Management Performance Depends on Solving Problems – Part 2

Determining the capability level for a position

First imagine an organizational chart, and then within this chart envision any number of hierarchical layers (between two and eight). Dispersed throughout these layers, will be different managerial and non-managerial positions that will require the ability to work with problems of varying complexities and for which effective solutions may span anywhere from one day to several years. As we move from the bottom to the top of this chart, the positional requirements will generally become more complex (and managerial) with each higher level, and the time horizons (cognitive scope) required to solve the increasingly complex issues will lengthen. Obviously, the organizational CEO (at the top) has to contend with more complex issues, and plan further into the future, than does the machine operator on the factory floor (at the bottom).

It is critical to determine appropriate cognitive scope for each layer. Cognitive scope refers to how a person handles information complexity, and their scope level will expand significantly when they have the ability to conceptualize and to envision multiple possibilities. So the greater a person’s ability to handle information complexity, the greater will be his or her ability to think ahead, to envision and consider various options, and to formulate the most effective solutions. While Mr. Jobs, and his peers, were all able to use their extraordinary cognitive scope to envision far reaching solutions, the rest of us will at least need to have scope that is suitable to our work level if we are going to perform successfully. Appropriate cognitive scope (no more, no less) is essential if people are to solve problems and to perform effectively in their respective roles.

When evaluating each position we will need to be accurate in our determination of its capability requirements. “Being close” is not enough. The scope of a person’s thinking and the specific time-span demands of their position need to fit the exact same pattern for success to be experienced. Those people with a scope below the positional requirement will be ‘over matched’ and unable to perform at a suitable capacity; resulting in poor performance. And those people with scope that is significantly beyond the positional requirements will be bored, feel under-utilized and see little value in interactions with their immediate supervisors; resulting in poor job satisfaction and poor retention. Since the scope required for each position increases as you go up the organizational hierarchy, mismatches between a person’s scope and the demands of the position will have an increasingly apparent, and visible, negative impact at the highest levels. It becomes very noticeable when the CEO does not match!

When building a specific hierarchical organizational model, we need to remember that not all organizations are the same, they are not all equally complex nor will they fit the same mold. So, the number of hierarchical layers will often vary. The largest corporations will have up to eight layers of complexity, and smaller organizations will have less. When developing each model, we need to be adaptable in our analysis and we need to be careful to not assume that the current number of levels is appropriate. Some organizations have more layers than necessary and some will have less than they need. Once the hierarchical layers are determined, we can then identify all subsequent organizational positions, we can qualitatively compare their specific requirements and then we can position each within the appropriate level (stratum) in the organizational chart. Taking the time to do this will help to ensure top to bottom continuity, and will allow us to make appropriate adjustments to our original hierarchical perceptions.

Determining the current capability level of personnel

While everyone may not want to be compared to Steve Jobs, most people would like to be seen as being very capable “problem solvers”. Who wouldn’t? Very few people will admit to being incapable of dealing with the problems that they typically experience in their work, and even fewer will admit to a mismatch between their abilities and the work that they would like to do when looking for new employment. The challenge for the person assessing capability is that, while specific problem solving capability and cognitive scope requirements for a position can be difficult to determine, the ability to ascertain their presence in an individual is even more daunting - there are no quick identifiers.

The exception may be a person whose capability is beyond their current role. In this case, while they will more readily admit that there is a mismatch, they typically do not understand the real reason why. So we will most often hear them make comments like, “I don’t like my boss”, “I am bored with my work”, or “I need a new challenge”. We can translate this statement into; “my capabilities exceed my boss’s capabilities, therefore my boss does not provide value to me, and it is time for me to move on to a more suitable role”. By comparison, those people who are below their positional capability requirements will rarely admit it, and they are more likely spending their time covering their inadequacies then trying to understand, or rectifying, the impact of them.

Assuming that we have accurately determined the capability requirements for each specific position, we can then take steps to determine if each individual has the necessary capability to suitably perform at the corresponding level. In order to ensure accurate capability matching we will need to move beyond the typical intuitive assessment that is too often employed by decision makers. Proper evaluative analysis and requirement comparison is essential if we want to avoid poor decisions and the all too common poor individual and organizational performance that results from a capability mismatch. 

Experience has shown us that only specifically focused direct questioning will provide the evaluator with an accurate portrayal of an individual’s problem solving capability at that point in time. While it would be nice to have an easily administered written assessment that answers all of our questions, an appropriate measurement tool does not exist. Supportive assessment tools can be used to help verify the results obtained from direct questioning, but they can never replace the effectiveness of this approach. We will have to take the time to do it right if we want to do it well.

