Category Archives: Competence

New Behaviors and Habits

Muriel took a measured breath. “I have an uneasy feeling, and I don’t know why,” she explained. “Things are going okay, but, as we ramp back up, I think things are going to change. And I am not sure I am prepared to adapt quick enough.”

“Things are going well, now?” I asked.

“Going okay, not great, but okay, kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“When did things start to go okay?”

Muriel laughed. “You are right, it’s been a tough few weeks. I don’t know if I just got used to it, or if I got better.”

“So, things got easier. New unknown problems became familiar, you knew what to do and how to do it.” I said.

Muriel nodded affirmative.

“And, we know things will change, again, because they always do. Change in your company, on your team and with yourself. And when things change, you are faced with your own incompetence.”

Muriel winced. Close to home, perhaps. I continued. “But you do adapt and you do change. But tell me, when you successfully perform something new, for the first time, does that make you competent?”

“No,” she responded. “Competence requires practice, doing it well over and over, until it becomes a habit.”

“So competence is not simply acquiring an occasional new skill, but acquiring a new habit.”

Assessing Capability

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
It was a pleasure working with you last summer. I’ve been introducing the concept of Time Span to my colleagues and its been helping us lead tough HR conversations. Some were wondering if you had an assessment to help determine someone’s time span capacity.

Response:
This is a very popular question.  The answer is completely counter-intuitive.  Elliott’s caution was clear. Don’t go around judging people.  Do NOT play amateur psychologist.  You didn’t go to school for it, you don’t have a degree in it, your chances of being wrong are about 50/50, same as flipping a coin.

HOWEVER, most hiring managers are expert at the work.  Most hiring managers understand effective behavior and ineffective behavior.  Stick where you are an expert.  It’s all about the work.  I do not judge people, but, boy, do I judge the work.  By careful examination of the problem-solving and decision-making in a role, most hiring managers can easily pinpoint the level of work in the role.  If we can understand the level of work in the role, then the selection decision is easy.  “Is this person effective in the task assignments at this level of work, or not?”

Don’t play amateur psychologist, stick where you are an expert.  It’s all about the work.

Four Factors of Competence

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about competence as a primary driver of performance. If the underperformance is a matter of competence, what do I look for? It is too easy to say, “Oh, that person is just incompetent.”

Response:
Competence is made up of four things –

  • Capability
  • Skill
  • Interest or passion for the work
  • Required behaviors

These four factors can be used to trouble-shoot any underperformance, even mis-behavior.

Capability
Capability is an elusive concept to articulate, but we understand it intuitively through analogies. Some call it horsepower, mental acuity, light bulbs in the box, a few cards light in the deck. Most would agree that some problems are simple, some more complex. And, that some people can solve simple problems, but struggle when the level of problem solving becomes more complex. This is not just grasping all the facts to make a decision, but making a decision in the absence of facts, where there is ambiguity and uncertainty.

Skill
Where capability is more difficult to articulate, skill is easy. Competence related to skill is observable. There is evidence of output. A skill is anything that can be learned, anything that can be taught. Two pieces to every skill, one is technical knowledge, the other is practiced performance.

Interest or passion for the work
Without interest or passion, it is unlikely the person will put in the time to practice the skill. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, talks about 10,000 hours of practice required to master (become competent) a skill. A person who has no interest will not put in the time.

Required behaviors
There are three strings connected to required behaviors, contracted behaviors, habits and culture. There are some behaviors we simply contract for, like showing up on time for work. Competence can also be observed in habits. We are competent in those behaviors that are repeated (practiced), routine, grooved. As an organization (or team, or group) we enforce some required behaviors through culture.

So when I look for competence in performance, these are the four things I look for.

Discretionary Behavior

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You indicate the reason people do what they do is because they can. How does if-they-can relate to competence? And, if someone can-do, has the competence to-do, then how do we get them to do it? I am always looking for discretionary behavior.

Response:
Lot’s of questions embedded here. The first cause of underperformance is the lack of competence to perform. The accountability for this goes to the manager. It is the manager that determines the capability and skills required for the role. The manager is accountable for selecting the team member for the role based on their possession of that capability and skills. If the team member does not possess the requisite capability and skills, then that is poor selection on the part of the manager. This has nothing to do with discretionary behavior, this has only to do with competence.

If someone has the competence to perform, the only way for a manager to influence effective behavior is to make it necessary. The reason we don’t get the performance we want, and need, is because we do not make it necessary. If a person has the requisite skills and capability (competence) and the performance has been made necessary, then the only reason for underperformance is a matter of discretion. We can only assume underperformance occurs, is because underperformance was chosen.

The conditions for performance require –

  • Competence
  • Necessity

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For a more thorough discussion, please read Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing by Lee Thayer

Not a Matter of Skill

“I don’t understand why John doesn’t do better,” Marissa complained. “I constantly have to give him critical feedback, and I know he doesn’t like it, I can see it in his face. If he would only pay attention to the problems right in front of him, I wouldn’t have to correct him.”

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“Well, he got promoted to be a supervisor because he was a great team leader, best machine operator we have. All he has to do now, is make out the work schedule for the department, order materials and supplies, schedule preventive maintenance on the machines, keep overtime in check, how hard could it be?”

“What do you think the problem is? Where does he struggle?”

“He struggles with all of it,” Marissa replied. “And his attitude is in the dumper, he mopes around all day because he thinks I yelled at him for doing such a crappy job.”

“What does he do well?”

“That’s part of the problem. We had a machine go down yesterday and he spent the entire afternoon tearing it apart and putting it back together. All the while, we don’t have next week’s schedule and we are almost out of materials. I had to put in a rush order so we can keep production online next week.”

“So, who promoted him?”

Four Levels of Knowing

What-we-know is a mental configuration. The way we configure what-we-know extends along our timespan of intention.

Most ideas exist independent of each other. If our timespan of intention is short, it is a perfectly good way of organizing what-we-know. We can rely on what we see, hear, touch, smell. Life is relatively simple. We can choose this idea OR that idea. This is the world of trial and error.

But, we wake up one morning and see ideas that are connected together. Our timespan of intention extends further into the future. What we see, hear, touch and smell is organized by ideas that are connected. This is the world of best practices, connected to our most common problems.

But, we wake up one morning and see ideas that are caused by other ideas. There is not only a connected relationship, but a cause and effect relationship. Our timespan of intention extends even further. Best practices help to solve problems we have seen, but are useless to problems we have never solved. What-we-know comes from root-cause analysis, the basis for creating a single serial system, a series of ideas sitting in a sequence of cause and effect relationships (critical path).

But, we wake up one morning and what-we-know includes more than one system. We see multiple systems sitting side by side. Each internal system has its own constraints, but some of those constraints now sit outside the system. Each system has an output which becomes the input for its neighboring system. Defective output from one system wreaks havoc on its neighboring system. And some systems outstrip the capacity of neighboring systems, crippling overall throughput of the entire enterprise. If our timespan of intention extends this far, our problems exist in the hand-off between systems and in the output capacity of one system to the next. The organization of what-we-know comes from systems analysis.

We can only know (what-we-know) what we are capable of knowing.

Not a Matter of Motivation

“It is difficult to lead the charge if you think you look silly on top of a horse.”

I am often asked to describe the most important qualities of leadership. What does it take to make a good leader? There are many qualities. Today I am thinking of Mastery.

Mastery is the beginning of self-confidence. Many times, people believe they can pump themselves up with a motivational book or by attending a motivational seminar. While there are temporary positive feelings of invincibility, it doesn’t take more than a few hours for that to wear off.

True self-confidence begins with mastery. “Mastery over what?” – just about anything that requires some new degree of skill, anything that requires a person to truly push performance beyond their current level of self-confidence. Most folks seldom push themselves beyond their current limits, for fear of failure. It is in the facing of that fear (fear of failure) that I see true growth, a new level of mastery. There can be no mastery without the possibility of failure.

When was the last time you pushed yourself beyond limits? When was the last time you engaged in something new, something that required you to think in a new way, that required more tenacity than you have ever mustered before? It doesn’t come from a book. It doesn’t come from a seminar. Get off the couch, go do something new.

What Determines Success?

Emily shifted to the edge of the chair in anticipation. “Okay, I’m game,” she said. “If I want my team to make changes, I have to look at myself first. So, I am willing to do that. I want to make things come out better, make my team better, make myself better. I want to make a difference. I want to change the outcome.”

“Emily, we don’t choose the way things turn out. I mean, we may think we choose our success, but we do not. The only thing we choose are our habits. And, it’s our habits that determine our success. What are those grooved and routine behaviors that chip away at the world? If you want to know how to influence others, you have to first understand how you choose your own habits.”

Who Do You Hang Around With?

Jessica was talking about her boss, Matthew. Matthew is one of those special people who, in the midst of a problem always seems to see a solution. In a meeting, where an idea may be shot down, Matthew reverses the energy. He says, “I know it is impossible, but if it weren’t impossible, how would we do it?”

What she finds interesting about Matthew is that when he walks in the room, she feels an uncanny ability to conquer any difficulties in her current project.

Stay away from naysayers, and surround yourself with people who are pathologically positive. Find the energy to make things happen, to solve the problems around you. Find that person who gives you the energy and the uncanny ability to conquer difficulty.

Can’t Always Get What You Want

[Our online program – Hiring Talent 2018 kicks off April 16. More information here]

You will never ever get what you want!!! You will only get what you focus on.

At first I am disappointed, because I really want what I want. And, it makes me feel bad to understand that I will never get what I want.

If I really want it, I have to focus on it.

“It is really hard to find good people these days. We just never seem to hire the kind of people we really want.”

YOU WILL NEVER EVER GET WHAT YOU WANT! You will only get what you focus on.

It’s not that you can’t find good people out there. You have not focused your concentration and energy to find good people. What does focus look like? Think about finding good people, talk about finding good people, have meetings about finding good people, plan a campaign to find good people. Roll out an action plan to find good people.

You will never get what you want. You will only get what you focus on.