Book of the Week: The Four Pillars of High Performance

The_four_Pillars_of_high_Performance“The Four Pillars of High Performance – How Robust Organizations Achieve Extraordinary Results: Lessons from the RAND Corporation” is a book by Paul C. Light that has been published by McGraw-Hill in 2004.


  • More than 50 years of RAND Corporation studies – though mostly focused on military operations and organizations – can be applied to business today.
  • One RAND lesson is that alertness, agility, adaptability and alignment for success are the four pillars of high performance.
  • A high performing organization bases all its decisions and actions on its mission.
  • Organizations that refuse to face reality are destined to fail.
  • Constant, continuous communication is vital to a high performing organization.
  • High performing organizations envision many possible futures and prepare to meet them.
  • Slow, steady change and growth is the key to achieving high performance.
  • Robust organizations are not afraid of change. They embrace its opportunities.
  • Ignorant, infl exible, indifferent and inconsistent organizations are highly vulnerable.
  • Actually, every organization is highly vulnerable if it is not prepared to change when circumstances warrant.

What You Will Learn
In this Abstract, you will learn:

  1. How to apply strategic guidance based on 50 years of RAND Corporation studies
  2. How to develop the four keys to high performance: alertness, agility, adaptability and alignment
  3. How to reduce your organization’s vulnerability by planning for change; and
  4. What 10 factors distinguish high performance organizations.

The RAND Corporation’s organizational strategy advice is based on more than 50 years of research. Author Paul C. Light draws from RAND studies primarily related to the U.S. military to explain the need for organizations to confront unavoidable change with alertness, agility, adaptability and alignment. He notes that these four attributes are equally valuable to small and large businesses, and to organizations of all kinds. You can apply each solid lesson Light takes from RAND’s studies to your organization’s structure and planning. In fact, some of his points are already common wisdom. Political instability, labor force fluctuations, or the potential for terrorism or economic unrest affect some industries more than others, but every organization is susceptible to unanticipated developments. If you want to find out what to do when your organization gets surprised, I recommend this in-depth research-based report.

RAND Provides More Than 50 Years of Research
Hundreds of organizational studies conducted by the independent RAND Corporation during the last 50 years provide significant insight into how to develop a robust organization. For years, RAND has studied the possible futures of organizations or situations. Its researchers think about the unexpected, and then figure out how to turn it into sustainable reality. RAND questions the questions and then questions its own answers. By virtue of the institution’s independence, RAND participants have no stake in any particular scenario’s outcome. Therefore, they consider every possibility equally and offer objective findings. RAND lets the evidence speak for itself without regard to political or social ramifications. It is what it is.

Many RAND Corporation studies focus on U.S. military readiness and performance. However, their lessons also pertain to companies that need to develop business plans and internal structures that can withstand time and the element of surprise. Comparisons to war, conflict, national policy, international politics, preparedness, maneuvers, challenges and analyses – while critical and urgent in the context of national defense and the protection of human life – reveal insights that also apply to creating strong organizations.

Four Pillars of High Performance
A robust organization has the strength and perseverance to sustain itself for the long haul. Robust organizations are built on four pillars: alertness, agility, adaptability and alignment. These pillars help leaders create and develop high performing organizations, and prepare them for the unexpected. Change is always on the horizon, but people cannot forecast the future with any certainty; it will always be a surprise. Organizations need to be ready to deal with surprises as they come, capitalizing on opportunities, mitigating or minimizing damages, and pushing forward to excel and achieve sustaining results.

How can you plan for the unknown? RAND research suggests that organizations must brainstorm many possible “futures,” including those most likely to occur, least likely to occur and truly far-fetched. Then, organizations should develop multiple plans in response to each scenario. You can never plan or consider too many different scenarios, because surprise can come flying out of nowhere. The one thing that probably will happen is the event you didn’t expect or dismissed as impossible.

Rapidly advancing technology, threats of terrorism, an uncertain economy, increased globalization, organizational restructuring, a changing workforce and other continually shifting factors characterize today’s turbulent world. To be ready, robust organizations use the “Four Pillars of High Performance,” which are:

Pillar One: Alertness
Robust organizations are alert to change. They recognize that the world is uncertain and that they may be required to change in response to emerging developments, future events or new conditions. They prepare for uncertainty by continually monitoring their organization’s condition, the potential risk associated with expected and unexpected changes, and the assumptions upon which they’ve built their organization (realizing that they will need to realign if any of these assumptions change). They imagine all kinds of possible – and even seemingly impossible or improbable – futures and create contingency plans. By considering every possibility, they prepare to remain viable despite surprises. To maintain alertness, organizations must define performance specifically, measure it with quantitative and qualitative measures, communicate the results and prepare to respond accordingly. Since the factors that you measure will be the ones that get attention, be sure to measure the right things. Build in checks and balances to deter or detect fraud or manipulation.

Pillar Two: Agility
Robust organizations are agile. They adapt quickly to changes as they occur – whether that means seeing and capitalizing on opportunities or minimizing the effects of catastrophe. To facilitate agility, delegate authority to those who must respond quickly to changing conditions, invite input from every level, foster open communication, build a sense of teamwork and cultivate a shared focus around a common mission or vision.

