The Performance Principle — Author Interview with Mackenzie Kyle

Published on
January 9, 2017
Karina Mikhli
"Keep it simple. What you're doing either works or it doesn't and if it doesn't, try something else--and ask for feedback. This applies to the service you're selling and to the people you're managing."
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Mackenzie Kyle, an operations and process improvement expert and experienced consultant, gives us a great business fable in his latest book, The Performance Principle: A Practical Guide to Understanding Motivation in the Modern Workplace.

The book starts with Will taking on an ailing business in his hometown so that he can be home more and not always traveling. We meet his family and children, his senior management team, and his secret weapon: Martha, his “consultant” and his wife’s grandmother. Through Will’s struggles to get the business back on track, his conversations with Martha, and his and his wife’s struggles with their two teenage children, we’re given a simple yet actionable framework on what motivates us all and what changes need to be made to get desired outcomes.

1. I really enjoyed your business fable and am curious why you chose this format? Is there another fable that inspired you?

When I was at university I read a book called The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox. It was about optimizing performance in a manufacturing operation—not a simple or terribly dramatic topic—but was written in the form of a novel. As a closet novelist, as well as a student of the ideas Goldratt was trying to get across, the format appealed to me as an effective way to communicate some important concepts. When I decided I wanted to write a book about the approach I had been taking to project management, the decision to do it in the form of a novel had sort of already been made.

2. What made you decide to write about motivation and why now? How was writing this book different than writing Making It Happen: A Non-Technical Guide to Project Management? Were there any surprises in writing this one?

Writing this book was a different experience than Making It Happen. With the first one, my life had a lot less in it (it was pre-marriage, pre-kids) and I was able to spend most of the hours I wasn’t at work writing the book; for about a 3 month period, I was putting in three to four hours a day on it, and completed the first draft in about four months. This time around I was lucky to find three hours a week to work on The Performance Principle, and as a consequence it took a year to finish the first draft. I found this to be a much more difficult way to write. The Performance Principle does not have a complicated story structure, nor does it have a ton of characters, but with the first book I was able to immerse myself daily in their world. With this book I felt I had to spend about half my time each week re-reading my plot outline and the character sketches in order to re-acquaint myself with what was supposed to be going on. That process got a little frustrating at times, and it also gave me a new appreciation for authors like George R.R. Martin, who keeps track of 30 or 40 main characters and a crazy level of plot complexity. In the end, there were no real surprises. The direction some of the characters went ended up being a little different than my outline, but I’ve found that happens regularly in my writing.

3. Will’s strengths seem similar to yours. Was he based on you? And who is Martha based on?

I’d say Will has characteristics of an idealized version of myself—all the good stuff is clearly me, and anything he does wrong is from someone else (here is where the smiley face emoji goes). Realistically Will does have elements of me, but he is also an amalgam of some of the managers and project managers I’ve worked with over the years.

I can say without hesitation that Martha is not based on me. As with Will, she is an amalgam of some of the mentors I’ve had over the years, but the largest part probably comes from my dad. He and I worked together directly for a number of years, and of course we’ve been family for quite a bit longer than that. He’s worked in the project and performance improvement for many years, and brings a lot to the table in that regard. He also has a personal style that was easy to adapt and caricature for Martha.

4. How did you discover the framework Martha teaches Will? Was it through trial and error or did you too have a mentor?

I had several mentors in the area of project management. As mentioned, one was my father. Another was a university professor (Loren Acker) who introduced me to a lot of the concepts from an academic perspective. Over the years I’ve had the chance to meet and work with a number of practitioners in the area who helped me to refine my thinking about the process. And of course there was a certain amount of trial and error involved.

5. How have you been able to apply the framework to your customers? Is there an example you can share with us? And has it ever failed? If so, why?

One of the more dramatic examples involved a public sector client responsible for processing development applications. The department was in a city that was booming, and the pace of both commercial and residential real estate development was accelerating almost daily. This group was responsible for assessing development applications against various criteria, including impacts on transportation, commercial considerations, and a variety of others. I got involved because the turn-around time for applications was in excess of 7 months, which the business community felt was about 6 months too long. The work started as process improvement, but what I found in digging into the work was a significant part of the problem related to the feedback the team had about the applications—the size of the backlog, the average turn-around time for each of the review steps, etc. We made changes to the steps themselves, but one of the biggest changes was to implement a set of performance indicators, and provide weekly feedback on them. Within three months, and with no additional staff, we reduced the average turn-around time to 30 days, and the group was still maintaining it a year later when we did a follow up review. Although it was about process improvement, that improvement wasn’t possible without looking at the performance management system.

The times where I’ve seen the approach ‘fail’ have been when the management group has not been committed to making the changes required. Or when they haven’t maintained it. In the example above, resources had to be deployed to provide reporting on KPIs—resources that were not previously required. If the management team isn’t prepared to do things differently, it’s difficult to make the change stick.

6. How can we best apply your framework to motivate ourselves? Is there one element of the framework that is the most critical and actionable?

Perhaps the most critical element of the framework is to accept the fact that we are driven by immediate reinforcement, and secondarily by the avoidance of an unpleasant consequence. We don’t naturally ‘do the right thing’ – we do what gets rewarded. This isn’t just ‘normal’, it is the way all humans operate. If we recognize this, we can take steps to put different processes in place to change those reinforcers. If we don’t we will never change our behaviour. Also important is to recognize that outside help is essential for most of us to make changes. There are not many of us that can, cold turkey, decide that not eating that jelly donut (and by repeatedly making that choice for several weeks or months, will result in us dropping that extra weight) will suddenly be much more reinforcing than the taste and sugar rush that will happen instantly if we just take a bite. We are all capable of making the intellectual choice to go off donuts, and to see what the longer term benefits will be, but engaging outside help to deal with the immediate challenges (like announcing to all your co-workers, family, friends that you’re changing your diet, giving them the license to point out when you’re about to do the wrong thing, and creating your sense of obligation to them to not do the right thing) increases our chances of success dramatically.