Designing High-Performance Jobs

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Designing High-Performance Jobs
Improving the performance of key people is often as simple—and as profound—as changing the resources they control and the results for which they are accountable. by Robert Simons

You have a compelling product, an exciting vision, and a clear strategy for your new business. You’ve hired good people and forged relationships with critical suppliers and distributors. You’ve launched a marketing campaign targeting high-value customers. All that remains is to build an organization that can deliver on the promise. But implementation goes badly. Managers in the regional offices don’t show enough entrepreneurial spirit. They are too complacent and far too slow in responding to customers. Moreover, it’s proving very difficult to coordinate activities across units to serve large, multisite customers. Decision making is fragmented, and time to market is much longer than expected. Excessive costs are eating away at profit margins. You begin to wonder: “Have I put the wrong people in critical jobs?” But the problems are more widespread than that—in fact, they’re systemic across the organization. This tale of a great strategy derailed by poor execution is all too common. Of course, there are many possible reasons for such a failure and many people who might be to blame. But if this story reminds you of your own experience, have you considered the possibility that your organization is designed to fail? Specifically, are key jobs structured to achieve the business’s performance potential? If not, unhappy consequences are all but inevitable. In this article, I present an action-oriented framework that will show you how to design jobs for high performance. My basic point is straightforward: For your business to achieve its potential, each employee’s supply of organizational resources should equal his or her demand for them, and the same supply-and-demand balance must apply to every function, every business unit, and the entire company. Sounds simple, and it is. But only if you understand what determines this balance and how you can influence it. The Four Spans of Job Design

To understand what determines whether a job is designed for high performance, you must put yourself in the shoes of your organization’s managers. To carry out his or her job, each employee has to know the answer to four basic questions: • “What resources do I control to accomplish my tasks?” • “What measures will be used to evaluate my performance?” • “Who do I need to interact with and influence to achieve my goals?” • “How much support can I expect when I reach out to others for help?” The questions correspond to what I call the four basic spans of a job: control, accountability, influence, and support. Each span can be adjusted so that it is narrow or wide or somewhere in between. I think of the adjustments as being made on sliders, like those found on music amplifiers. If you get the settings right, you can design a job in which a talented individual can successfully execute your company’s strategy. But if you get the settings wrong, it will be difficult for any employee to be effective. I’ll look at each span in detail and discuss how managers can adjust the settings. (The exhibit “The Four Spans” provides a summary.)

The Span of Control.
The first span defines the range of resources—not only people but also assets and infrastructure—for which a manager is given decision rights. These are also the resources whose performance the manager is held accountable for. Executives must adjust the span of control for each key position and unit on the basis of how the company delivers value to customers. Consider Wal-Mart, which has configured its entire organization to deliver low prices. Wal-Mart’s strategy depends on standardization of store operations coupled with economies of scale in merchandising, marketing, and distribution. To ensure standardization, Wal-Mart sets the span of control for store managers at the “narrow”...
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