World thought leaders in High Performance


How high-performing is the HPO Framework?

I regularly get the question whether the HPO Framework is high-performing itself, in the sense that it will stay valid and be around for an extended period. Of course, it is difficult to look into the future but I think I might have a satisfactory answer on this question, which is basically twofold. Regarding the validity of the HPO Framework for the (near) future, I have written about that in my article Evergreens of Excellence. In this article I showed that through the past 50 years the HPO characteristics have not changed much and thus they can therefore be considered to be evergreens of managing toward excellence. Regarding the sustainability of the HPO Framework, the answer was triggered by coming across the book The Management Idea Factory which was recently released in a Dutch version. This prompted me to revisit the English edition of the book from author Stefan Heusinkveld, who incidentally some years ago for his PhD research interviewed me about my HPO work. Heusinkveld’s focus is an interesting one: he researches where and how new management ideas originate and how some of these ideas become famously known worldwide and why other, equally worthwhile ideas sink, often without a trace. This makes his book quite different from all those management idea and guru-bashing books written in recent years. Heusinkveld expresses his appreciation for the innovators that come up with new management ideas and states that, even when these new ideas might not be effective, the innovators at least contribute to critical thinking in the management field and thus help create progress in the field. In his book Heusinkveld explores many angels of the management idea and guru business, I am selecting two highlights which appeal to me.

Heusinkveld states that there are two criteria for a management book – in which most of the new management ideas are ‘packaged’– to become well-known:

  1. Accessibility. The new idea has to be packaged in such a way that the average manager can immediately recognize and understand it for what it is worth. The idea cannot be too simple, as managers in general are well-educated, so many management book writers use metaphors (these are particularly popular!), concise statements, and figures and diagrams.
  2. Practical relevance. The idea has to be described in such a manner that managers feel they can immediately apply it in their organization and current work situation. They have to be able to turn the idea easily into actions and these actions should yield short-term results. Therefore, management book writers often give examples of organizations that have already applied the new ideas successfully.

Heusinkveld goes on to explore some of the criteria that determine whether a management idea will be in or out fashion:

  • Elimination: as there is only so much room in the attention span of managers for management ideas, the new idea should have the capability to eliminate previous ideas and thereby take their place. This is often done by the writers by pointing out that previous ideas have not worked and that a new idea is urgently needed.
  • Fading away: the attention for an idea can fade away simply because it has been around for a while and is no longer seen as ‘new’. As such the idea is no longer newsworthy and can even loose its status as ‘symbol of progress’, in fact, it might even been tied to many of the failures of organizations trying to apply the ideas (which in itself might have nothing to do with the idea but more with the – lack of – change management capabilities of these organizations).
  • Collective discomfort: within many organizations there exist a feeling that there is a large gap between their current performance levels and what is possible and desirable. This creates fear among managers that their organization will start lagging behind the competition and that they therefore need new management ideas to help them forward.
  • Persistent contradictions. There have always been dilemma’s in managing organizations, such as centralization versus decentralization, specialization versus diversification, functional versus process orientation etc. Each of the ‘sides ‘of such a dilemma creates new management ideas which will arise when the pendulum swings from one hand to the other.

Heusinkveld’s excellent book got me thinking about my own work and its popularity and – even more important – sustainability. To evaluate the latter, I turned to recent research of Emilio Marti and Jean-Pascal Gond. These researchers looked at the phenomenon of ‘performativity’ which describes how a new management idea not only can give a prescription of a new management practice but can also shape reality by enticing organizations to start experimenting with it. As a consequence, the new idea becomes self-fulfilling in the sense that many more organizations start applying the new idea thus proving the worth of that new idea, which in turn entices other organizations to start applying the idea, thus creating an acceleration in acceptance of the idea as a worthwhile idea. Based on extensive research, Marti and Gond developed a model that shows that new management ideas will only become self-fulfilling if they do motivate experimentation in organizations, which in turn produces anomalies (i.e. effects in real life), which in turn lead to a shift in practice in organizations. Based on their model the researchers also identified six boundary conditions that determine whether management ideas will come to shape reality. They put their results in a nice diagram and it seemed interesting to me to apply this diagram to the HPO Framework.

How high-performing is the HPO Framework

It all starts with a new management idea that challenges existing practices, in this case the HPO Framework which is quite different from ‘conventional’ HPO models as described by Peters & Waterman, Collins and many others (A in the Exhibit).

