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Performance and Structure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
November 22, 2016

The responsibility of managers – perhaps the most important responsibility – is to ensure and improve both individual and organizational performance. There are many ways to improve performance. One often tried by managers is to change the structure.

figures-1010678_640Changing structure may mean only moving employees between units, and renaming those units. This usually is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, for little if anything changes in the way individuals work for or relate to the organization and it may ignore that the ship is critically damaged. Other structural changes may include increasing or decreasing the number of employees, the number of operational units, or the number or nature of job tasks.

Significant structural change, however, consists of changing the fundamental ways in which the organization approaches, completes and reviews work. This kind of change affects leadership behaviors, organizational processes and individual employee expectations.

Such a fundamental structural change is happening in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Clark County School District (CCSD), the fifth largest in the United States, serves over 320,000 students in 357 schools. It is a district where students fall well below national averages on achievement tests and graduation rates.

The district has tried many approaches to resolving this performance problem. It has graded schools, creating report cards common in performance management systems. It has provided additional funding (and additional school days) to low-performing schools, akin to increasing funding or personnel to low-performing units in other organizations. Although CCSD student performance has improved slightly, it has remained intractably low.

The 2016 Nevada state legislature ordered the district to be divided into smaller, more manageable units, with the goal of increasing student performance. The most recent response to that mandate has been to identify each school as an operational unit, with a measure of independent governance and budgeting authority. This is a significant change.

Such a noteworthy transformation in any organization requires:

  • A change in leadership style. Leaders of units which have more autonomy and accountability must understand and manage budgeting and organizational processes in new ways. In CCSD schools, for example, principals may manage school-based funds. This is similar to a regional manager having independence and freedom in how all monies allocated to a unit are spent.
  • A change in employee participation. In traditional top-down organizations, employees have limited opportunities to participate in decision making. In “distributed responsibility” organizational designs such as the one proposed for CCSD, employees are expected to have a voice in a variety of decisions, including budgetary and human resource ones.
  • A change in the relationship to clients/customers (in this case, students and parents). Since decision making is more local, customers can reasonably expect to have a greater voice in school-based decisions.
  • A change in processes, especially in budgeting, to distinguish between unit (school) based and central office expenditures.
  • A change in reporting, and accountability. Successes and failures become more apparent in a distributed responsibility organization.

These and other related changes require, above all, substantial training and professional development. Everyone who is a part of the organization or served by it must gain a greater understanding of both the unit’s and the larger organization’s objectives, goals and functions. Everyone must be willing adapt to new roles—to think of the unit as an island where everyone has a part in its survival.

The leader who traditionally has related to employees one-on-one (for example, the principal visiting classrooms) will begin to relate to teams and team-based decisions. Employees (teachers) who are accustomed to focusing on their own work (their classrooms) will need to appreciate the work of others, the relationship between their work and others’, and how resources are allocated. Clients (parents) who have been concerned about their own issues (their children’s performance) must learn ways to support the performance of the organization in general, recognizing that individual and organizational performance are linked.

These are both new skills and new attitudes. Everyone must find answers to the question, “What can we do here and now to improve the performance of this organization?” In addition, people must answer the question, “How will this new way of doing things change not only what I do but also what I think about who I am and my relationship and responsibility to others?”

Teaching and learning new skills is relatively easy compared to learning new attitudes, yet for structural change, it is attitudes that can lead to success or failure.

Too often, we anticipate that structural changes will lead directly to performance improvement but, as the CCSD example suggests, structural change is just the beginning point. We fail when we spend more time thinking about new organizational charts, new policies and procedures and new reporting and accountability mechanisms than we do about helping those responsible for implementing the change on a day-to-day basis to adapt to the new expectations. This takes time and focused effort.

Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada.  She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email: [email protected].

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