SEMPER interpretation

Interpreting SEMPER-5 assessments

Overview

The SEMPER-5 diagnostic describes a view of the whole context from one group’s or person’s perspective. In effect, it provides a means to quantify not just individual performance, but integration and effectiveness of the context as a whole. The scores in each domain and category identify key indicators of effectiveness not only within the specific area, but also in relation to the whole as whole. The ‘trend’ component of the score provides ‘lead-indicators’ for the future, identifying potential problems to be addressed or areas that can be leveraged to improve overall integration, using the key ‘start anywhere’ principle in Tetradian’s frameworks.

Overall scores

The overall score provides a useful overview of integration and the potential for further improvement:

  • 20% (minimum-possible score): actively dysfunctional in all areas; probably beyond recovery
  • 20%-30%: severely dysfunctional (commercial organisations usually unprofitable); may be recoverable, but in danger of spiralling beyond recovery; in some cases may be recovered by ‘hidden’ integration techniques such as process/workflow analysis that draws out people-connections and tacit knowledge, but often recoverable only by ‘shock tactics’ that make the dysfunctionality plainly visible and re-emphasise a return to collective purpose
  • 30%-40%: passively dysfunctional (commercial organisations usually at ‘break-even’); often typified by excessive bureaucracy and a ‘silo’ mentality; can usually be improved by integration techniques that leverage successes and acknowledge yet avoid ‘undiscussable’ problem-areas
  • 40%-50%: functional bureaucracy (commercial organisations usually at peer-average performance); ‘problem’ areas often typified by frustration rather than cynicism and despair; can usually be improved by leveraging a single integration-theme such as quality or innovation to loosen silo-boundaries
  • 50%-60%: best-practice (commercial organisations usually in upper range of peer-average); can only be improved by loosening the command-and-control mentality and supporting individual responsibility at the rules-vs-guidelines boundary
  • 60%-70%: beyond efficiency (commercial organisations show clear distance from peers); improvements usually derived from increasing whole-of-system awareness such as recursive relationships with partners and the wider community
  • 70%-80%: effective responsibility (commercial organisations show consistent long-term higher-than-average performance); if achievable, improvements usually derived from emergent ethos and sense of shared destiny
  • 80%-90%: wholeness responsibility (commercial organisations show quantum performance difference from peers, but often not sustainable); emphasis usually needs to be on sustaining and maintaining rather than attempting further improvement
  • 90%+: full integration (achievable only for small groups, usually only for short periods); often desirable to create example for wider whole-of-system improvements, but inherently unstable and unsustainable; emphasis needs to be on acceptance of natural ‘fallback’ to sustainable lower levels when the immediate task is complete

This indicates that, for a commercial organisation, a score in the 50%-60% range would be quite a good result: well below peak potential, but still relatively high by comparison with most of the organisation’s peers. In practice, a 100% score is neither achievable nor, in most cases, even desirable; an overall score of around 80% would be a more realistic target, and probably more sustainable over the longer term.

As a comparison, the mean score for effectiveness at the societal level is usually around the 40%-50% level, dependent on the context; in the business domain, the mean may perhaps be as low as 30% or less, given the common insistence on dysfunctional forms of competition and the often extreme emphasis on short-term financial results over any kind of investment for longer-term performance. Moving beyond those mean-levels improves performance, but also increases the tension of the natural ‘pull-back’ towards the mean: for example, organisations which place strong emphasis on intangibles – especially people-oriented intangibles such as morale and work/life balance – will also place themselves at risk of hostile takeover by other organisations with a more predatory short-term perspective. A lack of understanding of the difference between short-term efficiency and long-term effectiveness at board level can easily destroy most of an organisation’s capacity for sustainable performance, yet without showing any visible sign of damage for some months or years – a classic longer-term resonance effect in all complex-systems which conceals the real cause of many organisational problems. Sustainable high effectiveness and high performance is not easy, and for large organisations almost invariably depends on some kind of unifying ethos or ‘creed’ which provides an enduring sense of mission and purpose.

Specific scoring issues

Note that the overall score, whilst useful as a summary, is usually less important than key scores in specific areas, and the overall range of scores. For most organisations, a typical ‘best’ picture would consist mostly of 3s and 4s, with a few 2s and at least one or two 5s, and no 1s.

