Discovering The Stuff Of Competency

Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International,,

People with a talent for something have a knack of doing their thing with great ease. The best do impossible tasks with so little effort that we fail to appreciate what’s occurred. Those of us without the talent might be able to accomplish a similar task, but it will be a task, it won't come out as well and it will likely have a few restarts before being finished.
    When organizations have talents we call them core competencies - at least we do when we give that phrase the respect it is due. Thus, a core competency at change doesn’t mean the simple ability to plan and execute a transformation, but rather the ability to do it with one hand tied behind the back.
    The difference lies in a deeper and broader knowledge base and an understanding of high leverage points and the tools that utilize them. This is a knowledge composed of fundamental principles, not of procedures, rules, or examples.
    Some talented people find these high leverage understandings intuitively obvious and can’t explain them, they just use them. They are the naturals, sometimes the dilettantes, who often don't understand that others don't see things the same way.
    On the other hand, those who are professionally interested in refining these capabilities set out to codify and understand, to build a personal physics complete with concept and math of fulcrum and lever - to discover principles and to create a vocabulary for explanation and discourse.
    It is this physics of competent change proficiency that we seek.
    Our objectives:
    1) Identify a set of design principles which effectively guide the development of highly-adaptable business strategies and operating tactics.
    2) Identify effective approaches for implementation and management of these strategies and tactics.
    3) Provide a vocabulary and conceptual base which effectively communicates the nature, value, and purpose of change proficient strategies and tactics to all employees.
    In other words: how do you build them, how do you manage them, and how do you get everyone to understand them. Change proficient business practices, that is.
    Five years of probing at the nature of change proficiency with Agility Forum industry groups in real-life industrial settings has provided a solid starting point. Serious people from over 200 organizations have helped identify, postulate, test, analyze, and verify basic concepts and models for measuring and describing change proficiency across a broad base of business activities. Those discoveries and conclusions and concepts have been chronicled here in prior essays.
    Reaching into this background work we find the starting propositions for our physics quest. First we take a business engineering point of view (wake up the left brain here) and look at any organization of interacting units as a "system", whether it is a company of business units, a team of people, a cell of workstations, a chain of suppliers, a network of controllers, or a gaggle of partners. Then, in physics parlance, we see our fulcrum as the system's framework, our levers as the system's modules, and our mathematical axioms as the principles that guide the design of the modules and framework and their interactions.
    Ten such principles have been postulated previously and shown at work in a few different business settings (this column
Dec '95). The framework and module concept has also been discussed superficially here (Mar '95). And though there is studied work behind these concepts from a variety of contributors they have yet to be vetted in meaningful business settings. More to the point, they have yet to be packaged into a useful and understandable body of knowledge.
    This, then, is the task at hand. But it is not a task for academics, nor is it an academic task. Though
the rigors of the scientific approach would yield more precise definitions, more precise mathematical models, and more defensible conclusions - the results would lie in books and reports with too much math and too little application. Their values will be added and appreciated later. For now, this is a task for business people who have problems to solve and opportunities to grab.
    Self discovery is the quickest way to assimilate and appreciate new knowledge. Working groups from industry that explored the early concepts of change proficiency sent people back to their companies with new visions of possibilities and new ideas on how to realize them. Many of them are making something happen in their companies as a result. Not because they heard a seminar. Not because they read a book. And not because they sat around a table and kicked around a few ideas. But because they tried to make sense of something that little was known about, and did it in the company of others with different backgrounds who also wanted a new knowledge and sense of understanding.
    Industry workshops typically bring together people with different backgrounds and different agendas - and this often leads to a non-productive activity as the group spends its time seeking common ground. We have found that structuring a working group's activities with a fixed analysis process and a clear objective eliminates these problems; driving the activity toward discovery of new knowledge. We have also found it counterproductive to require consensus on the conclusions. The people who went back from the early Agility Forum workshops to implement what they had learned all went back with very personal ideas. Ideas formed from their own conclusions about the new knowledge that was exposed.
    So back to the task at hand. We want to arrive at a set of principles that underlie adaptability in the business environment. We want to package those principles so they are readily understood and will be immediately employed. They must be both specific enough to offer effective guidance and general enough to encourage personal and unique application. And they must address the issues of today's managers in the terms of today's perceptions. So we need real people at the core of both the discovery and packaging processes.
    But the principle advantage with real people is that they will be the ones to immediately employ the new knowledge: they discovered it, they understand it, and it is packaged to solve the problems that they brought to the table. The academics can add the square roots and integral signs later.
    Emerging from early work done by the Forum’s Production Operations Industry Group and a subsequent multi-group Agile Practice Reference Base project, the "principles" shown in the accompanying figure are properly called hypothesis - untested in the large - yet they do offer promising intuitive feel. Now we need examples, we need a vocabulary, we need a way to take this understanding out of the intuitive side and place it on the table. Above all, we need an understanding that can be employed differently by different people with different opportunities and different visions.
    The process for completion will explore examples in the twelve business elements described in the accompanying figure. Those descriptions are strawmen at the moment and will be refined as we proceed. Beginning in March '97 eight companies, one per month, in diverse industrial and service sectors will be visited. They will be chosen for their perceived change proficiency in a few of the areas to be investigated. A three-day structured analysis activity will occur at each site, with up to five participants from the site and up to ten non-competitive participants from other organizations. Each site will receive a new perspective on its competency and see the path for diffusion into other areas. At year end we will package the conclusions for all participants.

1994-1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #028 - Originally Published 2/97 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications

Home | Library
Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
1994-2005 Paradigm Shift International - Attributed Copies Permitted
Last modified: April 25, 2005