String Theory on a Bus

People are central to Organizational Biology (orgbio) and orgbio is composed of two fundamental elements: Mass (machinery, intangibles such as patents and policies and procedures) and the ephemeral quality of Adeptness which is the human application of mass toward an organizational objective.

Adeptness typically means managing people.  And whether these people are staff, contractors or volunteers; this is not easy.  For one thing, people have a terrible habit of coming in all shapes and sizes.  For another, they have different opinions and perspectives.  Notwithstanding this, we also know that some staff/contractors/volunteers are golden and some are more silver, bronze or even made of up of post-masticated-nutrients.

Keep, Invest or Divest Decision

This blog is not about how to motivate staff, recruit top contractors for low costs or create a volunteer nirvana.  Instead it provides a model for placing people on a decision matrix to evaluate their contributions relative to the costs and investments made into them.  Like any asset or investment there are costs, returns and exit strategies to consider when managing people.

At this point you might be feeling a bit uncomfortable thinking about people having a return or there being a ‘total cost of employment’ compared to the ‘total benefit of employment’.  The reality is that employees and contractors have a clear economic relationship with their employer/client.  It is a bit more fuzzy with volunteers but even then one can discuss how best to pay your volunteers.  As well, we use economic language all of the time in these contexts.  Organizations ‘invest in their people’, they are the firm’s biggest ‘asset’ and organizations have human resource departments.

Just like any other asset, organizations need to evaluate whether to keep, invest or divest in the staff, contractors and volunteers they are engaged with.  To do this, the 2×2 Abilities model is described below – as well as its limitations and risks.

Technical versus Personal Abilities

The model is based on a 2×2 matrix of high and low technical and personal abilities. Technical abilities are the tangible skills to produce a product or service requiring education, ability and experience.  Computer development, machining parts, analyzing financial investments and flying airplanes are examples of technical skills.  As a test, these are generally the skills that are most readily automated or computerized.

Personal abilities are the social dimensions of individuals within an organization context.  They include leadership, followership, drive, social graces, charm, customer service or humour.  Personal abilities are difficult to automate although they can be mimiced by computers (e.g. you may have been speaking to call center robot and not even realized it).

Personal and Technical Abilities

Personal and Technical Abilities

People have different innate technical and personal abilities; which to a point, they can improve on.  As well, people both gain and lose their respective abilities over time.  A CIO may still be a killer COBOL programmer but her learned personal abilities around leadership and strategy are much more important now.

String Theory and Challenges

Plotting the gradient of personal and technical abilities on a 2×2 matrix yields the following with three resulting ‘strings’ and challenges:

Technical/Personal Ability Matrix

Strings and Challenges

  1. First String: most proficient individuals.  These individuals blend technical skills with personal attributes such as communications, leadership, interpersonal abilities and thought leadership. Super stars are found in this area.
  2. Second String: these individuals have less of one or more of the blend skills of the first string.  For example a technically proficient individual may have poor communication or interpersonal skills.  Or an individual has good but not exceptional technical or personal abilities.
  3. Third String: these individuals are often junior, have dated technical skills, completing work outside of their abilities (e.g. a business analyst asked to write computer code) or are simply not that good at what they do.
  4. Challenges: these individuals do not have or have lost their technical and/or personal abilities.

The Strings on the Bus Go… *

Jim Collins, in his book ‘Built to Last’ introduces the concept of the bus, specifically:

Good to great companies first got the right people on the bus–and the wrong people off the bus–and then figured out where to drive it.

In other words, the greatest organizations jettisoned individuals with the wrong personal or technical skills and then the wrong COMBINATION of these skills.  Of course removing people is easier to said then done.  For us in the public sector, removing a ‘challenge’ person is pretty much impossible.  In addition, removing a person who has had the wrong opportunities within an organization may be throwing away corporate knowledge and the ability to demonstrate to the remaining employees compassion and a willingness to set people up for success (a sure-fire way to build positive orgbio adeptness).

People will move across the strings throughout their career and perhaps even throughout the day.  I have known a few ‘first stringers’ who were challenges until their first cup of coffee.

(* for those who have not had the pleasure of hearing this Raffi masterpiece of music genius… well, perhaps count yourself lucky).

So What and What is Next

Although I have thought about the above concept for the past few years, it solidified during a discussion on what is the right balance between public sector staff and contractors in an IT department.

The challenge with that discussion was that the proponents of a staff only model would only acknowledge the upside of having staff while inflating the costs of contractors. This model helped to broaden the discussion by acknowledging that contractors should only be first and second string individuals.  Staff will cross all three of the strings (and there could even be a few immovable challenge-employees in a hypothetical public sector organization).

This model helped to remove some of the emotion and dogma from that conversation (to a greater or lesser degree of success).  Instead, the focus was on the organization’s business objectives and resources needed to accomplish these.

Hopefully the model can be used in your organization to have tough conversations about strings, challenges and buses.  Beyond the model, organizations need to apply compassion, empathy and integrity while dealing with their people – no matter what shape, size or dispositions they come with!