Tag Archives: capability

Moving From a Level of Competence

“If James sees the world in a whole new way, not as a set of unbending rules, but rules in the context of reality, how competent is James at this new approach?” I asked.

Marie was quick to answer, “He’s terrible at it. He appears unsure, he questions, so the people around him question. I agree that it is a better idea to check the project status before we show up, but now what? His crew becomes disorganized, they don’t know what to do.”

“Do you think, with more experience, that James will get better at anticipating project delays and get better at deploying his crew in a different direction?”

“Of course,” Marie replied. “It’s just, that it’s a mess now.”

“When James showed up on schedule without regard for the project status, how far did he have to think in the future?” I asked.

“Not very far,” Marie observed. “It was easy, plan for the project schedule, whatever the schedule says, is what he planned for. He didn’t have to think that far into the future.”

“And, now that James checks project status before he shows up, how far does he have to think into the future?”

“It’s much different,” Marie replied. “He has to think ahead and create contingency plans so his team knows what to do in the event of a schedule change.”

“So, he is getting better at detecting a schedule change, AND, he is in learning mode in creating contingency plans. You’re his coach, you now have some direction on where he needs your help. What questions can you ask James, where he focuses a few more days in the future and confidently directs his team in a different direction? What you are observing in James is a maturation in timespan. Maturation doesn’t move from one level of competence to another level of competence. It moves from a level of competence (always abiding by the rules) to a level of awareness (the rules don’t always fit reality) that creates confusion and a bit of struggle. Help James through that struggle, he will become more competent, in due time.”

A Shift in Coaching Strategy

“When you talk to James about his new way of checking project status the day before his crew is supposed to work, what does he say?” I asked.

Marie had to think back to her last conversation. “James is right. There is no sense showing up if the project isn’t ready, even if our contract says we are supposed to show up according to the project schedule. He still documents the delay, but says he looks for a more productive use for his crew, rather than having them stand idle waiting for the project to catch up to us. He used to look only at the project schedule, but now, he says, he looks for buffers in the schedule where another team might take longer than expected. He used to be a stickler with the schedule, now he says, why get so upset, go with the flow, plan for the schedule, but execute for reality.”

“And?”

“I guess I do the same thing,” Marie said. “It’s just such a change for James.”

“Are our projects different, now? Are the other project teams different? Are we using different materials? Are we using different equipment? Are our project schedules any different? What has changed?”

“You’re right,” Marie concluded. “The thing that is different is James.”

“My guess, as James’ manager, you didn’t have to coach James very much because he was always predictable, by the book. But, James woke up one morning and saw, sometimes, the book was wrong. The schedule was not right. He began to see the schedule, not as black and white, but something variable, you used the word buffers. And, you admit, you do the same thing in your role.”

Marie nodded, so I continued. “James is maturing. It’s not just that he is gaining more experience, he is maturing in the way that he sees the world. He used to see the world as a set of unbending rules. He now sees the rules as a set of intentions embedded in reality. You observed this new way has created some problems with his crew, not knowing, for sure, what they are supposed to do. Your job, as James’ coach is also shifting.”

People Are More Complicated

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
We are working hard to recruit and retain the best people. We have read that we should only look at A and B players, get rid of the C players. But, some of the people we might assess as C players for some roles, turn out to be A players in other roles.

Response:
I have always chuckled at simplistic recommendations that lump all people together without regard for complicated variables. A, B and C players in relationship to what?

Every role comes with a certain level of work (level of decision making, level of problem solving). The answer to the question, A, B or C is in relationship to the work. Some problems are simple enough that most people can solve them. But, as the level of complexity increases, some of those people will struggle. It does not mean they are bad people, or even that they are C players. It means that if we can match their level of capability with the level of work in the role, there is a foundation for an A player. But, wait, there’s more.

Capability is only one of four distinct variables required for success (perhaps your definition of an A player). Skill, meaning some body of technical knowledge, applied to some level of performance requiring practice. Without the skill, you, as a manager, may never see my capability.

The third variable is interest or passion for the work. We have interest in work on which we place a high value. High value translates into interest or passion. Without passion, there is less enthusiasm for practice, an essential part of skill development. Without interest, there is little reason to stick to the discipline that may be required to solve a problem, the tenacity to doggedly pursue an objective.

Lastly, there are required behaviors, either contracted by agreement (showing up for work on time), a contributory habit or a behavior required by the culture of the organization.

A, B and C may sound nice and easy to understand, but people are more complicated than that.

Cognitive Power

“Here’s a question for you,” Sam smiled. “We talk about potential, that is something we want in every candidate. You have also asked me to be specific in my language. You chided me about using analogies like – potential for growth, higher level thinking, more bandwidth, mental horsepower. Just exactly what are we talking about? And, why is this so important?”

My turn to smile. “Let me introduce a term – cognitive power. Cognitive power relates to the maximum number of variables a person can simultaneously deal with, in a given period of time. A manual task generally has a limited number of variables. Moving a pallet of ceramic tile in a warehouse requires a forklift, knowing which pallet, where is it located, where does it go, what’s in the way? There are a limited number of variables. And, those variables are physical and fixed.”

Sam nodded, so I continued. “Constructing a building is more complex. There are site considerations, zoning, platting, ingress, physical constraints, functional use, building codes, material availability, coordination of trades, availability of labor, influence of unions, finance logistics, even the weather. And some of the complexity arrives, not from the variables we know about, but, based on the timespan of the project (objective, goal), there will be variables we do not know about. The longer the project, the more uncertain the variables. Yet, to be effective, all the variables must be accounted for, including the ones we do not know about.”

