Performance and productivity are closely linked words yet, in many firms, they are neither treated nor understood in the same way. In subtle ways they are very different indeed.

Performance and productivity are closely linked words yet, in many firms, they are neither treated nor understood in the same way. In subtle ways they are very different indeed. In a professional practice leaders who focus on performance rather than productivity will often be able to establish rapport with their collegiate workforce to a higher degree. Our studies show that performance is listened to as being “more professional” and encompasses individual’s aspirations along with that of the organization. Productivity on the other hand is often associated with a top-down autocratic style – that which was sometimes successful in the last century.

Still, productivity needs to be understood in the culture of professional practices. The language and style of communications leaders use is important and differentiates the most motivated work forces from those sliding behind their peers. High performance and productivity are seldom listed as core values in professional practices. They should be. Ironically, we’ve found that architects and designers, while interested in talking about performance issues, are often quiet and action-less when it comes time to establish metrics to measure their success. The word productivity itself may seem to be a less professional word than performance. For that matter no college of architecture teaches courses on practice performance or productivity, per se, and seldom do partners list productivity on their monthly agendas. But performance and productivity along with action definitions should be high on every firm’s leadership agenda.

Productivity is measurable – overtly so. For instance, some leading firms measure the performance benchmark of revenues per full time equivalent. You achieve this annualized metric simply by dividing the number of staff into the revenue stream. Good firms are now performing at slightly above $120,000 per full time equivalent staff. Very good firms have productivity above $140,000. A few great firms are performing above $220,000 revenues for each staff member in the firm. Yet financial metrics, as good as they are, are only useful to a point. I’ve seen CFO’s and Managing Partners who have an addiction to arbitrary goals and measures. They may be exercising their brainpower but are failing to use their heart and gut along with their intellect to coach an organization forward. The performance of an organization is dependent not so much on statistics and what other firms may be achieving as on core cultural characteristics such as trust, quality of communications, clarity of direction, and the construction of an energized team. When you have these characteristics you will also, very likely, have high performance that produces pre-incentive profits in the 15 percent and above range. You can measure each of your core values using semantic differentials on an annual or semi-annual basis.

The failure to connect the dots to tune up an organization’s culture for high performance is quite common and the failure to adapt to a changed world is a common reason that firms lag behind their potential. Some firms fall behind the curve because of their failure to utilize the latest technology. They say things like: “clients aren’t asking for Refit so why go through the learning curve right now?” Or there is: “We’re too big to be fast and we’re too old to learn BIM”. A firm’s leadership can be ineffectual; can fail to achieve high performance when they refuse to embrace the transformation opportunities that abound.

Achieving high performance in a professional practice is hard work. It is also satisfying. When best of class benchmark and above levels are achieved, a firm can suddenly find itself with the resources it needs to be successful. It is also able to pay respectable salaries and establish motivating incentives. Just as with many lessens in life, what goes around comes around. Live and teach high performance and it will be rewarded. Don’t lose faith.

James P. Cramer is editor of DesignIntelligence co-chair of the Design Futures Council, and chairman of The Greenway Group. His latest book The Next Architect: A New Twist on the Future of Design, is now available through the DesignIntelligence bookstore.