World thought leaders in High Performance


High performance … in a developing country … in government … really?

Yes, really! And not only is this possible, it was achieved in one of the most interesting research projects I have done so far in the field of HPO. Think about it: applying the HPO Framework for the first time in a governmental context, at three institutions at the same time, in Zambia, over a period of several years, which stunning results … what is there not to be proud of (see my first blog ‘High performance makes you want to sing and dance’)!

Several years ago my PhD student Tobias Mulimbika, who is a high-ranking civil servant, started his research into the application of my HPO Framework in the Zambian government. He had several issues to deal with. Firstly, it is now generally accepted that, in order to move the governmental sector towards better performance, governmental agencies have to adopt high performance management techniques. However, many HPO techniques are developed and applied in developed countries and the private sector. So Tobias had to deal with the issue whether my HPO Framework could be applicable in an African governmental setting. Secondly, could he find suitable governmental institutions to conduct longitudinal research, i.e. follow these institutions over several years to see what was happening? And thirdly, would he be able to detect differences in management attitudes toward the HPO transformation of these institutions? In order to tackle these issues, Tobias called in my support and since then I have had the pleasure to visit the beautiful country of Zambia numerous times.

We applied the HPO Framework at three Zambian governmental institutions which belonged to one ministry. This ministry[1] is a government institution charged with formulating and administering policies and regulatory activities. The Ministry is in charge of several statutory of which three were selected for our study, based on their willingness to participate and supported by the Secretary to the Cabinet who granted permission to apply the HPO Framework in these institutions. Case institution A employs approximately 70 staff, case institution B has a staff of 100 people, and case institution C has 20 people. The HPO Diagnosis was applied twice at the institutions, with an interval of approximately two years. In the interval period each institution was charged with taking the recommendations from the first HPO Diagnosis and use these to strengthen the organisation. The results from the second HPO Diagnosis were remarkable …

Why were they remarkable? Because of the fact that – despite all three institutions having had the same HPO Diagnosis, all three having used HPO Coaches, all three having had support from Tobias and myself – the results were widely divergent. Institution A had achieved a higher HPO score, Institution B’s score remained the same, while Institution C’s score went down! The definition of an HPO states that it achieves financial and non-financial results that are increasingly better than those of its peer group. This means that an organisation which has a higher HPO score should also have better organisational results than a comparable organisation with a lower HPO score. And indeed, Institution A’s non-financial results had all improved, and in addition the Institution was named by the World Bank as one of the best governmental institutions in 2016. In contrast, Institution B and Institution C both experienced mixed results which were not as good as those of Institution A. An analysis of the annual reports showed that between 2014 and 2015 Institution A’s revenue increased by 114 percent, compared to 1 percent for Institution C and -22 percent for Institution B during the same period.

These were of course very interesting results which enticed us to look for the causes. So we had several discussions and interviews with employees and managers in the institutions, with the goal to obtain in-depth information about the process that took place at each institution. This was a great time because there is nothing better than to be a type of academic Sherlock Holmes looking for the whodunit, or in our case the whodunwhat. We found that there was a distinct difference in management commitment towards the implementation of the HPO Framework and HPO improvements. Institution A assembled a team, consisting of employees and managers both from Lusaka and the regions, who became HPO Coaches and who turned out to be a dynamic group of people committed to turning the institution into an HPO. Also, basically every employee was actively involved in at least one of the HPO activities. During this time, Institution A developed an open and action orientated culture in which management started to value the opinions of employees. There were informal interactions with the management team, specifically during the weekly Tuesday morning meeting where everybody could show up and express an opinion or venture ideas. The management team fully bought into the concept of HPO and spent a lot of time on it.

Institution B used a different approach. Although many of its employees worked in various locations scattered around the country, the appointment of HPO Coaches was restricted to employees from head office in Lusaka. Therefore regional officers were not actively involved in the HPO activities and had less commitment to the HPO transition. Further, despite having a good HPO action plan that was developed after the first HPO diagnosis, management turned out to not be fully committed to its execution. The motivation of the management team was basically to follow the instruction from the Secretary to the Cabinet to implement HPO but their heart was not fully into it. As a result not much improved in the processes, culture and going-ons in the institution which was reflected in the unchanged HPO score.

When Institution C started, the CEO was fully committed and excited about the HPO Framework. However, shortly after the first diagnosis he left the agency and for a while there was no successor, which meant the institution turned away its attention of HPO to ongoing matters, leaving the HPO Coaches without much support. The newly appointed CEO turned out to not put priority on the HPO transformation which created frustration among the HPO Coaches. This non-commitment and lack of leadership towards HPO Framework created an atmosphere of non-committal resulting in decreased HPO results.

So once again we experienced that management commitment and involvement is hugely important for a successful HPO transformation (see also my blog ‘Maybe the most important article I ever wrote’). So we not only found that, yes, my HPO Framework could be used in government in a developing country to help organisations to improve their performance; we found that also in this setting the quality of management is crucial. And thus we can say with confidence: achieving the HPO status requires fully committed people!

More information:

André de Waal and Tobias Mulimbika (2017), A comparative analysis of Zambian governmental institutions using the HPO Framework, SAGE Open, July-September, pp. 1-17

[1] The Ministry and its institutions have asked to remain anonymous. Therefore we cannot give a description of what the case institutions’ activities are.