Performance: It’s all about the Context

Simon Marshall

It’s all about the Context

When the results we’re getting give us mediocre or unsatisfying performance, what should we do?

It’s said that Einstein remarked, “Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”  Repeating what we have always done will doubtless get us the results we have already been getting, however we often hope for more. 

So what should we do?

In order to answer the question, “What should we do to get better performance?”,  there are three usual answers:

  • Do more of what we are currently doing; or
  • Do something different than what we are currently doing; or
  • Do the same things better.

These are very sensible and useful answers and are a route to improving performance.  However at the same time they are very ordinary answers.

There is another way of looking at and answering the question.

All of the three answers above share something in common. They all ignore the context in which the action that produces the performance is occurring.  Context is the unseen but powerful structure of thinking in which the action occurs. It is the frame. The frame determines what we see as possible and what’s seemingly impossible. 

So, some extraordinary questions would be about the context within which we operate:

Question 1:
“What is the current context for action?”

Question 2:
“Am I/we willing to take responsibility for that context?”

Question 3:
“What context, if created, would allow for performance currently considered impossible to be possible?”

If the context for manned flight is, “We have to be lighter than air,” then the only things possible are balloons. Inside the context, “We can use wing design and velocity,” aeroplanes become possible.

Now you’ve got to the end of this blog, so you deserve a treat – have a look at this incredibly funny video by British comedian Peter Kay.  Look at how he sets up the context, the frame for every single joke – it is this framing that makes the whole thing (the performance) just hilarious!

For a simple model about how context shapes our performance and how we can shift it (first described by JMJ Associates Ltd.) see:

So, the opportunity is to notice the context that you create, shaping what’s possible for others and the context within which you operate, and occasionally, ask some extraordinary questions.

Simon is the author of Why-Based Organisational Development and WhyNot’s Leadership Curriculum, and has extensive experience in leadership development, cultural and organisational change and executive coaching.

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