“And so, a more complicated project will require more cognitive power,” Sam chimed in.

“We might try to count the number of variables to understand the complexity in a project, but the longer the project, the more some of those variable are unknowable. A better metric of complexity is to simply calculate the timespan of the project. We have to account for that uncertainty, ambiguity, in the decisions we have to make today.”

Current and Future Potential

“I want to hire someone who has potential,” Sam described. “But, I need them to hit the ground running today.”

“What do you mean when you say, potential?” I asked.

“You know, they have the ability to grow, so as things get more complicated, they don’t get lost,” Sam replied.

“I need you to be more specific. You used the word, grow. Do you mean grow taller, measured in inches? You used the word, lost. Do you mean lost in the woods? If you really want to find someone with potential, your language will lead you to the qualities you look for in a candidate.”

“Yes, but you know what I mean,” Sam flatly stated.

“I can make assumptions, but they might be wrong.” I stopped, then started again. “Instead of looking at the person, let’s look at the work, specifically the context of the work. What does hit the ground running mean? Please use terms related to capability, decision making and problem solving.”

“Okay,” Sam was slow to piece things together. “The role, today, has certain problems to be solved and decisions to be made.”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “So, the candidate has to possess the actual capability to solve problems and make decisions without significant input or direction from you, today.”

“Yes, but, the candidate will still need some initial direction from me, just to find out how things work around here. We have certain processes unique to our company, so the person will need some orientation, initial training.”

“And, how long will you give them to learn this stuff in the beginning?”

“Easy,” Sam said. “Training last two weeks. If they haven’t demonstrated some initial capability by then, we might counsel them out during a probation period.”

“So, you cannot see the performance on day one, but you expect to see performance after two weeks, benefit of the doubt, four weeks or eight weeks? In that period of time, has their potential changed?” I pressed.

“No, potential doesn’t change that fast,” Sam responded.

“So, on day one, you see their actual capability, in a raw state, it is what it is. You need this person to learn and learn quickly, so that two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks from now, the candidate’s decision making and problem solving will be at a higher level, meaning they have current potential. The difference between actual capability today and current potential two weeks from now is initial orientation and training.”

“Yes, but I want more than that,” Sam said, almost complaining.

“Of course you do,” I furrowed my brow. “What you really want is future potential. Potential is not something that can be trained, it can only mature. And, you want to see that in a candidate?”

“It sounds like a tall order, but yes, that is what I want.”

“Then, what questions will you ask?”

What is Competence?

To be effective requires competence. But, what is competence? Lee Thayer said, “The best measure of performance is performance.” It sounds like a circular reference (illegal on an Excel spreadsheet), but his intent was focused. When measuring performance, do not be mislead by surrounding statistics, the best measure of performance is performance.

But, what of competence. Here, the circular reference breaks down. One of the gifts that Elliott gave us was the Four Absolutes Required for Success (in any role, no matter the discipline).

  • Capability.
  • Skill, broken into technical knowledge and practiced performance.
  • Interest, passion (value for the work).
  • Required behaviors

Competence is a combination of Capability and Skill. If I do not have the capability for the work, no amount of developmental training will be helpful. And, I don’t have the skill, you will never see my capability. Competence is a combination of both.

Interest, or passion for the work will influence the amount of time for practice. The more interested I am, the more time I will spend in practice. And if I don’t practice a skill, the skill goes away, competence diminishes.

There is also a set of required behaviors. Practice arrives with many qualities, frequency of practice, duration of practice, depth of practice, accuracy of practice. Accuracy of practice relates to required behaviors. Practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.

While the best measure of performance is performance, we can understand competence with a bit more detail.

Carrots and Sticks

“People have a fair, intuitive sense of their own capability,” Pablo continued. “And, they yearn for opportunity to exercise their full potential. To do otherwise causes people to wilt. A great deal of a person’s self-esteem, even identity comes from the value they see in the work that they do.”

“So, the system in which they work has impact on how they behave?” I floated.

“It’s not just the system, it’s what people believe about the system. What we believe, our assumptions, the way we see the world is what drives our behavior. Look, the real question is, if we believe that people want to fully participate at their highest level of capability, spread their wings toward independence, that they do not need a carrot and stick to get on with their work, then what kind of managerial system would we create?”

“This sounds a bit idealistic, don’t you think?” I countered.

“Not at all,” Pablo replied. “This is about hard nosed work. Making decisions and solving problems, tough decisions and difficult problems.”

Effective Or Not?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was fortunate enough to attend one of your in-person sessions. I have a specific supervisor not able to effectively complete some parts in her role description, so we followed your assessment exercise. She and I had pretty similar views and she saw that the higher levels of work was where she was struggling. She has asked for 60 days to make some improvements. In your experience have you found that improvements are possible, and that people are able to stretch to perform higher level functions?

Response:
First, I congratulate you on taking the time to have this difficult conversation with your team member. A sixty day period is certainly a reasonable request, however, it’s not hands-off. I would recommend a weekly thirty-minute coaching session between the two of you. You have already identified the areas of struggle, that’s your agenda (written agenda). Pick a Friday or a Monday.

Specifically, your discussion should revolve around the work. I define work as problem solving and decision making. Your questions should be “what decisions were a challenge this week?” and “what problems were a challenge this week?” Pay close attention to how your team member responds.

Your question is centered around the issue of capability. Is your team member capable of making the decisions and solving the problems embedded in the work? Your discussions about the struggle will give you clarity. Over a six-week period, you should have six clear data points that will reveal a pattern. Then the decision is pretty simple – effective? or not?

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.