Peak Performance and Organizational
Transformation: An Interview with Charles Garfield
is the author of the widely acclaimed "Peak Performance" trilogy: Peak
Performers, Team Management, and Second to None. Together,
the three books -- which focus on high-performing individuals, teams,
and organizations, respectively -- are a blueprint for managers pressured
to continuously improve while doing more with less.
as a computer analyst and leader of a team of engineers, scientists,
and support staff on the Apollo 11 project first led to his discovery
of the dynamics of peak performance. For over thirty years, Garfield
has conducted a continuous study of business high achievers and their
companies. As founder and CEO of Shanti Project, a volunteer organization,
he inspired service excellence for peak performers of another kind:
patients and families facing life-threatening illness. For his work
with Shanti, Garfield was named "National Activist of the Year."
Garfield is the
cofounding editor (along with Stephen Covey and Ken Blanchard) of the
executive newsletter Executive Excellence, is a strategy adviser
to business leaders, and is one of the country's most-requested public
speakers. He is a clinical professor at the University of California
Medical School in San Francisco and is CEO of the Charles Garfield Group,
a consulting and educational firm specializing in organizational strategies
for superior service, quality, and performance.
You have spent a significant portion of your career studying peak
performance in individuals and organizations. What do you mean by "peak
performance," and how has it evolved over the years?
Through the 1980s, a peak performer referred to an enterprising, creative
individualist. In my book Peak Performers (1986), I spelled out
six capacities or aptitudes of high achievers: missions that motivate,
results in real time, self-management through self-mastery, team building
and team playing, course correction, and change management.
By the time my
next book, Second to None, was published (1992), my focus had
shifted to organizational redesign, and the definition of a peak performer
had changed from the enterprising individualist to the fully participating
partner. The people who were peak performers had the ability to collaborate
in cross-functional and self-directed teams. They had an understanding
of interdependent systems, of networks of people connected by shared
values. That turned out to be a much more important capacity for high
achievement in the 1990s than it was earlier.
Are the enterprising individualist and the fully participating partner
two different people, or has the peak performer actually evolved?
people who insist on purely individual strategies and yet have to work
in rapidly changing interdependent systems, like corporations and other
organizations, are often struggling badly. They don't collaborate well
because they haven't valued or developed that capacity. They need to
see that teamwork is necessary, that strategic alliances are necessary,
that cross-functional work teams are necessary, and that redesigning
the corporation is necessary. All of those factors speak to the same
reality: "If my end of the boat sinks, so does yours. And so we had
better learn how to work together at a very high level of competence,
not just give lip service to it." Some have adapted well to this reality,
Are there examples of this new, evolving peak performer?
Oh, yes. My book Second to None is dedicated to these people.
Entire businesses have become aware of this changing reality. We're
moving toward an understanding of organizations as living systems, an
interdependent paradigm. Unless people are teamed to win within our
enterprises, nothing much will happen. World-class quality, superior
service, high-performance sales, and high-achieving management all depend
on superior collaborative skills.
We must develop
processes based on the deep-rooted belief that we are all in this together.
Unless we are linked by shared values, shared mission, shared vision,
and a deep-rooted sense of collaboration, we can't win. We've thrown
around words like teamwork, collaboration, and interdependence
for years. But we have built organizational systems based on individual
effort. Our nation prizes individual success above all else. I'm not
saying that such individualism is wrong or irrelevant or that we have
to avoid it. I'm saying that the new peak performer needs to understand
both individual effort at the highest level and collaborative effort
at the highest level.
Does the individual-effort paradigm limit performance?
Sure. It limits quality. It limits service. If you don't get along with
the person you are serving, you are simply not going to provide excellent
service. So this "us vs. them" paradigm limits quality, service, performance,
speed, innovation -- all the things we have identified over the last
two decades as being critical to success in a global economy. At the
highest level of productivity, all of those things are best served by
a collaborative model that values both individual and team effort.
Why do people perform better in peak-performing teams than they would
Because they have coworkers with whom they can brainstorm and innovate.
Most innovation is collaborative, despite the fact that we still believe
that Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and a few chosen people in the
back room are coming up with major breakthroughs all by themselves.
If I have colleagues to brainstorm with, if I have people on whom I
can rely for facts and strategies and tactics, and if we're all part
of the same team pulling in the same direction toward shared missions
and goals, then we'll see what I saw on the Apollo 11 project,
one of the greatest collaborative efforts in history.
What strategies do you suggest to enhance peak performance?
There is no quick fix. There is no one perfect program, no one right
way. You have to come up with a system that constantly gets refined
and tailored, with innovation being the norm. You are constantly in
the design and redesign mode.
I offer flexible
blueprints in my speeches, ones that we can adapt or adopt, test or
ignore completely. The strategy depends entirely on the fit between
that blueprint and the organization's needs. When we are serious about
the radical redesign of processes with an aim toward quantum leaps in
performance, flexibility is central to our success. Today there is too
much change, flux, and fluidity to be rigid, to pretend that there is
only one right way. In fact, there is no single right way that you can
impose on any organization, no one canned quality or service program
that you can expect to work for everyone.
What should organizations do first?
Organizations begin the process of transformation by addressing some
basic questions: What is our company's vision of the future? What values
guide our actions as we move toward achieving our vision? What kind
of organization do we want to create? Also, what business are we really
in? What are our mission and goals?
Are there signs that an organization is moving in the direction of transformation?
The organization adopts a fluid, flexible structure that accommodates
rapid change and generates continuous innovation. A new thinking is
evident within the organization, a mindset that eschews the "one right
way" of doing things and that embraces change and reconciles opposite
points of view.
For many years, you've talked about having a sense of mission. Is that
more important than ever?
The mission of the individual needs to align with the mission of the
team, which needs to align with the mission of the organization. In
fact, I would take it further -- the mission of the organization needs
to align with the mission of the society in which it is embedded and
the mission of the planet to which we are all indebted.
Why is it hard for people to keep that big picture in their heads?
Most of us are dealing with a chronic state of present shock, trying
to get through the day. But everybody can ask, "To what degree is my
mission in line with the mission of my organization?" If it isn't aligned,
you're in for problems. If it is, your career will more likely prosper.
Peak performers keep both the bird's eye and the worm's eye view in
mind -- to think globally, and act locally. This is just as important
in managing a career or team as it is in managing an organization.
Suppose you have a high degree of mission alignment; will that make
a significant difference in the meaning and quality of your life?
Garfield: You can
be maximally aligned, but if your work does not have a deep meaning
and purpose for you, if you don't have a deep sense of appreciation
and gratitude for what you are contributing and a deep sense of pride
in what you do and what your organization does, then the quality of
your life and work will suffer. I see that too much, unfortunately.
That's what demotivates people -- the absence of meaning, purpose, and
The most powerful
human motivator of all is the desire to be proud of ourselves in the
pursuit of something we care about deeply. Some day, we in business
will learn to tap the same creative wellspring of human motivation and
spirit that gets tapped in causes that human beings hold most dear.
Then our best energies will be unleashed in pursuit of aims valued by
organizations and by the people who work in them. We will then have
a far more ennobling view of business and work -- a view that allows
us to see our efforts as powerful contributions to the life of our nations
and to the life of the natural environment on which we depend.