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What does your Bell curve look like?


We tend to think of organizational performance in terms of “bell curves” or some sort of distribution curve. The typical curve of the bell looks like this:

The performance of our people is on the X axis (horizontal), the number of our people is on the Y axis (vertical). The bell curve usually makes us think that we have a small number of successful businesses (the extreme right of the curve) and a small number of less performing companies (the left side of the curve) and that the majority of our employees are performing well.

We can divide the bell curve into players A, B, C as shown below.

We tend to think that these distributions are what they are, and there is little we can do about them. We say that there will always be mediocre artists, the majority of our people will be intermediate artists, and we will have the chance to have some good performers.

But the bell curve, or the performance distribution curve, is really the result of our design. We create it, we create the performance distribution through these curves. They do not only appear, there is no law of mathematics, nature or physics, we completely control the shape of our bell curves.

Some organizations have bell-shaped curves that look like this:

The majority of our people are less successful – at least compared to other curves, and we have very few excellent performers. When I look at an organization with a performance cast like this, I immediately know the source of the problem: Clueless / mismanagement. And over time, organizations with these curves tend to move to the left simply because the artists are leaving. They do not want to be associated with a bad organization.

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There are a small number of organizations with bell-shaped curves that look like this:

These are organizations focused on driving consistent high performance. They realize that talent management is a key part of managers’ jobs. They recruit the best, they train, develop, coach constantly to bring people to higher levels of performance. In these organizations, C players leave and this queue becomes smaller and smaller. They leave voluntarily, because they know that they can not cut it, or the managers accept nothing but the best performance, so they move people into roles where they can be the best performers – and sometimes it’s out of the organization. ]

The managers of these organizations recognize that they conceive of organization based on performance rather than just letting go of what is happening.

In these organizations, there is always a performance cast, but it looks something like this:

As you can see, the shape and positioning of our bell curves are totally under our control. We only have C or even B players in our organizations because we accept them. We do not pay attention to critical things to drive the highest levels of performance.

The managers of high-performing organizations are viciously focused on never sacrificing things that boost performance. They never settle on people, they never hire the best of whom they have seen, they hire people who fit the skill models that they have developed. And they come to these models.

There is another thing that happens with successful managers and organizations. They realize that they must continually improve, that the best performance today, left unmoved, will be mediocre tomorrow. So, they are constantly watching what they have to do to move the performance of the entire organization to the right. It looks like this:

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Performance is the result of focused management and actions and leaders. It’s not something that happens to us, but it’s the result of what we do, what we create – or what we let happen because we’re not careful.

What is the shape of your bell curve, what are you doing to change it?