After the introduction of the new idea, three things can happen: organizations start to experiment with the new idea (B); organizations merely use the new idea in a symbolic manner, to legitimize what they were doing anyway while they are not interested in obtaining new results (C); or organizations completely ignore the new idea, as managers quite often rather rely on their own personal experiences than on new systematic developed knowledge (D). In the case of C and D the new idea will quickly fade away, never to be heard or seen again. In order for B to happen, it is essential that organizations have at their disposal so-called material devices with which they can actually experiment with the new idea (boundary condition 1 in the Exhibit) and that there are powerful initial backers, in the form of high-status academics and firms that endorse the new idea (boundary 2). In the case of the HPO Framework the HPO Diagnosis made it possible for organizations to experiment with the framework. In addition, there were some prominent academic that wrote so-called ‘blurbs’ (= endorsements) on the cover of the book What Makes A High Performance Organization. Also, there were a limited number of well-known firms that were either analyzed with the HPO Diagnosis for a case study in this book, or who started to use the HPO Framework. Thus, situation B happened for the HPO Framework.

After experimenting with the new idea there are again three possible outcomes: the experimentation produces ‘anomalies’ which are defined by Marti and Gond as observable events that violate widely shared conventional expectations about what should ‘normally’ happen but confirm with expectations of what the new idea could deliver (E); the experimentation leads to effects that are unrelated to the new idea (F), or the experimentation does not produce any effects at all (G). Situations F and G will result in a quick fade-away of the new idea. There are two boundary conditions: there should be visible effects of the new idea that can convince ‘the doubters’ (boundary 3), and there should not be strong counteracting behavior from opponents of the new idea (boundary 4).

In the case of the HPO Framework is became quickly apparent that organizations using the framework experienced many positive non-financial and financial effects. These positive results were widely publicized in many articles and books and thus were quite visible to people who initially doubted the new theory. These people did oppose the HPO Framework initially in articles doubting the validity of the framework (in respect of how it was developed, and what the effects could be) but as more and more especially academic articles appeared with case studies on the actual workings of the HPO Framework, these opposing voices started to fade away and the HPO Framework now seems by and large to be generally accepted.

In the case that the new idea produces anomalies there are two outcomes:

  1. the anomalies convince more organizations to start using the new idea thus changing the way in which previous practice took place, in a manner that increasingly confirms the new idea (H);
  2. or organizations for various reasons ignore the anomalies as these are not in line with how they see the world, or they argue that the anomalies show that the dominant theory only needs some minor adjustments (I).

For H to happen, two boundary conditions have to be satisfied: there is a discontent with the status quo, which means that organizations perceive the discrepancy between what they expected and what they experience is big and useful enough to help them forward (boundary 5); and there is sense-giving by convinced organizations: these organizations try to influence unconvinced organizations of the worth of the idea by making sense of the anomalies in narratives, interviews, and speaking engagements (boundary 6).

In the case of the HPO Framework many organizations that conducted an HPO Diagnosis and then started to work with the HPO Framework already experienced in the first year significant positive differences in the way their people worked and behaved. They also experienced better financial results which enticed them to continue applying the HPO Framework for an extended period of time. When investigating these organizations in longitudinal research they stated clearly to me that it was their use of the HPO Framework which yielded these positive results. Many of these organizations subsequently were willing to be profiled in case studies appearing in books and articles written by the HPO Center. In addition, quite often representatives of these organizations appear during seminars to speak about their experiences with the HPO Diagnosis and HPO Framework, thus helping to persuade as yet unconvinced organizations to start looking seriously at the HPO Framework.

Does the favorable outcome of Marti and Gond’s schematic for the HPO Framework mean that it from now is plain sailing for the HPO Framework and that it will be generally accepted worldwide? I cannot state this yet as Marti and Gond identified a ‘threshold’ in regard to the acceptance of a new management idea: there is a minimum proportion of organizations within an industry that has to decide the HPO Framework is useful for achieving better sustainable performance before other organizations in that industry will draw the same positive interference in regard to the application of the HPO framework, leading to the HPO Framework being widely adopted in that industry. As the HPO Framework has only been around for one decade it is still relatively young and – although I am very happy about the large number of organizations who have taken note of the HPO Framework and who have actually started applying it – there is still a way to go before my ambitious goal, having the framework generally accepted in all industries worldwide, is achieved. But with the help of the organizations where we are doing HPO Diagnoses and you, the readers of my blogs, I am convinced we will get there, thus helping the business world becoming a better place!

More info

  • Stefan Heusinkveld (2013/2018), The Management Idea Factory, Routledge
  • Emilio Marti and Jean-Pascal Gond (2018), When do theories become self-fulfilling? Exploring the boundary conditions of performativity, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 45, No.3, pp. 487-508.
  • André de Waal, Evergreens of Excellence, Journal of Management History, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 241-278