Two young fish are swimming downstream. On the way down, they meet a wise old fish. “Morning boys,” he says. “How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” The point of David Foster Wallace’s little fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Indeed, in the day to day trenches of business existence, the most important issues to deal with are often missed.
For example, the single best test for assessing development needs is either completely unknown or beyond the skill set of a single manager. The fact of the matter is a huge majority of managers and execs initially question the validity of this test, which is neither a paper test nor a 360 feedback test.
If the behavior of an individual consistently (3 or 4 times) fails to achieve the expected level of performance there are three possible reasons. In 1% of the time, the person is malicious and is essentially attempting to screw somebody or sabotage the organization. Malicious behavior becomes obvious fairly soon, but it’s rarely seen today because of the need for job security. In 2 – 3% of the time, the person is thoughtless or careless.
But in 95 – 96% of the time the failure is because the person simply lacks the tools in his or her toolkit to carry it off. The test is quite simple: can a person deliver what she’s promised or committed to? If she has failed to deliver on her practice or performance three or more times, she lacks the necessary tools. And 95 – 96% of the time you’re staring at an obvious developmental need. That’s as a good a developmental assessment you’re ever going to get.
A surprisingly large number of people have difficulty believing this statistic. Execs, especially, can’t believe that someone lacks the tools to do such and such. . . . However, since today’s manufacturing employee may well need to know calculus to operate a machine on the factory floor, or the ability to manipulate and interpret sophisticated data monstrosities at corporate headquarters, you’re going to see a lot more failures in the future. These obvious failures may be the inability to resolve a recurring work breakdown, to calm passengers while turning a plane around in a storm, to complete a client’s website on time and with little to no errors, or to devise algorithms to make sense out of regular incoming data.
I’ve gone through the following conversation with managers on this issue an infinite number of times. “You’re telling me he lacks the tools?” Yeah, if he’s consistently failed to achieve that objective. “I can’t believe that. He’s been around the barn.” OK. What makes you think that his experience means that he has the tools? “Well, he should have the tools.” Shoulda, woulda, coulda. But what actual data do you have backing up your conclusion? (silence) “I have no real data.” No data, no performance. That should always be your test. Period.
And then there’s typically a two to three week time-lag in which the manager wants to think about the conclusion I’m forcing on her. “I’ve been thinking about your test. I think it’s accurate. . . but I don’t like it.” I understand. But don’t forget it!
FYI: It’ll take three more observed failures of other people before the manager or exec actually believes the rule and puts it to work. And some never get there. You can count on that, too.
For some reason people don’t get this rule immediately or easily. The reason people don’t immediately get this rule is the belief that if someone can talk about something she can also do that something. This is false reasoning, though understandable. I can talk about how to play the oboe, the fingering, the breathing, how to place my mouth on the mouthpiece and read the music. But I sure as hell can’t play the oboe. And you wouldn’t want to be around if I tried. It’s what Pfeffer and Sutton call the “knowing-doing gap:” the inability to turn knowledge into action.
This is not a moral issue. The worker doesn’t intend to lie. She’s often plainly unaware. Most people actually think that if they can talk about something, they can do it. Don’t waste your time drawing negative conclusions about that person. We all get caught in the problem. The lack of tools and people’s disbelief that that’s impossible happens at the lowest levels and it happens also at the highest levels—all the way up to the CEO.
BTW: I know that we all have difficulty holding two ideas in our head at the same time. But I have also found that we can apply the rule to the assessment of our own personal developmental needs.
What to do?
If you’re a manager, coach, coach and coach the person some more. And put the person in a work setting where they’ll get the opportunity to learn the behavior. Of course you may ask whether you want to invest that much in a person. I can’t answer that question for you. You may coach him, bring in a mentor or consultant, move the person around, put him in another job or terminate him. Execs really, really hate to terminate someone for performance issues. That means that those failures may hang around for awhile, until the exec finally decides to let the person go. And that could be six months to a year or longer, sometimes years. Unless there’s a major recession cutback, a significant reorganization, or, well . . . bankruptcy.
In the meantime, eat your peas, don’t gripe, and circumvent as much as you can without getting in trouble. And don’t forget that that’s the only foolproof, developmental assessment test.