As Peter Drucker (1) once said,
To make strength productive is the unique purpose of organization. It cannot, of course, overcome the weaknesses with which each one of us is abundantly endowed. But it can make them irrelevant. Its task is to use the strength of each man as a building block for joint performance.
Leaving aside the all-male language of the 1960s, this call to build on people’s strengths, rather than becoming overly obsessed with their perceived weaknesses, is as relevant today as it was then.
Despite this, the established view remains that managers need, first and foremost, to identify and overcome people’s perceived weaknesses. This provides the basic rationale for the plethora of competence-based assessments, selection processes, and development schemes that dominate many of today’s ‘people management’ practices. The argument is based on the assumption that if the required set of competencies can be identified and applied in a particular way, high levels of performance will be consistently achieved. This provides a sort ‘identikit’ view of what “high performing individuals” look like, with these being ‘assembled’ through a commonly applied regime of detailed specification, formal assessment and programmed development.
Ensuring that we each have the necessary technical knowledge and skills to perform competently in whatever role we might occupy is one thing. Although even here, as Peter Vaill (2) is quick to point out,
We don’t turn off our minds while we are learning actions. We can’t.
By this he means that it is impossible to talk about the application of a set of “competencies” without recognizing that these will be enacted by conscious (and self-conscious) individuals. That is, interdependent people whose learning and application of any such competencies is always mediated by the emotional, social, psychological, and inexhaustible-other complexities of being human. I would also agree with his challenge to the taken-for-granted assumption that competencies, in the sense of discrete and universally replicable ways of acting, actually exist at all.
People are enabled and constrained in everything they do by the actions (and inactions) of everyone else. This means that competencies – and especially those relating to non-technical knowledge and skills – are necessarily simplified and abstract representations of what people actually do. They also take no real account of the complex social dynamics of ongoing interaction, through which organization is enacted and performance happens in practice.
So is there an alternative?
If we want to take Drucker’s remarks seriously, and also to take account of Vaill’s comments, we need to respond differently to the issues involved in seeking to unlock the talent in the organization and make it productive. The Unlocking Organizational Talent way of framing the challenge offers one such approach. This is rooted in the belief that:
- everyone has strengths which are currently under-utilized and – for most at least – an untapped desire to apply them;
- the purpose of leadership is to help to ‘unlock’ these talents and make them productive;
- nobody is perfect and each one of us has weaknesses to ‘complement’ our strengths; and
- the purpose of organization is not to try to avoid these individual weaknesses but to make them irrelevant by providing complementary strengths elsewhere and emphasizing outward contribution as the common goal.
A brief summary of the framework can be downloaded here.
(1) Drucker, P.F. The Effective Executive. HarperBusiness
(2)Vaill, P. V. Managing as a Performing Art. Jossey-Bass