Peak Performance and Organizational Transformation: An Interview with Charles Garfield
Charles Garfield is the author of the widely acclaimed "Peak Performance" trilogy: Peak Performers, Team Management, and Second to None. Together, the three books -- which focus on high-performing individuals, teams, and organizations, respectively -- are a blueprint for managers pressured to continuously improve while doing more with less.
Garfield's work as a computer analyst and leader of a team of engineers, scientists, and support staff on the Apollo 11 project first led to his discovery of the dynamics of peak performance. For over thirty years, Garfield has conducted a continuous study of business high achievers and their companies. As founder and CEO of Shanti Project, a volunteer organization, he inspired service excellence for peak performers of another kind: patients and families facing life-threatening illness. For his work with Shanti, Garfield was named "National Activist of the Year."
Garfield is the cofounding editor (along with Stephen Covey and Ken Blanchard) of the executive newsletter Executive Excellence, is a strategy adviser to business leaders, and is one of the country's most-requested public speakers. He is a clinical professor at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco and is CEO of the Charles Garfield Group, a consulting and educational firm specializing in organizational strategies for superior service, quality, and performance.
Educom Review: You have spent a significant portion of your career studying peak performance in individuals and organizations. What do you mean by "peak performance," and how has it evolved over the years?
Garfield: Through the 1980s, a peak performer referred to an enterprising, creative individualist. In my book Peak Performers (1986), I spelled out six capacities or aptitudes of high achievers: missions that motivate, results in real time, self-management through self-mastery, team building and team playing, course correction, and change management.
By the time my next book, Second to None, was published (1992), my focus had shifted to organizational redesign, and the definition of a peak performer had changed from the enterprising individualist to the fully participating partner. The people who were peak performers had the ability to collaborate in cross-functional and self-directed teams. They had an understanding of interdependent systems, of networks of people connected by shared values. That turned out to be a much more important capacity for high achievement in the 1990s than it was earlier.
Educom Review: Are the enterprising individualist and the fully participating partner two different people, or has the peak performer actually evolved?
Garfield: The people who insist on purely individual strategies and yet have to work in rapidly changing interdependent systems, like corporations and other organizations, are often struggling badly. They don't collaborate well because they haven't valued or developed that capacity. They need to see that teamwork is necessary, that strategic alliances are necessary, that cross-functional work teams are necessary, and that redesigning the corporation is necessary. All of those factors speak to the same reality: "If my end of the boat sinks, so does yours. And so we had better learn how to work together at a very high level of competence, not just give lip service to it." Some have adapted well to this reality, some haven't.
Educom Review: Are there examples of this new, evolving peak performer?
Garfield: Oh, yes. My book Second to None is dedicated to these people. Entire businesses have become aware of this changing reality. We're moving toward an understanding of organizations as living systems, an interdependent paradigm. Unless people are teamed to win within our enterprises, nothing much will happen. World-class quality, superior service, high-performance sales, and high-achieving management all depend on superior collaborative skills.
We must develop processes based on the deep-rooted belief that we are all in this together. Unless we are linked by shared values, shared mission, shared vision, and a deep-rooted sense of collaboration, we can't win. We've thrown around words like teamwork, collaboration, and interdependence for years. But we have built organizational systems based on individual effort. Our nation prizes individual success above all else. I'm not saying that such individualism is wrong or irrelevant or that we have to avoid it. I'm saying that the new peak performer needs to understand both individual effort at the highest level and collaborative effort at the highest level.
Educom Review: Does the individual-effort paradigm limit performance?
Garfield: Sure. It limits quality. It limits service. If you don't get along with the person you are serving, you are simply not going to provide excellent service. So this "us vs. them" paradigm limits quality, service, performance, speed, innovation -- all the things we have identified over the last two decades as being critical to success in a global economy. At the highest level of productivity, all of those things are best served by a collaborative model that values both individual and team effort.
Educom Review: Why do people perform better in peak-performing teams than they would individually?
Garfield: Because they have coworkers with whom they can brainstorm and innovate. Most innovation is collaborative, despite the fact that we still believe that Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and a few chosen people in the back room are coming up with major breakthroughs all by themselves. If I have colleagues to brainstorm with, if I have people on whom I can rely for facts and strategies and tactics, and if we're all part of the same team pulling in the same direction toward shared missions and goals, then we'll see what I saw on the Apollo 11 project, one of the greatest collaborative efforts in history.
Educom Review: What strategies do you suggest to enhance peak performance?
Garfield: There is no quick fix. There is no one perfect program, no one right way. You have to come up with a system that constantly gets refined and tailored, with innovation being the norm. You are constantly in the design and redesign mode.
I offer flexible blueprints in my speeches, ones that we can adapt or adopt, test or ignore completely. The strategy depends entirely on the fit between that blueprint and the organization's needs. When we are serious about the radical redesign of processes with an aim toward quantum leaps in performance, flexibility is central to our success. Today there is too much change, flux, and fluidity to be rigid, to pretend that there is only one right way. In fact, there is no single right way that you can impose on any organization, no one canned quality or service program that you can expect to work for everyone.
Educom Review: What should organizations do first?
Garfield: Organizations begin the process of transformation by addressing some basic questions: What is our company's vision of the future? What values guide our actions as we move toward achieving our vision? What kind of organization do we want to create? Also, what business are we really in? What are our mission and goals?
Educom Review: Are there signs that an organization is moving in the direction of transformation?
Garfield: Yes. The organization adopts a fluid, flexible structure that accommodates rapid change and generates continuous innovation. A new thinking is evident within the organization, a mindset that eschews the "one right way" of doing things and that embraces change and reconciles opposite points of view.
Educom Review: For many years, you've talked about having a sense of mission. Is that more important than ever?
Garfield: Yes. The mission of the individual needs to align with the mission of the team, which needs to align with the mission of the organization. In fact, I would take it further -- the mission of the organization needs to align with the mission of the society in which it is embedded and the mission of the planet to which we are all indebted.
Educom Review: Why is it hard for people to keep that big picture in their heads?
Garfield: Most of us are dealing with a chronic state of present shock, trying to get through the day. But everybody can ask, "To what degree is my mission in line with the mission of my organization?" If it isn't aligned, you're in for problems. If it is, your career will more likely prosper. Peak performers keep both the bird's eye and the worm's eye view in mind -- to think globally, and act locally. This is just as important in managing a career or team as it is in managing an organization.
Educom Review: Suppose you have a high degree of mission alignment; will that make a significant difference in the meaning and quality of your life?
Garfield: You can be maximally aligned, but if your work does not have a deep meaning and purpose for you, if you don't have a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for what you are contributing and a deep sense of pride in what you do and what your organization does, then the quality of your life and work will suffer. I see that too much, unfortunately. That's what demotivates people -- the absence of meaning, purpose, and pride.
The most powerful human motivator of all is the desire to be proud of ourselves in the pursuit of something we care about deeply. Some day, we in business will learn to tap the same creative wellspring of human motivation and spirit that gets tapped in causes that human beings hold most dear. Then our best energies will be unleashed in pursuit of aims valued by organizations and by the people who work in them. We will then have a far more ennobling view of business and work -- a view that allows us to see our efforts as powerful contributions to the life of our nations and to the life of the natural environment on which we depend.