While we can begin our evaluation with generalized questions, to be sufficiently accurate capability related questions need to be properly individualized and adapted to the person’s specific experience. By devoting appropriate time, and asking questions in different ways, we can ensure that there is consistency in response. The questions should not be limited or focused solely on the desired capability level, but rather should be fairly open so as to allow for the respondent to elaborate on whatever their capability level may be. Whether a match exists can be determined later. Finally, the questions asked should be designed to mask their intent from the respondent otherwise they may try to tell us what they think we want to hear.

Once the questioning is finished, we can then use our pre-defined stratum scale to make a direct comparison between the position capability requirements and the person’s ability to fulfill them. Further, by sub-referencing position-specific tasks, as defined within the framework of capability, and using them as a more detailed guideline, we can further elevate our evaluation confidence levels. Accurate comparison is crucial, as there must be a direct match. If the person does not currently have the ability to handle complexity at the level required the position, no amount of training, coaching, or personal development will complete the fit. 

While each organization should develop its own specific hierarchical chart (with an appropriate number of levels), this chart has value by providing initial general guidelines as a point of reference. Once the organizational chart is developed, it can be used to specify per-level requirements, to help in cross-level comparisons and to assist in any movement decisions between levels.

For example, we can say that people at stratum level 1 can reliably carry out procedures, but they do not yet have the ability to anticipate problems. And, a person who is required to operate at a stratum 1 level but who actually has stratum 2 capabilities will be somewhat “out of their element” and is likely frustrated with the lack of opportunity to address the problems that they do anticipate. On the positive side, the characteristics that would make the stratum 2 person bored and frustrated at stratum 1 are the same that would be factored into any promotional considerations in moving this person to a First Line Manager role in stratum 2.

Or, by comparison, we could also say that the requirement for writing a sequential plan for creating and implementing a new company-wide training program would require a person with a capability level of stratum 3. Thus, a stratum 2 person would struggle with the time requirement and, at best, might come up with a plan based their more comfortable shorter time horizon – still not suitable for the most effective implementation and long-term sustainability. At the same time, a stratum 4 person would likely be bored with the project and, at best, might create a plan that was too complicated, too difficult to implement and too hard to administer by the people with stratum 2 capabilities.

When we understand the need for direct matching between role and capability, and what can happen when mismatches occur, we can fully appreciate the tremendous implications not only for operational efficiency, but also for; succession planning, internal workforce mobility options, retention considerations and when we are hiring new managers and staff. Whatever the function, it is critical to be able to measure an individual’s ability to plan, to think strategically, to analyze problems and to anticipate the consequences of various courses of action within the context of the scope of their respective position. Once technical skills and capability requirements are satisfied, the person will be more able to set appropriate priorities (judgment) and then to be able to properly assess, interact with, mobilize and utilize their human resources (people judgment) to facilitate appropriate action (management).

Determining the future capability level of personnel

A large part of the capability assessment process involves not only determining a person’s current capability level, but it should also involve the evaluation of when a person’s capability will grow to the next level. Again, this knowledge has significant value in internal succession planning, in developing key personnel, in increasing retention and in the identification of future organizational leaders – even when hiring externally.

A person’s ability to handle complexity is dynamic, not static, and their capability will “mature” in a predictable manner as they get older. By knowing an individual’s current scope and age, it is possible to predict how fast their scope may grow and, therefore, predict when they are likely to be ready for a greater level of complex work activity or increased managerial responsibility. We can use this knowledge to identify “high potentials” who will tend to be more eager (and capable) to move up the organizational chart, and as well to determine those people who will be more comfortable in developing a level of expertise while remaining in the same role for longer durations throughout their career.

But while complexity can grow with age, there is no way to accelerate the maturation process. No training or developmental programs will help stimulate growth – it will only occur naturally. Additional education simply provides the person with more information and tools to utilize within their current capability level – it will not expand their level. If the person does not currently have the ability to handle the complexity at the level required by a certain position, they will simply be unable to do the work. And waiting for someone to “grow into” the position is foolhardy. The best approach is to appropriately match the right person to the role, and then to offer more demanding responsibilities as their capability grows. This will ensure both evolving above-average performance and job satisfaction through career growth.

Final thoughts

So the great majority of us do not have the problem solving capability to compete with Mr. Jobs, Mr. Gates and Mr. Ford’s successes. And since we are not likely to be currently at an equivalent capability level, we will never be able to “catch up” – no matter what we do. But we may be able to maximize our problem solving capability to be as capable as possible within our current level. As discussed, studies show that we tend to think more concretely regarding lower complexity short-term problems, and we tend to think abstractly about more complex longer-term problems. The most innovative problem-solvers are capable of resolving highly complex problems because of their longer “solution time horizon” and their ability to utilize abstract thought. So perhaps we can be more innovative if we try to push just beyond our comfortable time horizons when solving a particular problem. It’s worth a try!

Expand your time horizon, think abstractly and innovate!