Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation


Observing for Top Performer Outcomes

Observing for Top Performer OutcomesSurely the best method for identifying top performer outcomes is to watch top performers. It sounds simple, but it works. By watch them, we mean to observe them as they do their work in their normal work environment.

If the normal work environment is a call center, then sit next to them, listen to calls, and watch how they use their IT systems and any documentation around them. Pay particular attention to any handwritten job aids. If a top performer thinks something is important enough to write down, then it usually is a critical item that would benefit other performers.

If the normal work environment requires interfacing with customers (e.g., an outside sales rep) then the ideal method is to accompany the reps on customer calls. See what they do before, during, and after each customer interaction. For instance, what notes do they take and how do they document any follow-actions?

Sometimes the normal work environment is challenging for observations. We’ve worked with top performers everywhere from refineries where we had to take special training and don lots of protective gear to tugboats escorting loaded tankers through Alaskan waters in winter temperatures and very uncomfortable sea conditions. But in every case, we’ve learned a tremendous amount from being present with the top performer and seeing firsthand all of the hints and tricks they leverage.



Questions to ponder:

– Where do your top performers work their magic? Have you observed them as they do their work? What have you learned from your observations?


Interviewing for Top Performer Outcomes

Interviewing for Top Performer OutcomesHow can you find out what outcomes your top performers focus on? The first, and perhaps most obvious, approach is to ask them. Interviewing is a key technique and is usually the starting point for our discovery process.

Top performer interviews differ from other common interviews we usually conduct. For most of us, our interviewing experience is mostly based on interviewing candidates for a position to select the best candidate. In that case, we are attempting to determine whether someone is qualified and, if so, which of the candidates is most qualified.

When interviewing top performers, we are trying to learn what they already know. That requires developing a great deal of rapport and trust during the interview so the performers will open up and frankly discuss how they think about their work.

The most common technique we use is called a framing session. We call it that because we are trying to frame up in our minds the broad outlines of the job through the eyes of the top performer. We commonly ask this person to walk us through a day (or shift or week or month or whatever other time frame makes sense) in his or her life.

As top performers discuss their perspectives on that day, we probe for answers to the following questions:

  • What did they do (tasks)?
  • What did they produce as a result of those tasks (outcomes)?
  • Why did they do a particular task (stimulus)?
  • How did they know when they were done with a thing (success criteria)?
  • What either helps or hinders them (facilitators or barriers)?
  • Who did they collaborate with (team)?

At this early stage, we aren’t focused on getting every detail of every outcome. We just want to get a rough outline of the work so we can identify places to drill into later.


Questions to ponder:

  • How would you describe your job in terms of the bullet points above? Could you?


Uncovering Top Performer Outcomes

Uncovering Top Performer OutcomesA theme running through our book, The New Game Changers, and all our blog posts and discussions is the idea of uncovering the outcomes focused on by top performers. But how is that accomplished; how are those critical outcomes uncovered?

As usual in questions dealing with people, the answer is both simple and complex. Simple because top performers are already focused on the critical outcomes. That means they have current practices that can be observed, discussed, and documented. Complex because top performers rarely think about what they do—they simply do what they do. Top performers usually are what we call unconsciously competent. They do the right things but aren’t really aware of how what they do differs from what others do. The most common answer we get from top performers when asked what makes them stand out among their peers is “Hmm, I’m not really sure. I’ve never really thought about it before.”

But clearly they are top performers for a reason, actually several reasons. First, they focus on different things. Second, and perhaps not as obvious, they don’t waste valuable time on anything that doesn’t matter. And third, they have discovered particular ways of accomplishing those critical outcomes, ways that get around or through the artificial barriers that so often seem to stop other performers.

In the next series of blog posts, we’ll discuss ways that have proven successful at uncovering the critical outcomes of your top performers.


Question to ponder:

  • How you would uncover and document top performer outcomes for a critical role in your organization?

What Good Are Competency Models?

Competency ModelsIn our last blog post, we discussed the things wrong with competency models.  Namely, they are typically

  • too general
  • poorly targeted
  • not especially helpful for improving performance

But then we said we don’t think competency models are a waste of time.  So what gives? If there’s so much wrong with competency models, what good are they?

As usual, the answer lies in the question. Competency models describe general competencies someone should have. But they don’t help people become competent. There’s a big difference between competency and competence.

Competence, we would argue, is the proven ability to do something now. But a competency is the general potential to do something in the future. And therein lies the clue for how competency models can be used effectively: they can filter a candidate pool to find those people who are more likely to be able to succeed in a particular role.  If there are a thousand applicants for three openings, organizations need a way to winnow that pool to a more manageable level. Competencies can be an effective tool to do that.

In fact, we encourage organizations to combine a competency model to identify candidates who have the potential to succeed in a given role with an outcome model of the same job to identify those candidates who have actual experience in similar roles. In other words, the competency model can identify potential, and the outcome model can identify competence.


Question to ponder:

  • Are you using competency models to identify potential or are you depending on them to drive competence?

What’s Wrong with Competency Models?

Image courtesy of pakorn at

Image courtesy of pakorn at

For the last several years, competency models have been all the rage in corporate training and development shops. They have promised a more structured approach to equipping the professional workforce. Despite this alluring promise, we think the competency model concept has some significant weaknesses.

First off, what is a competency model? What are competencies? Competencies are generally defined as all of the things required to perform a specific job. A competency model is simply the list of discrete items (usually ten to thirty) that comprise each job. Sounds good, right? So what’s the problem?