A ‘5’-type score is relatively unusual; for best performance, every organisation needs to find at least one ‘5’, though too many can actually make the organisation less stable. Every ‘5’ represents an area which can be leveraged to maximise effectiveness in every other area.

A ‘4’ or a ‘3’ represent functional areas with potential opportunities for improvement.

A ‘2’ represents an issue that needs to be addressed.

Any ‘1’ represents active dysfunctionality which can self-propagate to infect other areas of the organisation in the same way. ‘1’-scores are crucial, because they place the entire organisation at risk: any area showing a ‘1’ score has the potential to destroy the whole organisation, and must be resolved as soon as possible. The difficulty is that ‘1’-type issues are often so unstable that attempting to tackle them directly will further inflame the problems; in practice, as described in the Suggested actions section, they can be tackled safely only by working on less-inflamed areas around them.

Another key concern is the disparity of scores in different areas: high disparity highlights a common source of ‘unexpected’ instability, whereas low disparity – especially where all the scores are low – often indicates potential difficulty in identifying suitable areas to leverage for improvement. Some examples:

  • commercial organisations tend to be stronger in the PreparationProcess and Performance domains, but often at risk in the People and especially the Purpose domains
  • government and non-profit organisations tend to be either very high in the People domain (or very low – indicating political problems), but are often weak in the Process or Performance domains
  • academic organisations to over-emphasise the Purpose domain (nothing gets started, let alone finished) or Preparation domain (resulting in ‘analysis paralysis’)
  • family organisations and other SMEs tend to have a wider overall disparity than large organisations, reflecting the greater difficulty for smaller organisations to maintain consistent awareness of everything, but in most cases also providing a wider range of opportunity to leverage higher-score areas for improved overall effectiveness

Using multiple perspectives

SEMPER’s design draws out the characteristic reflexion of all complex-systems, including organisations, so even a single perspective will still portray a meaningful and valid view of the whole. Even more value can be obtained by combining views from different groups, and comparing the disparities between the perspectives as well as within each perspective. Some examples:

  • horizontal scan: views from the same level but different functional areas within the organisation (e.g. all senior executive, or all second-level managers) – highlights potential conflicts, assists in whole-of-organisation gap-analysis
  • vertical scan: views from different levels within the same functional area – provides direct comparison of different emphases and drivers at the different levels of the organisation, even with the same nominal scope
  • spherical scan: views from immediately above, immediately below and at same level as a single chosen context (like 360° feedback’) – combines horizontal and vertical scans to create an overall picture of potential issues

An advantage of using SEMPER in place of conventional 360°-feedback techniques is that it reduces the emotional loading: it describes views of a context rather than a person, making apparent criticism easier to accept and address.

Common statistical techniques can also be used to derive standard deviation and mean scores, though these are perhaps less immediately useful than identifying specific areas of concern – especially the crucial ‘1’-type issues.

In general, strong disparities between perspectives point to potential or actual areas of conflict; consistent low scores across most or all perspectives point to ‘undiscussable’ issues that will need to be addressed by indirect rather than direct tactics.

SEMPER principles

To best understand of what the diagnostic describes, it’s useful to look briefly into the theoretical framework that underpins it. The Tetradian model describes the organisation in terms of four distinct dimensions:

  • behavioural or physical – the facilities and capabilities of the organisation, and the actions and experiences of individual people
  • conceptual or mental – the shared knowledge, beliefs and systems of the organisation, and the knowledge and ideas of individual people
  • relational or emotional – the shared relationships of the organisation within itself and with its outside stakeholders and other organisations, and the relationships and interactions of individual people
  • aspirational or spiritual – the shared aspirations, culture, vision, values and purpose of the organisation, and of individual people

The organisation’s ‘soul’ is the hidden ‘fifth dimension’, the process of integration which links those four dimensions into a unified whole: the connector, translator, communicator, integrator of all four dimensions.

Standard SEMPER provides an assessment in each of these domains, and also in each of the six link-themes that act as the ‘bridges’ between each of the four main dimensions – for example, active learning, which bridges the behavioural and conceptual dimensions. (A key advantage of Standard SEMPER is that these link-themes provide alternate pathways to address and resolve ‘undiscussable’ issues.) For simplicity, SEMPER-5 ignores the link-themes, and uses a slightly different mapping of the dimensions which is easier to match to common organisational structures, as in the table below.

