Performance as improvisation

In previous posts I have pointed to some of the difficulties that arise in the not-for-profit sector of importing management methods from the private sector uncritically. I have been suggesting that the imperatives of for-profit organisations are much narrower than for those organisations that are founded to do good with and for others. The ‘otherness’ of others and the importance of processes of mutual recognition immediately problematise any attempt to see social development, education or even health care simply in terms of the technical provision of services. The attempt to portray the process of social development using the ubiquitous word ‘delivery’ conjures up the image of passive recipients of pre-packaged philanthropy. I have tried to argue instead that the intentions of the institution and the needs and perspectives of organisational beneficiaries have to be construed in terms of their inherent mutual tension if the furtherance of the objectives of the organisation are not to be experienced by beneficiaries as a form of domination. As I have expressed it previously, the question might need to be ‘how does my vision and mission fit with the needs of this villager’, rather than ‘how do the needs of this villager fit with my organisational vision and mission.’ Equally, with the process of performance management I would like to suggest alternative ways for managers in not-for-profit organisations to think about what it is they are doing with their employees when they are trying to assess how well they are doing while doing good, in Moss Kanter’s phrase (1987).

In doing so I am trying to develop a richer understanding of what we might mean by the word ‘performance’ and its relationship to a more nuanced appreciation of social practice. In order to do so it it has to be linked to the  more complex concept of time (that I have set out below) than that suggested by an if-then causality, and shows how context makes such a big contribution to what is possible. It also means reintroducing the manager and practitioner back into the field of practice and to understand how power and values make a considerable contribution to what happens in the interactions between people. KPIs, the Log frame Apporach , project cycle management, and performance management as currently undertaken in most organisations assume that employees have considerable power to design social change and to contribute to it in predictable ways. The job of management then is to encourage and motivate employees to fulfil these predictions, taking a more or less coercive attitude to those employees who fail to fulfil them. This way of thinking privileges the idea of the individual as a decontextualised and rational actor and places an increasing emphasis on achieving ‘results’. Whilst I would in no way want to suggest that achieving results is unimportant, I do want to put forward the idea that we cannot always be clear about what it is we are achieving, particularly as our intentions collide with those of others. I also want to argue that we constantly reinterpret with others what it is that we think we are doing, and it is possible that we might consider this week a failure what we thought of last year as a success.

Currently managers in organisations understand themselves to be people who can design an appropriate series of interventions to achieve a particular social transformation, which logically and rationally tee up particular activities and ‘behaviours’ on the part of their employees to achieve them. The idea of managing performance in this way of seeing the world could be reduced in caricatured form to a series of sticks and carrots to bend employees to the plan that was originally conceived, even to the degree of their every day behaviour with others. If organisations take money from large funders and work through other smaller organisations, as many international development NGOs do, then these ‘partners’ in turn need to be kept on the predetermined track and ‘held accountable’ for their part in achieving it. ‘Performance’ in these circumstances can tend towards conformity, which is ironic in those social projects which also claim to be striving for innovation. Management practice is conceived as a series of interventions to ‘close the gap’ between the expected outcome and the actual achievements, to correct progress towards the anticipated model of change.

The alternative view of agency and practice that I have been setting out in previous posts would understand the management process to be a product of the social milieu, the habitus, from which it emerges. So, the generalised tendency to produce ambitious and idealised strategies for social transformation by NGOs are very much a product of 20th and  early 21st centuries, where philanthropy is highly marketised, and there is a strong belief in management methods based in systemic understandings of social change. The use of rational management theory is often accompanied by an appeal by way of employees’ values to the moral mission of not-for-profits in order to generate employee excitement and commitment. However, in my view, when taking up objectives derived from the strategy employees will be obliged, in pursuing them, to improvise with those they interact with. This is partly because the habitus of each different context will be different, particularly if the organisation has programmes overseas, but partly also because the meaning of the employee’s action can only be understood once their social counterparts have acted in response. In the gesture and response between the employee acting with intention and those they interact with a patterning of social action will arise, the exact outcome of which is unpredictable. The organisation’s objectives and the way the employee takes them up is not the only game in town.

Management intervention according to this way of understanding action would be to try and make sense with the employee of what has arisen as a result of them acting with intention, and to help them understand their own part in the game they are playing. How have they contributed to the patterning of gesture and response, and how has it affected them in their actions?


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