“The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.” — Alfred North Whitehead, 19th century British mathematician and philosopher

As Achieve (my first consulting company) was working with our Clients to implement Toward Excellence (the cultural change process we had developed in conjunction with Tom Peters), I was growing increasingly uneasy. Something didn’t feel right. In In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman presented a powerful case against “the rational model” of management. It forcefully argued (among other things), for focusing on people (customers and those serving them) rather than processes, action instead of analysis, and becoming values rather than numbers driven.

Sure, there was a strong need for managers to move away from the overstuffed bureaucratic, controlling, and hierarchical approach many companies had fallen into. But I also knew of companies that were entrepreneurial, exciting, people-oriented, customer-driven — and they struggled or even went down the tubes because they used a shoebox for an accounting system and yesterday’s technology. Some of these managers came from the we-must-still-have-money-because-we-still-have-checks-left school of business mismanagement.

It seemed to me the real issue was balance. So as I went to work on my first book, The VIP Strategy, I developed an early version of the “triangle model”. After using it with numerous management teams to frame key organization improvement issues, and continuing to study, speak, and write about the performance balance, we have since further refined the model:

Performance Balance Triangle

Technology — an organization’s core technology is the expertise and/or equipment that produces the products or services that its customers buy. Supporting technology may include web-based applications, software, telecommunications, robotics, production equipment, and the like to produce, deliver, or support the organization’s core technology. Personal technology is the technical expertise I bring to the production, delivery, or support of either core or supporting technologies.

Management Systems and Processes — organizational processes are the flow of materials, work activities, customer interactions, or information across an organization to produce, deliver, or support the products or services that its customers buy. Organizational systems are the underlying feedback and measurement loops, performance improvement methods, and organization structure. Personal systems and processes are the methods, habits, and approaches we all use to get things done.

People (Leadership) — this includes those people an organization serves, the people they would like to serve, people in the organization doing the producing and serving, key external partners (such as distributors, strategic alliances, suppliers, etc.), everyone in the organization supporting the producers and serving the servers, shareholders or funding partners, and (very deliberately last), management.

In top performing organizations, each area is strong and constantly improving. For example, in our technological age, we all need to ensure that we’re constantly upgrading our technical expertise and technological tools. We can’t afford to fall behind. In my case, my notebook computer has been a huge help with e-mail, managing my time, storing and easily retrieving information, keeping contact and project records, maintaining our database, developing slides for presentations and workshops, and accessing a multitude of information and research through the Internet. Without it, I’d be 30 – 40% less productive and would need much more administrative help. But as with any technology, just automating sloppy personal habits and disorganization will mean we’ll just mess it up faster.

If our understanding of our customer expectations are only partially accurate, expensive technology and “reengineered” processes will only deliver partial results. If people in our organizations can’t communicate face-to-face, electronic communications won’t improve communications very much. If we haven’t established the discipline of setting priorities for our time or organizing ourselves, a notebook computer or other wireless mobile device won’t do it for us.

Systems and processes is also an extremely important area. An organization can be using the latest technologies and be highly people-focused, but if the methods and approaches used to structure and organize work is weak, performance will suffer badly. People in organizations can be empowered, energized, and enlightened, but if systems and processes (and technologies) don’t enable them to perform well, they won’t. Developing the discipline and using the most effective tools and techniques of personal and organization systems and processes is a critical element of high performance.

The Performance Balance Triangle has people or leadership at its base. That’s very deliberate. In well-balanced, high-performing teams or organizations, technology, systems, and processes serve people. For example, as information technology (IT) specialists study why so many huge investments in equipment and software haven’t paid off, they find the problem comes back to how the technology is designed and used, by whom, and for whom. An executive in California’s Silicon Valley summed up an important perspective making the rounds there, “we used to say people need to be more technology literate. Now we say that technology needs to become more people literate.”