SEMPER-5 domains/dimensions

Domain Tagline SEMPER domain Time-focus
Purpose “vision, values, purpose, identity” Spiritual/Aspirational mid- to far-future
People “quality of internal and external relationships, trust” Emotional/Relational range from far past to far future
Preparation “knowledge, planning, mindsets, beliefs” forward-view component of Mental/Conceptual (information / knowledge applied to near future) near future
Process “resources, actions, environments” Physical/Practical now!
Performance “completions, closing the loops” rearward-view component of Mental/Conceptual (information / knowledge about present or past) past

In principle, through reflexion, every domain occurs in every part and every level of the organisation. In practice, though, different organisational functions tend to emphasise specific domains:

  • purpose: emphasised in strategy, research and development, and some aspects of marketing
  • people: emphasised in personnel/human resources, marketing and public relations
  • preparation: emphasised in business development, planning, scheduling, distribution, training and performance-support systems
  • process: emphasised in manufacture, production and sales
  • performance: emphasised in sales-fulfilment, accounts, record-keeping, performance measures

In each case, the functions need to score high in their ‘preferred’ domains, since they’re in effect ‘holding the flag’ for that domain on behalf of the organisation. (If not, this is in itself a clear source of problems for the organisation.) Any other domains that are scored high provide useful ‘hooks’ to support closer integration with the related business functions.

Integration-functions such as quality, IT, facilities and infrastructure need (but are rarely allowed) a near-equal emphasis on all five domains.

SEMPER-5 categories

For each domain, the SEMPER diagnostic presents a set of questions or statements which form the framework for the scoring. The statements are split into five categories, which map recursively to the original SEMPER dimensions. The domains provide a function-oriented perspective, whilst the categories describe how those same themes tend to be expressed in practice within a single function.

The categories thus provide an alternate view of the same issues, seen from a different perspective. The mapping is not quite as precise in SEMPER-5 as it is in Standard SEMPER, but it still delivers a similar result: a kind of self-reflecting 360° feedback on the context as a whole.

Category Tagline Associated domain
Efficient “makes best use of energies and resources” Preparation / Performance [Mental]
Reliable “delivers expected results consistently and sustainably” Process [Physical]
Elegant “supports the human elements within the context” People [Emotional]
Appropriate “supports and is aligned to the overall purpose” Purpose [Spiritual]
Integrated “linked to, supports and supported by all other domains” (integration) [Soul/Integration]

Use the sort by category and sort by domain switches at the top of the table-view of the assessment-summary page to alternate between the two perspectives.

Significant disparities between the two perspectives – categories within domains, and domains within categories – provide much the same kind of warnings as for within a single perspective: for example, all low-scores in one category, such as ‘Appropriate’, indicates the same kind of organisational problems as for low scores in the matching ‘Purpose’ domain. Conversely, higher scores in one category (in a commercial organisation, often ‘Efficient’ or ‘Reliable’) in an otherwise low-scored domain can act as ‘hooks’ into the matching domain (i.e. either ‘Preparation’ / ‘Performance’ or ‘Process’ respectively in this example), providing opportunities to leverage existing successes and competencies in lower-scoring domains. (See Suggested actions for examples of how to put this into practice.)

SEMPER scoring

The scoring system used in all SEMPER variants is based on a power-model that highlights a key dichotomy about power and work: in physics, power is defined as ‘the ability to do work’, whereas in many social contexts power is essentially defined as ‘the ability to avoid work’, or to entrap others into doing our work. The social definition is dysfunctional or ‘power-against‘, in that it creates a negative resonance towards a ‘lose/lose’ – usually seen either as the illusory ‘win/lose‘ or the less-common ‘lose/win‘ – from which eventually everyone loses; by contrast, the physics definition is functional or ‘power-with‘, in that it supports positive resonance leading towards a ‘win/win‘ from which everyone gains.

