: once the codebreakers were able to recognize a small but critical pattern in the enciphered messages, they could set about breaking the code.

While the dynamic isn’t nearly as dangerous, it’s possible to draw a few parallels between the German U-boat radio operators and the British team at Bletchley Park and today’s leaders and their teams. Teams in every organization constantly send signals about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and the leaders are left to suss out the signal from the noise. This could mean that very valuable information is left undetected.

It’s time to ask yourself: Are you capturing all the information coming in from your high performers every day? Are you analyzing it? Are you finding the patterns that help you crack the code?

For so many organizations, performance improvement has become something of a stalemate. We wag our finger at underperformers and then point at the high performers, saying, “Why can’t you be more like them?” We showcase our highest achievers at annual conferences or in company-wide webinars and ask them to tell us what makes them so great. After all, since their work is so exceptional, they must have some tricks of the trade to share, right? But there are two fundamental problems with this approach to learning.

Issue #1: There’s no proof that practice is the best.

We’re asking the people doing the job to tell us what makes them good at their job. We think we’re asking a simple question, but really we’re asking them to do a mental inventory of everything they do in their role each day and analyze those tasks to determine which are the most uniquely effective in driving their performance. We expect them to know which of their actions are unique so they can tell us all what’s setting them apart from the rest.

Yet, studies have proven that people are unable to accurately self-report on everything from phone usage to exercise. Your employees overlook parts of their work and inflate other aspects all the time. High performers can rarely pinpoint and articulate what makes them the best.

Don’t ask them to! A stronger, more valuable approach is to collect data and observations from a set of high performers and a set of mid-performers and look for where the two diverge. If all your high performers are doing something your mid-performers aren’t, you’ve now isolated a potential driver of performance.

Issue #2: That best practice isn’t a real practice.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been given a list of personality traits when I ask what leaders think make a high performer. We so often fail to see the practice signal through the personality noise.

This anchoring to personality shows up all the time in best-practice-sharing. Typical best-practice-sharing centers on a high performer recounting their approach to something. We see the guy with the boisterous personality at the front of the room talking about how he calls everyone “champ” and invites a different set of team members each month to play a round. We start to paint the role in his image, believing that you can only bring out the best in your team if you show the same joviality and spend some time together on the putting green. How on earth does the mild-mannered non-golfer in the back replicate this “best practice”? She can’t. And she’s at a loss as to what to do next.

Only when you start to look across the high performers for the patterns can you truly find the scalable practices that drive performance – the practices that can be executed regardless of personal attributes.

If you had looked across multiple high performers, you might have seen that while this guy plays golf with team members, another leader invites team members to join a business book club, and yet another carves out break time to share a coffee and get to know each member of their team. Meanwhile, average performers are saying their policy is “leave your personal life at the door” and priding themselves on keeping it “just business.” The underlying high-performing practice is: get to know your team members in an informal setting. Our terrible golfer can figure out a way to do that!

Pattern recognition is critical to breaking through to the scalable practices of high performers. With advancements in data and reporting, it’s easier than ever to determine what a high performer looks like in quantitative terms, but the organizations that accelerate performance the fastest go beyond numbers into the behavioral patterns. Try listening closely among the dots and dashes – there’s pure gold waiting to be discovered and embedded into lasting change.

Bridget Stallkamp is Managing Director, Accenturewith over 17 years of experience and expertise working with G2000 organizations on unlocking human potential, leadership alignment, and successful strategy activation.

August 14, 2023

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