The ‘secret’ ingredient of capability

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Written by Paul Matthews on 15 October 2014

Why ‘secret’? Because you know about it, but don’t pay attention to it... and that is a mistake. Here’s why.

We talk about people being competent. But is your organisation competent?

When we think of competence, we normally think of things like knowledge, skills, and perhaps attitude. If these are all in good shape, the traditional thinking is that everything will be okay. We have competent employees, and all will be well.

However, no matter how competent our employees are, if the environment within which they are working is not ‘competent’ then all the ingredients of competence within our employees will amount to little, because they will not be able to perform in an environment that is full of barriers to performance.

And trust me, the environments our employees work in are rife with barriers to their performance.

How many times in the last couple of months at work have you been unable to do a task that you set out to do? For most people the answer is ‘quite a few’. As you think of those tasks, which ones were you unable to do as a result of not knowing what to do or how to do it? For most people, the answer is none or almost none.

So if you knew how to do those tasks, and you knew what to do, and I assume you wanted to do them, what stopped you?

There was some aspect of your environment that created a barrier to you successfully completing the task. Maybe you didn’t have the right software, maybe you didn’t have the right data or information, maybe you didn’t have access to a colleague you needed, maybe your boss didn’t delegate it that well and you didn’t really know what you were actually tasked with doing, maybe the printer ran out of toner, maybe your laptop crashed, or maybe your train was late.

When you cannot do a task in the workplace that you want to do, what usually stops you? Is it you, or your environment?

In order for employees to be capable at the point of work, they must be competent, and also their environment must be competent. Lack of capability at the point of work is far more often a result of an environmental barrier rather than a lack of individual competence. And a lack of capability at the point of work is what people call poor performance.

So the next time someone asks for a training course to cure poor performance, think again. Look closely at what ingredient is missing from the capability recipe that is causing the lack of capability at the point of work. Is something missing that stops the employee being competent, or something missing that stops their environment being competent?

A great tool to drill into the detail of the ‘capability recipe’ is the Ishikawa or cause effect diagram. You can use this very effectively to home in on the missing ingredients that are barriers getting in the way of an employee being capable at the point of work.

I have expanded on this theme and written out a step-by-step process to diagnose the causes of poor performance in my brand-new book Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle. (See free offer below)

When poor performance is the presenting problem, too often the knee-jerk solution is sending people on a training course, based on the assumption that poor performance is a lack of competence within the people. But if the people are actually competent, and it is the environment that is not ‘competent’, will training the people fixed the performance issue? Probably not.

It is becoming ever more important that L&D practitioners act as performance consultants to diagnose the real root causes of poor performance rather than simply acquiescing to requests for training.


Paul Matthews is founder of People Alchemy. He offering his two books free on Kindle from 15th to 19th of October. Login to Amazon to pick up copies of Capability at Work and Informal Learning at Work


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