Pillar Three: Adaptability
Robust organizations are adaptable. They are prepared to change when it becomes advantageous. They are not so committed to their original plan that they fail to recognize the need for a fresh approach, so they quickly commit to a new plan when it is in their best interest. To maintain adaptability, stay attuned to your customers. Know what they want, their levels of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, needs they have that may not be getting met and new opportunities they offer. Explore innovative ideas, products and services. Develop new methods. Improve continually. Recognize and reward strong performers. Watch for breakthroughs (internally or externally developed) and capitalize on them. Allocate resources to developing responses to possible futures, a fundamental part of doing business today.

Pillar Four: Alignment
Robust organizations are aligned with their missions. Every organization exists for a purpose, commonly expressed in a mission or vision statement. Everyone in your organization should know its purpose and commit to realizing it. Organizational alignment requires communication. Upper management must habitually communicate goals, market conditions and changes, current performance measures, budget concerns, challenges, problems and other pertinent information. Alignment includes a commitment to train people properly, to give them the ability to do their jobs without undue restraint, to delegate the authority to solve problems and to get input from the front line to improve processes.

High performance is contingent on having an achievable mission. If people are expected to deliver miracles or to work toward absolutely unachievable goals, they will not try as hard as they will if they are given a workable goal that requires a stretch, but is actually achievable. Focus on the Reality Organizations and their leaders often see what they want to see. They start with a mission and work to achieve it. Yet circumstances shift and missions can become obsolete, impractical or undesirable. Focus on the current reality as it is – whether you like it or not. This means looking at future possibilities and capitalizing on opportunities. Minimize your vulnerability to surprises. Examine and confront your assumptions about the present and the future. To respond, adjust your assumptions as necessary. Focus on what is – even if it is not what you want the situation to be.

Organizations become most vulnerable when they are:

  • Ignorant – They believe what they want to believe rather than facing hard reality.
  • Inflexible – They stubbornly continue on their present course without regard to the fact that it is no longer effective.
  • Indifferent – They don’t seem to care that they are becoming obsolete or focusing on the wrong things.
  • Inconsistent – They aren’t focused. People are not committed to the same outcomes.

Robust Organizations Do Not Fear Change
Robust organizations recognize that change is inevitable and should be embraced when advantageous. They do not stay stuck in the past, but instead they focus on developing a corporate culture that welcomes change as an opportunity. Such organizations are prepared to change when circumstances change – whether it requires a slight organizational tweaking to become more competitive or a complete overhaul to stay viable. Implementing such change requires supportive leaders, a motivated and engaged workforce, continuous communication among all parties, perseverance, determination and hard work.

Today, organizations are changing quickly in response to a rapidly changing world. This constant evolution causes uncertainty and results in huge challenges. Perhaps the problem is too much change. Weigh the cost of change and the probable success or failure of a given change before trying to implement it.

The RAND Corporation measures change in terms of its velocity (pace or speed) and vector (its destination or scope). While radical or extreme circumstances may require high velocity, broad vector (immediate, radical, organization-wide) change, according to RAND’s studies, organizations that focus on low velocity and a narrow vector are likelier to succeed. This means gradual, long-term change beginning in a small area and spreading outward as it succeeds. For sustainability, achieve slow, steady growth rather than rocking the boat dramatically and possibly capsizing it in the process. Often, organizations must combine high velocity, broad vector changes with longer term, low velocity, narrow vector initiatives.

What Makes High Performing Organizations Different?
To create a strong organization, examine the differences between high performing and low performing organizations. RAND Corporation studies found that:

  • Some low performing organizations are designed to fail from the very beginning, due to lack of mission, goals or belief in their own success.
  • While many outsiders assume that high performing organizations are well organized and low performing organizations are more dysfunctional, that is not always the case. Oftentimes, a high performing organization in the throes of rapid adaptation to change (a sign of a strong organization) can seem very messy and disorganized.
  • Efficiency is not the best measure of performance. An efficient organization may not be able to respond to change, but an organization with some excess capacity can respond more quickly and ultimately perform better.
  • Organizational structure and hierarchy do not determine performance. Every organization must be structured according to its specific purpose. Charismatic leaders do not assure success. While such leaders are a pleasant bonus, many organizations achieve high performance with smart, disciplined, focused leaders while many organizations with charming leaders do not perform well.
  • Good management is not a key factor in performance. Organizations with good management can fail, and organizations with poor management can still succeed.
  • High performing organizations have competition – and it helps them stay on the cutting edge. Organizations without competition tend to become complacent.
  • High performing organizations collect and analyze data, and share it with all relevant parties. They communicate well and work together. Low performing organizations don’t have the data they need – they are often ignorant of what is really going on.
  • High performing organizations delegate authority to staff to act in the best interests of the organization, they encourage participation and input, and they collaborate with a mutual focus on the organization’s mission. Low performing organizations lack adequate communication and collaboration.
  • Everything a high performing organization does revolves around its specific purpose or mission. Low performing organizations often get deterred from their primary purposes or set themselves up to fail by developing unrealistic missions.

About the Author
Paul C. Light has written 19 books on business, education and public service, and frequently speaks on organizational life. He is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. In 1999, he founded the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, where he has been affiliated for more than 20 years.

In case you liked the summary be sure to get your on copy of the book. E.g. here at Amazon.

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