For convenience, the SEMPER scoring system places this range from strong negative resonance to strong positive on a simple 1-5 scale, as summarised in the two tables below:

Summary

Score Label Description
5 excellent
(full-scope effective)
systematic, conscious, context-aware use of emergent / collective techniques, self-propagating and linking with other domains [the ideal as a ‘start anywhere’ area]
4 good
(local effective)
includes use of emergent / collective techniques – e.g. self-organised teams, scenarios, diversity – but in a fragmentary way, not integrated with other domains, and often without a theoretical framework to link it [may be used as an example / leverage if no 5 available]
3 acceptable
(efficient)
efficient up to the limit of analytic / predictable – i.e. up to the benchmark / Best Practice level, but applied without much context-awareness [stable, but could be improved]
2 below needs
(passive dysfunction)
efficient in the local context, but passively creating imbalance due to lack of integration with other areas [needs to be addressed to prevent decline]
1 poor
(active dysfunction)
evidence of significant power-problems – some aspect actively creating imbalance, and ‘infecting’ other domains [placing organisation at risk – needs urgent attention]

Keywords

Score Competence Commitment Decision-style Power-themes
5 Unconscious competence Wholeness-responsibility Co-creating power-from-within – individual to collective
4 Conscious competence Functional diversity Consulting power-from-within – collective to individual
3 (plateau of control) ‘Best practice’ Testing power-neutral – dysfunction counterbalanced by functional power
2 Conscious incompetence Compartments / silos Selling power-under – evasion of responsibility
1 Unconscious incompetence Fragmentation Telling power-over – self over others

It’s important to understand that the framework describes only the impact of each of these levels on overall effectiveness – not necessarily that a ‘5’ level is always to be desired. In general, ‘2’- and, especially ‘1’-type responses are likely to cause problems, and should be minimised wherever practicable; but high-compliance areas such as medicine, occupational health and safety and the law must necessarily restrict personal choice and personal responsibility, and mandate that a ‘3’-type would usually be the highest achievable level in that context.

This framework is language-independent, and largely culture-independent, but too abstract for general use. To link it to a specific culture, the SEMPER scoring system maps a set of phrases or ‘word-pictures’ to each score-level, each domain and each category. Ideally, the phrases should be derived by narrative techniques from within the organisation itself, reflecting its own unique language and culture; however, the default phrase-set used on this website will be adequate for basic use in most English-speaking cultures.

Suggested actions

The notes above summarise what the SEMPER-5 diagnostic shows about an organisation; but what happens next? To use a well worn phrase, what would the results suggest that we should do differently come Monday morning? In practice, this always depends on which areas are highlighted for action – either because they are weaker, or because they can be leveraged to help lift other aspects of the organisation’s game. The following list summarises some common mappings between domain / categories and tactics that can be used to enhance each respective area:

  • Purpose – identity, morale, brand awareness
    • efficient – vision/values as ‘credo’ for decision-making
    • reliable – emphasis on principles with rules as default
    • elegant – use of emotive language to enhance engagement
    • appropriate – explicit reference to ‘outside’ contexts (vision / role / mission / goals layering), ISO-14000, ISO-17000
    • integrated – whole-of-organisation strategy development
  • People – satisfaction, conflict resolution
    • efficient – privacy, reputation-management, ‘Cluetrain’ tactics, leadership
    • reliable – integrity / ethics training, shift to win/win perspective
    • elegant – CRM systems, customer-relationship training, work/life balance, personalisation
    • appropriate – customer-value analysis, principle-based employment / stakeholder-relationships
    • integrated – customer-centric model, ‘wholeness responsibility’
  • Preparation – knowledge audit, capability assessment, gap analysis
    • efficient – capability development (e.g. innovation training, systems thinking), ‘development time’
    • reliable – knowledge-management (KM), knowledge audit / review, integrated performance-support systems (IPSS)
    • elegant – tacit KM, communities of practice, ‘Yellow Pages’ skills / expertise directories, weblogs
    • appropriate – knowledge audit, gap analysis
    • integrated – intranet/extranet, KM, security policy / review
  • Practice – resources, skills-base, operating environment
    • efficient – active learning (e.g. After Action Review), kaizen continuous improvement, supply-chain analysis
    • reliable – workflow analysis, capability analysis, scenario development, risk/opportunity analysis
    • elegant – post-compliance TQM (e.g. quality circles), OH&S, ergonomics, personalisation, IPSS
    • appropriate – strategic review, large-group interventions (e.g. Future Search)
    • integrated – ISO-9000:2000, post-compliance TQM
  • Performance – benchmarks, scorecards, dashboards
    • efficient – benchmarking, real-time ‘dashboards’, integration frameworks
    • reliable – interactive intranet / extranet (e.g. wiki, chat, conferencing), narrative and dialogue, large-group interventions (e.g. Open Space)
    • elegant – equity/diversity policy / practice; complexity-system techniques (e.g. Cynefin / Cognitive Edge)
    • appropriate – real-time ‘dashboards’, values / performance review
    • integrated – SEMPER, Extended Balanced Scorecard, Triple Bottom Line, AA1000

