Laying cables for the NBN

How to waste $41 billion dollars on performance management

My open letter to Bill Morrow, recently appointed CEO of the National Broadband Network

Laying cables for the NBN

Dear Bill,

Congratulations on your recent appointment as CEO of NBN. It’s a big job, even with your history of telecom turnarounds.

I read with interest the article in The Australian about your plans to fix the cultural problems at NBN. As an expert in performance management, I’ve seen cultural problems of all shapes and sizes. But it sounds like the mess you’ve inherited at NBN is truly something unique!

I’m amazed by some of the cultural and engagement problems. So I wanted to offer you some friendly advice and a second pair of eyes. Here’s my thoughts about your strategy to turn NBN into a high performance organisation.

Increasing workplace engagement

I know that the NBN has been a bit of political kick-ball. And that there’s been a lot of changes.

But you’re building a transformational piece of Australian infrastructure. The goals of what you’re setting out to do are very big (and very clear). NBN is almost the definition of a mission driven organisation. So there’s no reason that you should be dealing with an organisational engagement score of just 44%!

In my opinion, your workforce at NBN has to be inspired by a mission driven culture. Every employee needs to get up in the morning ready to shape the future of the country. And you can do this by giving them clear expectations that are directly connected back to the goals and mission of the organisation.

Setting clear expectations and holding people accountable

I can see that you’ve recognised the huge role that performance management has to play in fixing the culture. In fact, I know that you’ve “set about reforming the way the company measures performance”.

But I wanted to issue a word of warning. Measuring performance is typically only half of the challenge in a dysfunctional culture. The biggest problem is clearly setting out what high performance actually looks like in the first place.

In my experience, you get high performance when every employee can explicitly state what high performance looks like for their role, on a day-to-day basis.

And I bet this isn’t the case at NBN today. In fact, I’m going to make a wager that you have thousands of employees running round with unclear position descriptions and requirements. These employees have no real clarity around what they need to do to be successful. And as a result, they start playing the blame game.

Ending the blame game

The blame game that’s going on at NBN at the moment is typical of what I see in organisations with badly broken performance management. How it happens is clear from one of your quotes in The Australian:

“An independent assessment by KordaMentha and Boston Consulting Group cited a fear among staff of “being blamed for mistakes” that “generated a lack of willingness to accept responsibility in some functional groups”.

When you do performance management well, it’s clear who is responsible for delivery. The process ensures that your employees are deeply invested in their goals and objectives.

Remember that at heart, great performance management really isn’t much more than an organisational process for accountability.

I’ve seen the impacts of a ‘blame-game’ culture before. And I’ve got no doubt this is how NBN got to an engagement score of 44%. Because in the ‘blame-game’ environment, everyone is watching their back. Right now, your staff don’t have the time (or the energy) to care about their role in shaping the future of Australia.

Getting visible alignment

I think it’s great you’re working to show a more aligned culture by knocking down the walls. Every high performance organisation I work with makes effort to show how everyone is working together. As you said:

“If we really want to change this culture then we have to start at the top and drop this hierarchical feel. These things are minor in nature but they are symbolic. It shows us getting off our pedestals so we can align together and work together.”

Getting off the pedestal is important. And so is showing everyone that the mission of the organisation is more important than your harbour-view office.

People at NBN do need a symbol of change. And tearing down the office walls might help with that. But don’t confuse the quick win of knocking down the walls with the long-term change in behaviour that you need. You can tear down physical walls in a weekend, but good performance management and a culture of accountability takes hard work over many years.

You’ve got a big job ahead, so good luck

We both know this is going to be hard work. Cultures don’t transform themselves overnight. But with hard work, you can keep people accountable to delivering high performance at NBN. Here’s my four-step action plan:

  1. I’d remind every employee of the role they play in delivering the mission of NBN.
  2. I’d quickly get rid of those that don’t care.
  3. I’d make sure that for those that do care, the expectations of high performance are explicitly set out.
  4. And finally, I’d focus on making the connection between every individual’s performance and the mission of building a better Australia.

Once everyone can see how those expectations connect back to the big mission of NBN, you’re in with a fighting chance.

Good luck – I’m looking forward to seeing a very engaged team coming through my neighbourhood to connect us to the NBN soon!

Jon

Image credit: Bidgee used under CC-SA 3.0 License

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