The Maraia Minutes

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Finding & Closing Performance Gaps

Volume 12, Issue 9

My friend, Mark Thienes, is writing a book called Gapology: How Winning Leaders Close Performance Gaps. His basic premise is that all failures in performance are derived from one of three gaps. He describes those three gaps as knowledge gaps, importance gaps, and action gaps. If you want someone to get something done (Take Action), give him the knowledge (What to Do and How to Do It), and explain the importance (Why it Matters and When it Must Be Done) for doing it. Too often leaders assume the troops are suffering from a failure to take action (i.e. an action gap) when, in fact, their people are suffering from either a knowledge gap or an importance gap. Indeed, the most fundamental reason why someone fails to perform is that they have a knowledge gap (which can include lack of skill). In other words, the person does not know how to do something or doesn't know what success looks like. Knowledge gaps can be eliminated through effective training programs that include follow up coaching.

In my humble opinion, professional service firms have been under-investing in business development training and coaching for the last two decades in which I've worked in this business. Since the economic meltdown the under-investment has become even more pronounced. As a result, instead of closing these knowledge gaps, firms are allowing them to get wider. One of the reasons why our training and coaching programs (and my two books) are extremely popular is because they close the knowledge gaps and the importance gaps, and empower professionals to close the action gap.

We've found that, of those three gaps, the most common reason why you see a failure in performance from the troops is because they don't know HOW to do something. Let's take the simple example of knowing how to perform well in a sales meeting. Here are several instances where the typical professional has knowledge gaps around sales meetings:

  • Most don't know how to prepare in a meaningful way for the meeting.
  • Most don't deeply understand the prospect's business and how it makes money.
  • Most don't deeply understand the industry in which the prospect operates.
  • Most don't have well-developed listening skills.
  • Most don't know how to identify the needs of the person with whom they're meeting.
  • Most don't know which questions will be the most effective in surfacing those needs.
  • Most don't know how to ask for the business tastefully once they've identified the need.
  • Most can't discern the difference between an effective meeting and an ineffective one.

Thienes points out in his book that it's essential to eliminate knowledge gaps before closing the other two gaps. It makes little sense to encourage your partners to have more sales meetings if they lack sufficient skills to ace those meetings. Once you're sure that you've closed all knowledge gaps, you should then assess whether or not there's an importance gap. In its simplest form, an importance gap answers why you do something. To use the example set forth above, the reason why it's important to prepare for your meeting is to not waste the time of the person with whom you're meeting; rather, doing your homework demonstrates that you care about the person you're meeting. Preparation also greatly improves your odds of success. Finally, by preparing well, you tend to stand out from your competitors who are prone to winging it.

If you're the leader of a firm or group and are seeing performance gaps in business development, you should ask yourself these two questions before deciding to take action: 1. Does each person on your team know what needs to be done and how to do it? If not, close the knowledge gap; 2. Does each person on your team know when it must be done and why it must be done? If not, close the importance gap.

If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then you need to identify and close the action gap. An action gap should always be tied to results and financial performance.

To close an action gap you must set crystal clear expectations and hold people accountable for meeting them. Expectations are not just goals, they are minimum standards that everyone must follow. Meeting these standards isn't optional. This is where most professional service firms fall down--badly. Here's a quick test: Do each of your professionals know exactly how many hours the firm expects them to devote to relationship building and business development? If not, you haven't set very clear expectations. Or, here is another test: Does each partner know what is expected of him in terms of revenue generation? If you say yes to both of these questions, then you've set clear expectations. However, what happens to people if they don't meet these expectations? If you're like most firms, nothing happens. In short, there is no accountability. It makes little sense to set clear expectations if you're not going to hold people accountable. Until expectations are set, and consequences for failing to meet them are made clear, there will be no closure of the action gap.

In good economic times, firms may have been sustainable without setting clear expectations and holding people accountable. Today, that is a prescription for business failure. I'm sure we will see more firms go out of business in the next few years because their leaders don't have the willingness (guts) to set clear expectations AND hold people accountable for meeting them. What's worse, and very common, is when firm leaders THINK they've set clear expectations, but they really haven't. Equally common are firm leaders who THINK they're holding people accountable, but really are not. When you have either situation, the leader himself possesses a knowledge gap!

To summarize, if you're not seeing the performance (results) you want, look for knowledge gaps first, then importance gaps. Only after you've confirmed that these first two gaps are closed does it make sense to eliminate action gaps. If all three gaps are closed, you won't have performance issues. If you, as the leader, don't know whether there are knowledge and importance gaps (and I would contend many leaders don't have a clue) then you have a knowledge gap yourself. If you do know there are knowledge and importance gaps but aren't doing anything about it, then you have an action gap yourself. As Mark Thienes so aptly points out: "As a leader you are either identifying and closing these gaps or you ARE the gap!"

Copyright 2009 Mark M. Maraia Associates

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