Where are your people at?

November 3, 2010

A few weeks ago Seth Godin wrote about the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, which has these five steps, which I’ve cut and pasted here from Wikipedia:

1. Novice
  • “rigid adherence to taught rules or plans”
  • no exercise of “discretionary judgment”
2. Advanced beginner
  • limited “situational perception”
  • all aspects of work treated separately with equal importance
3. Competent
  • “coping with crowdedness” (multiple activities, accumulation of information)
  • some perception of actions in relation to goals
  • deliberate planning
  • formulates routines
4. Proficient
  • holistic view of situation
  • prioritizes importance of aspects
  • “perceives deviations from the normal pattern”
  • employs maxims for guidance, with meanings that adapt to the situation at hand
5. Expert
  • transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims
  • “intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding”
  • has “vision of what is possible”
  • uses “analytical approaches” in new situations or in case of problems


Godin writes “If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail” And I would expand on that to say “If you treat any person at a level that they are not at, they and you will fail.”

McDonald’s is a system that is designed around the Novice. McDonald’s does not need a willing host of experts waiting to sign up for duty when it moves into the next dusty podunk. Rather, they just need an unskilled person who is willing to follow direction. They only need someone who can be taught to count to 12 so they can stir my frappe the correct number of times.

Jack Welsh, CEO of General Electric, began working ten years before his retirement to choose a successor. He was not interested in anybody but the best of the best–an Expert of the nth degree. He could give some tips, some maxims, or some heuristics to such a person to help guide their actions, but there was no way for him to write out the exact steps to being an excellent CEO of a Fortune 100 company.

All systems need to be designed with the user in mind. Some systems need to be designed for the Novice. Some systems need to be designed for the Expert. But most systems could use a smattering of all, in order to serve the full range.

One of my clients is a large excavation company. They often have unskilled workers enter their workforce as a general laborer, working in the field. This job does not require a large amount of skill, and can easily be done by a Novice; they need to know what the rules are, and how and when to do it, and they will succeed. However, as these laborers gain experience, they begin to work their way up in the company. First, they may become an operator of several large pieces of equipment, able to make decisions that can affect their coworkers in major ways. They are now an Advanced Beginner–but they are not yet ready to become a foreman. Foremen are Competent; they can plan ahead, create tasks for the Advanced Beginners and Novices under them, and they know what role they and their crew play in getting the whole job done.

The next level at this company is Superintendent. They are Proficient. They know what needs to be done in order to get the whole job done on schedule and on budget. They know how important one piece of the job is compared to the next, and don’t have a perfect, set routine in the way they run their day. Finally, the project managers have become experts. They no longer are held to the rules of the laborers. They have the ability to go out and help obtain the next job, to think about what should be done from a deeper, strategic perspective, and to fully and completely understand the impact of all political, physical, and financial decisions on their work.

I would like to pose a simple question: what would happen if the laborer was told  “Go out and make money” and nothing else? And the corollary: what would happen if the project manager was told what to do every minute of every day?

All systems have a human element somewhere. Know what level of skill you are working with. Then adjust your system to meet and challenge the person at that skill level.


11 Responses to “Where are your people at?”

  1. Marshal Mathers Says:

    I am whatever you say I am; if I wasn’t, then why would you say I am.

  2. Edward Modnar Says:

    There are three faithful friends: an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.

  3. Stan Smith Says:

    Maybe we all have the same potential
    Like for instance we all started as a beginner once
    Key ingredients are ambition and effort
    If this is your goal the best shot is to try
    Should you fail at first try again
    Good luck cannot be relied upon
    Also never do things the easy way just to finish them
    Your future is waiting go and get it

  4. Annica Says:

    Project Managers are only experts if they are willing to continuously learn from the novice,advanced beginner, competent and proficient co-workers. They will quickly lose their expertise if they do not go back, at minimum mentally, to each level while making their decisions.

  5. Michael Wolf Says:

    I believe i am still an amateur at masonry.

    Can i work my way to the top?
    Another day will only tell.
    Nobody else can change where i go, only me.

    How do i get to that goal?
    All it takes is lots of hard work.
    Zero work gets zero reward.

    • Dan Says:

      I would respectfully submit that hard work alone won’t take anyone to the “top”, at least not as I would define it. Ambition, willingness to learn, a certain amount of risk tolerance, communication skills, business sense, etc. are also requirements of one getting to the top of their field or arena of choice. There are people who physically work like dogs and are very good at what they do, but only see their work within a narrow scope of defined tasks.

      To borrow an example from a children’s book: Charlie’s (WW and the Choco Factory) father works at a factory screwing caps on toothpaste tubes, IIRC. He could put all the hard work he wants into that defined task for many years, but eventually he’ll just be the fastest tube cap screwer. With some ambition and a true desire to expand his skillset, he could very well leverage his narrow expertise into a position as a line supervisor or process engineer in the factory, figuring out better-faster-cheaper ways to get the toothpaste caps screwed.

  6. Reb Says:

    As it relates to mothers, the best place to be is competent. Show me an expert mother and I’ll show you an unborn child.

  7. Knowing the audience is crucial. However, all plans for skill acquisition will fail unless there is a systematic plan for unrelenting, continual follow-up and nurturing from the “new idea” phase through the integration phase. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers talks about the 10,000-hour rule for excellence. I would submit that real integration takes close to 100 hours, some working with peers and some concentrated individual work. No plans for intensive follow-through makes for a flash-in-the-pan failure to change behavior.

  8. Angie Klump Says:

    There is always a good easy answer to everything. Giving up. When you are successful its time. Time to give up and go home. Live the rest of your life like a normal unsuccessful person.

  9. Anna Kelley Says:

    I like Reb’s comment best.

  10. haywood Jablomie Says:

    Many times the hard work involved
    Is overlooked by the “support staff” who
    Kill time by pretending to be smart instead of
    Excavating the ground themselves.
    It’s not the people who think its the people who
    Succeed with results.
    Lack of finesse in management is also key
    After the end of the day. Managers need to remain
    Zealous towards their employees morale, however.
    Youthfullness prevails too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: