Tag Archives: capability

What Are You Working On?

“What are you working on?” I asked.

“Just trying to finish this project,” Andrew explained.

“What’s the hold-up?”

“Things always move slower than I want. You know, getting my team to push things along.”

“And, when things don’t move fast enough, how does that make you feel?” I pressed.

Andrew smirked. “A little annoyed, impatient, anxious.”

“Anxious, about what? It’s just a project.”

Andrew nodded. “Yes, it’s just a project. But, it’s my project. I know I have to work through my team to get it done, but ultimately, it’s up to me.”

“So, it’s not just a project? It’s about you?”

“Yep, on the face of it, the project has a spec, it has a budget, it has a deadline. But the project is also a test about me. Can I organize it? Can I gain the willing cooperation of the team? Can I put a sequence together to keep us on track? If we get off track, how quickly do I see it? Will I know what to correct? Can I keep the team pulling in the same direction? It’s more than just a project. It’s more than just the team. Do I have what it takes to be effective?”

Am I Capable?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been an avid reader of Jaques’ books for quite some time, and I have a question: most of what you say is to help managers and HR workers to find and hire the correct people.

But what about someone who is creating a company (my case)? How can I accurately measure my own capability, and, therefore, structure my company correctly so that its complexity doesn’t surpass my own level of thinking, while also hiring subordinates exactly one stratum below, in the case of the first hire(s)?

I would be very much interested since I’m having a hard time to be objective trying to evaluate myself.

Response:
How does the song go? “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

First, your interest in assessing your own cognitive capacity will almost always lead you astray. Don’t attempt to assess yourself, assess the work.

Second, a start-up organization has a different focus than other, more mature organizations. There are so many missing pieces and fewer resources to work with. The start-up has a quick timeline to death.

So, my first question is always, what’s the work? As you describe the work, what is the decision making and problem solving necessary? More specifically, what is the level of decision making and level of problem solving required to make a go as a start-up?

Here are some other necessary questions for your start-up.

  • What is the (market) problem you are trying to solve?
  • Does your product or service solve that market problem?
  • Can you price your product or service high enough to allow for a profit?
  • Is your market big enough to provide enough volume for your product or service? Is your market big enough for a business or just big enough for a hobby?

The first focus for every start-up is sales. Can you get your product or service into the market place and please find a customer to buy it?

In the beginning, the level of problem solving is very tactical. Can you make it and will someone buy it? That’s about it. That is why there are so many budding entrepreneurs out there. That is also why so many fail. They cannot get their company to the next level of problem solving.

Once you have a sustained momentum of sales, the next level is all about process. You see, if you can create a sustained momentum of revenue, you will also create competitors. The next level is about process. Can you produce your product or service faster, better, cheaper than your competitor? This is a different level of decision making, a different level of problem solving. It is precisely this level that washes out most start-ups.

So, focus on the work. Do you have the (cognitive) capability to effectively make the decisions and solve the problems that are necessary at the level of work in your organization? Stay out of your own head and focus on the work.

BTW, we have only described the first two levels, there are more.

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.

Because They Can

“But, isn’t it important, for a manager, to understand the reasons people do what they do?” Bailey was on a roll with her very best stiff-arm.

“For a manager, there is only one reason people do what they do. And, this is essential for every manager.” I waited to make sure Bailey was listening. “The only reason people do what they do is because they CAN. The only measure of performance is performance.”

“Sounds a little redundant to me. Are you sure this isn’t just hyperbole?” Bailey was insistent, unconvinced.

“Simple to understand. You will never find a person doing something they do not have the capability to do. You can line up all the rewards, intrinsic motivation cooked up by industrial psychologists, if a person does not possess the capability, they will underperform. Underperform or engage in diversionary behavior.”

How to Diagnose Role Fit

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
How does management ability tie into different levels of work. I’m thinking about people who are good at building (S-III) systems (flowcharts, time studies, etc.) but who are miserable at managing the people side of the equation.

Response:
In the workshop you attended, you will recall Elliott’s Four Absolutes. Your question describes one dimension of success, likely two dimensions of underperformance (failure).

Four Absolutes

  • Capability (measured in timespan)
  • Skill (technical knowledge and practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work)
  • Required behaviors (contracted behaviors, habits, culture)

A person may have the capability to be effective in the work of the role, but lack other characteristics (of equal importance).

Specifically, a person may have the capability to be effective at S-III system work, yet in a managerial role, may lack the management skills for other key areas (people related). A skill is anything that can be learned, anything that can be taught. For a manager, there is a specific set of skills related to communication, listening, delegation, decision making, team problem solving, planning, coaching, meetings.

For a manager to learn those teachable skills, they must also possess the interest and passion for that work. We have interest in and passion for that work on which we place a high value. A person who values self performance over team performance will suffer mightily as they realize there is no such thing as individual achievement.

There is no priority in the Four Absolutes, they are of equal importance.

Discontinuous Levels and Hierarchy

This is a series on Teal and Levels of Work. Here is the backstory for the series in case you are interested. The purpose for the series is to explore the tenets of Teal through the lens of Levels of Work. Links to each post in this series, below.
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From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In your post yesterday, you said that growth (of capability) is nested in discontinuous levels and that these discontinuous levels were readily observable. What did you mean by discontinuous?

Response:
An electric car has a continuous power-train and no gears. It goes from minimum to maximum in one continuous power curve. Humans are more like a multi-speed transmission, where each gear winds out to its maximum, shifting into the next gear.

Jean Piaget was the pioneer who observed distinct stages in childhood development.
Non-verbal sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years), where objects that cannot be sensed (seen or heard) do not exist. I have five fingers on each hand, but hands behind my back means I have no fingers at all.
Pre-operatonal stage (2-7 years) where symbolic language emerges to indicate relationships, though relationships are ego-centric, the child is the center of its universe.
Concrete operational stage (7-11 years), where the understanding of tangible concrete elements are organized, and abstract, conceptual elements are barely understood. Attention span (timespan) at age 6 increases from fifteen minutes to one hour at age nine.
Formal operational stage (11-18 years), where cause and effect logic, abstract conceptual elements are recognized and assimilated.

Elliott Jaques continued these observations of discontinuous stages throughout adulthood (age 20 through age 70).

  • Symbolic Declarative (S-I) – Timespan – 1 day to 3 months
  • Symbolic Cumulative (S-II) – Timespan – 3 months to 1 year
  • Symbolic Serial (S-III) – Timespan – 1 year to 2 years
  • Symbolic Parallel (S-IV) – Timespan – 2 years to 5 years
  • Conceptual Declarative (S-V) – Timespan – 5 years to 10 years
  • Conceptual Cumulative (S-VI) – Timespan – 10 years to 20 years
  • Conceptual Serial (S-VII) – Timespan – 20 years to 50 years
  • Conceptual Parallel (S-VIII) – Timespan – 50 years to 100 years

Cognitive development is not simply how many problems are solved within a time-frame. All problems are not created equal. Some problems are more complex than others, and that complexity is discontinuous.

For example –

  • Problem solving at S-I – Trial and error.
  • Problem solving at S-II – Cumulative diagnostics, comparative.
  • Problem solving at S-III – Root cause analysis, cause and effect, single critical path.
  • Problem solving at S-IV – Multi-system analysis, capacity, dependency, contingency, velocity.

Each of these stages in problem solving requires capability at that level. Levels of capability are observable and distinct, become the basis to understand levels of work. Levels of work define the framework for organizational hierarchy.
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Here are all the links to this series on Teal and Levels of Work.
Teal and Levels of Work
Hierarchy is Just a Shape
All Problems Are Not Created Equal
The Question of Accountability
Teal and Theory of Constraints
Hidden Hierarchy in a Self-Managed Team
Accountability and Authority
Behaviorists Without Children
BAMS and Teal
Back to Hierarchy, For a Reason
Most Teams are Functional, Few Are Accountable
Manifest-Extant-Requisite
Stratified Levels of Self-Organization

Stratified Levels of Self-Organization

This is a series on Teal and Levels of Work. Here is the backstory for the series in case you are interested. The purpose for the series is to explore the tenets of Teal through the lens of Levels of Work. Links to each post in this series, below.
—–
Some interesting responses, as this series evolved. Over the next few posts, I will feature some of these with my own thoughts. This post comes from Jan De Visch in Belgium. More of his thinking is in his book Dynamic Collaboration: Strengthening Self-Organization and Collaborative Intelligence in Teams.

“A false assumption in the Teal movement is that every employee can grow to a level of self-awareness from which self-management becomes possible. Scientific research shows that this is not the case. One needs to acknowledge the variety in developmental levels of participants in self-organizing teams. An essential insight is that self-organization only works in larger contexts if you start to distinguish different types of dialogue spaces (We Spaces), which are nested in each other, and each with their own dynamics. Hierarchy is sometimes an effective answer to breaking through downward divided team dynamics. Thinking through the stratified nature within self-organization is the first step towards Teal’s sustainable development. This notion is not elaborated in the Teal movement.”

I would break this down, that a person’s self-awareness is a product of their capability (observed) and that self-management emerges (and blossoms) within that capability. Cognitive development within individuals translates into cognitive capability in the team.

De Visch’s description of dialogue spaces is consistent with Jaques observation that timespan and its concommitant evidence is language. Our ability to imagine into the future begins at a very young age with the simple words, “Once upon a time.”

Self-organization exists within stratified levels of work. Growth toward that self-awareness (and self-management) is nested within discontinuous levels. These discontinuous levels are readily observable and create the hierarchy that Teal might resist, except where it acknowledges hierarchy of recognition, influence and skill. Elliott would argue that hierarchy is more precisely identified as capability.
—–
Here are all the links to this series on Teal and Levels of Work.
Teal and Levels of Work
Hierarchy is Just a Shape
All Problems Are Not Created Equal
The Question of Accountability
Teal and Theory of Constraints
Hidden Hierarchy in a Self-Managed Team
Accountability and Authority
Behaviorists Without Children
BAMS and Teal
Back to Hierarchy, For a Reason
Most Teams are Functional, Few Are Accountable
Manifest-Extant-Requisite

Calibrating Time Span

“My team tells me that I don’t follow-up with them often enough, and that is why I am sometimes disappointed,” complained Sherry.

“How often is –not often enough-?” I asked.

“It seems to be different for different people.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know,” Sherry paused. “One person can just go longer than another person without me peeking over their shoulder.”

“Sherry, I want you to think in terms of Time Span. Time Span is the length of time that a person can work into the future without your direction, using their own discretionary judgment to achieve the goal. And each person on your team has a different time span.

“Here is your exercise. Make a list of your team and beside each name, I want you to guess the length of time that each one can work independently, based on the tasks you delegate. Your guess will be the first benchmark for how long you leave them to work without follow-up. Keep a log. Once each week, for a month, write down your observations of each team member’s time span.

“The data you get from this exercise will help you know better what you can delegate and the time interval for follow-up.”

Manage the Risk

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
We’ve had to hire a lot of people this year to keep up with production and increased demand in our product. We’ve had to promote people to new levels of responsibility. Often we pick wrong. How can we know someone will succeed when we promote them? How do we test a person for capability?

Response:
Testing a person to determine their capability is counter-intuitive. I do not judge people. I did not go to school for that, I don’t have a degree in that. I am not certified by any agency to practice psychotherapy. I think I would stink at it. So, I just don’t do it.

There is something that I AM expert in. And most seasoned managers are, too. We understand the work. Work is problem solving and decision making. Given a role (to recruit, or promote), most managers have a very clear understanding of the problem solving and decision making required.

How do you test a person for capability?

You test a person for capability with project work. Every manager should constantly test every team member for capability with project work. I may not be able to judge a person, but I can certainly judge the work. When I delegate a project, I pay specific attention to the problem solving and decision making in the project. Then, all I have to do is determine if, during the course the project, the team member is effective, or not. Pretty much thumbs up, thumbs down.

Managers who constantly test their team will have a running intuitive understanding of the capability of each team member.

Here is the insight. Every manager already maintains a running intuitive understanding of the capability in each team member. Project work allows us to consciously calibrate effectiveness in specific decisions to be made and problems to be solved.

Give a person a promotion, and they fail, you have a chocolate mess on your hands. Give a person a project and they fail, you have a failed project, and, as the manager, you can manage the risk in the project.