Practicing Masterful Performance Technology

by Feb 28, 2019Complexity & Simplicity, Managing People & Organizations, Performance Management

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a card carrying practitioner.  It’s been that way from the beginning.  Starting in the US Army in 1975, working in the 9th Infantry Division. I started in tactical intelligence.  High demand assessment environment. Little time. Fragmented data. Urgent needs for prediction. Wrong conclusions extremely hazardous to your health.  Later with an innovative Army office called OE (Organization Effectiveness).  Moving forward through a blizzard of acronyms over three decades.  ISD during the early 80’s supervising training efforts for refinery and nuclear plant construction.  OD in supporting municipal government and utility restructuring in the late 80s.  Call it anything you like during the hectic 1990s in post communist Czechoslovakia.  Driving relentlessly to turn order-takers into retail and industrial sales professionals.  Hanging in there with PT and its confusing definitions at the turn of the century.  Currently helping to define the uses of HICD (Human Institutional Capacity Development) slowly being adapted within the international donor aid programs.

I’ve seen a lot of data. Designed many interventions. Building on the scaffolding of rigor in research.  Riding that interface where analysis translates into value for end users. All those years focused on cranking out results… using whatever methodology seemed to work.  Sure, I immersed myself in all the basics – Drucker, Gilbert, Forrester, Mager, Blanchard, Rummler… the list goes on.  I devoured the literature, attended conferences, published a few articles. But, ultimately I am a practitioner.  I supply critical recommendations that senior managers need now. I take what seems to work, merge complementary tools together, give credit where it seems appropriate, push the process forward with the client. 

The Challenge Today

Lately, I have found myself working in more challenging assignments. Real mega work.  Kaufmanesque earth-shaking societal impacts.  Assisting institutions in poorly transitioning societies.  The funding always limited versus the yowling needs.  The odds of success, true sustainable success, stacked against me. How can I attack massive problems in short time frames, with limited budget?  I find myself more and more looking at our profession.  Certainly this is a science, or rather applied technology.  The science provides the foundation for what we do.  But, more and more, I see also a certain art to the style of practice.

Brethower reminds me to consider aspects of Snow’s two cultures.  His highly influential thesis in the late 50s. The fear of a breakdown between humanities and the sciences.  A certain competition. In some cases a distain.  But, coupled with this, his certainty that both are needed to address the complex issues.  Applied engineering, joined with artistic craft. Absolutely necessary to address human- created industrial age challenges. These challenges only multiplying moving into the digital age.

The Music Metaphor

I’ve been drawn to the metaphor of music composition and execution.  There are those who lean toward the grand composition.  Music as math, as science.  The most relevant example being a Haydn piece – exactly structured 4 movements.  Trustworthy and proven. A symphonic approach to assessment and applied interventions.  The approach requires very thorough planning.  Exhaustive and validated lists of questions.  Complex hierarchies of analysis.  Extensive direction and control of the process with the client.  The vacuuming up of all available data for analysis and mapping – all in the pursuit of the elusive performance gap. 

Very useful for strategic forecasting.  Long time horizons.  Proper funding. It is the perfect setting for grooming the young talent.  Sound frameworks.  Simple, elegant tools.  Gaining mastery through practice.  Mapping one step of the process after the other.  A very effective way to learn the tools and methods.  Surefire. Thorough.  And so damn expensive.

For me at least, after many years in the business, I question that it is most effective in all cases. Especially in the tactical area.  The day-to-day operations. Where the rubber hits the road.

At some stage, the advancing expert begins to look for more.  More results faster at less energy and cost. Many prefer to maintain the emphasis on the grand composition and symphony.  There is certain symmetry to its form and elegance.  Slowly working through levels incrementally – job, process, organization.  Collecting data and implementing interventions sequentially.  Truly a science.

But, there is the practitioner who understands the need for another style.  Never dismissing the theoretical foundations, there is the urge to find the key results quickly in assignments.  On the tactical level, this is sometimes in the form of first aid. Stop the bleeding.  Heal the major wounds.  Keep the patient alive so they can survive for more complex or rigorous interventions.  And, also a method that works for the long term fix.  How does the practitioner do this? Can one trust in the depth of grounded experience in applying the technology?  Translating experience into incisive observation through constant training and reflection? Importantly, coming to accept the realistic absorption rate of each client to make change. 

Thus, I have found myself in the past decade perfecting my own style of craft. Using the music metaphor – a form like modern jazz.  Like most jazz, it is difficult to comprehend until you experience it.  Some people cannot stand it.  It drives them crazy. But for me, it stimulates thinking.  It challenges my edges.

It all starts from a foundation of the classics.  Then gives rise to a wide diversity of style and elegant orchestration. It is tuned in to the fluidity of living systems.  The focus on clients served in small venues.  Available to those with great need. But lacking the patronage to afford full orchestral composition.  Lower upfront cost.  Still faithful to the art and science of skillful PT.  Results with value that matter.

Curious to take a look at the PT Jazz method?  Download here for the full description and application.

The article was originally published on Performance Improvement (Volume 49 – Number 9) and it has been republished with author’s permission.

Cite as:

Kelly, S. J. (2019) Practicing Masterful Performance Technology. Being Better Matters 28 February. Available at (accessed: date of your access)

Authors profile:

Steven Kelly

Steven is a senior partner with KNO Worldwide, and has worked in performance improvement since the late 1970s. His early years were spent in organization development, assessment and training delivery. During the last three and a half decades, since his re-location to Central Europe in 1991, he has expanded his efforts to include institutional and capacity building, management of large-scale organizational change efforts, performance assessments, and evaluation of project success or ROI.

Articles published on Being Better Matters