First of all, most competency models tend to be so general as to be largely meaningless. What does it mean to have the competency of customer insights and understanding? Or business analysis? Both of those are common competencies specified for many jobs. But what do they mean when applied on the job? Customer insights would mean one thing for a customer-service role and something quite different for a product marketer and yet something else for a brand marketer. Specificity matters!

Second, who are the models’ intended users? Are they developed for the training organization to write courseware or for the human resources talent acquisition team to help select candidates or for the business management side for managing and coaching their teams? We’ve found that no one really benefits as much as they could or should.

Third, and most importantly, what should performers do with the information contained in the models? We believe the key to improving performance should lie with the conversation between the front-line performer and his or her manager. That means any models should be actionable by that performer. Specific information should be provided about expectations in the role, how to meet those expectations, and a path to continue improving in specific ways. That information should also enable supervisors to evaluate performance in measurable ways and to have meaningful conversations to help performers improve.

So are competency models a waste of time? No, not completely. But that’s a subject of another post.


Questions to ponder:

  • Is your organization using a competency model? If so, is it helping? How are you using it to help improve performance?

Seven Ways our Industry Is Moving from Learning to Performance

PerformanceWe wanted to connect today about the wonderful experience we recently had at Elliott Masie’s Learning 2015 conference. Elliott and this conference celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the conference being held at the Disney properties in Orlando, Florida. The venue certainly fit the upbeat and forward-looking theme of the conference. We found it quite refreshing to reflect on the evolution of the industry over the past twenty-five years. In short, the conference and the industry has moved from a focus on learning—roughly defined as packing more knowledge into participants’ heads—to a focus on performance—the application of reason and skills to successfully accomplish value-added tasks for the organization. Let’s look at seven significant moves in the industry:

  1. Less emphasis is being placed on knowledge. Knowledge has become ubiquitous. Access to answers of common as well as obscure questions is only a Google- or Bing-search away. Information that used to be presented in carefully structured lesson plans and later in e-learning modules has been commoditized and as such has lost much of its value.
  2. Performance support has become a commonly accepted practice. The emphasis has shifted from acceptance of the concept of specific task-based guidance accessed at the time and place of need to the development of new and creative delivery methods for the approach.
  3. Learning activities or events are becoming ever more social. The emphasis has shifted to creating deeper levels of understanding and application through human-to-human conversation either synchronously or asynchronously.
  4. Technology provides power. It is finally able to deliver on the promise that we have all envisioned since the advent of PCs in the workplace. The challenge now is how to focus the power that is at our fingertips.
  5. The shine on gamification has faded. The corporate learner in general is not enamored by the siren song of delivering learning through “games”— though some of the techniques used to create a good game can be successfully applied to elements of the corporate learning journey.
  6. Blended learning carries real weight. The single-event learning episode is dead. Impact in the workplace is best delivered through an orchestrated series of insights, skills, and practice applications held together by intentional scaffolding, all wrapped in the performer’s context.
  7. Work has resurfaced as the true focus. In the corporate world, learning for learning’s sake does not add value to the organization. The intent, nature, and context of the work provides both the framework and the focus required to improve performance in the workplace.

The seventh item has been the focus of our work over the last twenty years. Developing methods and tools to bring out the few things that truly matter when equipping workers to perform at their very best is what drives our study and commitment to understanding how individual roles create value in the organization.

Detour on the Road to Knowledge-Based Learning

11While recently staying in central London, I asked the hotel concierge about calling a taxi for a 5:00 a.m. departure to the airport. The conversation was simple and short.

“Yes, sir, we can hail a taxi for you in the morning.”

“How much should I expect the taxi fare to be?”

“About 90 or 95 pounds. Or I can call you a car, and it will only cost you 55 pounds,” he added with just a hint of hesitation.

“If you can assure me that the car will be here at 5:00 a.m., I’ll take that option.”

“Yes, sir. He will be here. I’ll book it for you. What’s your room number?”

The following morning I was met by an enterprising young man who greeted me at the door with a warm hello and smile, took my bag to his car, and quickly launched us on our journey to Heathrow.

As we passed some streets that were new to me despite many previous trips to the airport, I glanced up at my driver, who had just touched the screen on the global positioning system (GPS) mounted in the corner of his windshield. A few moments later he changed course to follow the spoken and visual suggestion of the GPS system he was obviously following.

As the young driver continued to navigate the relatively quiet streets of early-morning London, my mind drifted back to my first trip to the city nearly ten years earlier. In the preparations for my visit I ran across a story about the grueling studies required of aspiring taxi drivers to qualify for one of the scarce taxi licenses available. The London taxi driver exam is legendary, in fact, according to a recent article by Jody Rosen:

“The examination to become a London cabby is possibly the most difficult test in the world — demanding years of study to memorize the labyrinthine city’s 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them.”

The comparison was stark. Years of dedicated study and testing had been replaced by a three-by-five-inch electronic gadget mounted on the windshield. This change meant my driver was focused not on memorizing the challenging street grid of London, but rather on timely arrival at the hotel, a pleasant greeting, and safe driving following the electronic voice of his “taxi tutor.”

To put it bluntly, the very knowledge that had been the linchpin of a profession a few short years earlier was made obsolete by ubiquitous access to guided information through an inexpensive navigation gadget. This fact raises several important and highly relevant questions for those of us in the learning business.

Just how important are programs designed to impart raw knowledge, product knowledge, or procedural knowledge?

What technological aids are available to help bridge the knowledge gap?

And if pure memorization of knowledge is no longer as relevant in job performance, what is important?

What are the differentiators, the elements that really matter to create high levels of performance in jobs, particularly in customer-facing jobs, today?

How do we uncover what drives performance and business results in today’s dynamic work environment?



Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Richard Hedrick at


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