Where the problem-area is a ‘1’-type issue, it’s best to not attempt to dive straight in and ‘fix the problem’. ‘1’-type issues are often deeply entrenched and ‘undiscussable’: hitting them hard – as would be the standard approach in most conventional consulting techniques – only makes things worse, often provoking a reaction that seems far out of proportion to the event. Instead, like an inflamed wound, it’s best to tackle them gently, often by deliberately looking away elsewhere – in other words, find another area with a ‘3’-type or above for which the diagnostic shows a ‘hook’ that can link back to the inflamed area, and leverage improvement from there. In Standard SEMPER such alternate paths are shown automatically via the six link-themes; for SEMPER-5, switch between ‘sort by domain’ and ‘sort by category’ and choose an area in either the same domain or same category with a higher-level score, linking back to the inflamed area with that domain or category as the ‘hook’.

Probably the most powerful type of tool for creating sustainable improvements in effectiveness is the large-group interventions: techniques such as Future Search and Open Space, which operate directly at the ‘5’-type level. They are not for the faint-hearted, though: to work well, all of them require that facilitators and managers relinquish control, agendas and outcomes, in order to allow the real requirements to emerge from the collective space. Any attempt to control the process – to force it back to a more comfortable ‘3’-type level, or below – will not only guarantee failure, but is likely to entrench cynicism, ‘change fatigue’ and resistance to further interventions. For the same reason, agreements made during this type of emergent process must always be carried through to completion: if there’s any risk that such commitments will be withdrawn, it’s better not to attempt these processes at all.

For the common ‘2’-type problem of organisational ‘silos’ – “never let the left hand know what the right or middle hands are doing” – the best tactic is actually no tactic at all, but an emphasis on the rarely-understood role of the generalist. Every organisation has people whose natural inclination is to wander from place to place, to talk, exchange ideas and stories, keep track of how things link together. Some of these roles are formally recognised – project manager is one such example – but most are not. ‘Horizontal’ connections are essential for the organisation’s integration and effectiveness, but in most cases they’re actively thwarted by the ‘vertical’ orientation of the organisation’s structures. The better that the generalists do their real work of creating links and connections, the more they’re likely to be penalised for ‘failing’ to perform against what are – for that kind of work – entirely the wrong types of performance metrics. A common survival-tactic for generalists in large organisations is to shelter under the wing of a powerful patron, often assigned an indefinable title such as ‘ideation manager’ or ‘communications analyst’ that protects them from conventional performance-assessments. The catch with this tactic is that it remains dependent on the whim and status of the patron: if either are lost, the protection goes with it. Far better to develop performance-metrics for generalists that are actually meaningful in practice: never an easy task, but a necessary one if the organisation wants to move onward.

Moving beyond a ‘3’-type level – and especially from ‘4’-type to ‘5’-type – is not something that can be done by incremental improvement: it requires a true quantum jump, a change from one state to an entirely different other. The ‘3’-type level is that best that can be achieved with conventional command-and-control; moving to the ‘4’-type level requires that ‘command’ be dropped, instead recognising the unique attributes of each individual; and moving to the ‘5’-type level requires that ‘control’ be dropped too, allowing wholeness-responsibility to arise from within each individual. This last level of trust is impractical in most organisational contexts: the few commercial organisations with sustained high ‘5’-type levels, such as Ricardo Semler’s Semco, all operate within high-margin niche markets. But for the rest of us, no matter how tightly constrained our environment may be, it’s always possible to have at least one or two ‘5’-type areas, and it’s always something that’s worth striving for: it’s what makes the difference between the good and the truly great.