One of the problems with having grown a blog out of one’s own thoughts (and conversations with friends) is that the early stuff always looks a little questionable. Last time, I linked to a post from 2004 October in which I used some of the technical language about the Capability of Information Processing coding.
The language rightly raised some eyebrows. Nancy was the one brave enough to leave the comment about it. She says:
Coding sounds like such a strange thing to be doing to people. You talk about people like they are lab rats. I would code many of you at a stratum .01 cxip with very little potential to become a II.
Yeah, “coding” does sound most unpleasant. It really is simply a formal form of evaluation, the same way that Myers-Briggs is a formal way of evaluating personality traits. Both are forms of evaluation of people, as are our own simply judgments about someone’s ability to do something. For example, I have to make judgments about what I am personally capable of doing or what others can do better. I pay an accountant because he is much more capable than I am in properly doing my taxes, based on my evaluations and judgments of both our capabilities.
Coding, then, is really about judgment. For me, it’s mostly judgment about yourself and the judgments others have of you.
This isn’t about people being lab rats, nor am I running some form of extended experiment on anyone. It’s about liberty. It’s about freedom. It’s about the dignity of every person and the dignity of all work. It’s about the rights and responsibilities, about knowing who you are, about participating in your world in the way that you fully engage. It’s about trade-offs and limits and why that solution is never going to work no matter how hard you try.
Everyone that I have evaluated has volunteered to sit for me. Some did so because they know me and I have earned the right to waste some of their time. Most do so because they believe that it may provide them with information about themselves.
And everyone reading this blog should hear what I tell them:
What I tell you should not be news but fit with what you already. It should expand on it but not feel like it rejects your experience. If at any time you think I’m full of it, reject what I’m saying. If at any time this seems like something that does not fit with your experience, reject it.
This “coding” evaluation that I talk about (and occasionally still do) is about providing people information so that they can succeed in life. It’s not about a master race or even about helping management control subordinates. My ancestors were coal miners and involved in early union organizing and the Battle of Blair Mountain, and I have worked under USW and Teamster leadership. Work and workers deserve dignity, no matter what they do, whether coal-camp butcher or multinational CEO.
People deserve right fitting work. The people that I am trying to help can be well served by these ideas, not because they’re smart, since “smart” doesn’t matter, only working hard. They’ve got “working hard” down, because being who they are, simply being in their jobs requires a massive amount of work just to stay where they are. By helping them understand who they are and the level of work that they can do, these people I call “underemployed high-potentials” can be freed to find work that does not debilitate them and in which they can compete with some chance of success.
And don’t be fooled: if you are working a position that is two levels too small, you can never succeed. No matter how hard you try. Everyone should have a chance at self-actualization, at fully engaging the world, at giving back fully what God has given to them whether at work or elsewhere in their lives.
Knowing what level of work you have the potential to do is liberating, freeing. Justified differentiation makes accountabilities and boundaries clear, lets you know the “rules” for doing your job right and your rights against your manager.
Why do I care? People should not have to live in situations that destroy them. Recognizing your own level of current potential capability lets you move on from trying to succeed at a game that’s not yours. It’s like trying to have fun playing basketball when everyone else is playing football/soccer. (“Why do you keep using your hands?!”) All you are doing is exasperating everyone else who plays by different rules because they are having fun playing a different game. When you start playing with others who are playing your game, you have a lot more fun. The game is much less stressful because you understand the rules.
This system of differentiation, though, must be married to a system of equalization. You don’t have to do jobs that don’t fit, but you also don’t have to call them “demeaning” and thereby rip the dignity from those who like the work. It is here that the “right of appeal” of your manager’s decisions and the participation in policy-making decisions has a place, including the unanimous-vote works council.
Knowing this little bit, for these people I call underemployed high potentials, helps them get out of this trap. Having a formal language to discuss this in (as Al Gorman regularly reminds me) gives people much more insight than saying something about their having “special gifts”. So I use the concepts from CIP as legitimately as I can, because I want people to understand where they can be successful, rather than simply using Universal Language in speaking to them.
We can all agree on Universals because, well, that’s the point of it being universal. But we need more than that. We need a map. And maps require a language to communicate their meaning. The findings and language developed by Elliott Jaques at Glacier Metal Company, and later with Kathryn Cason, provide this necessary language. Unfortunately, like any technical language it is by definition jargon and there’s a learning curve for it. These days I try to reduce things down to their basic components so that as many people as possible can understand, but I still see the value in the jargon.
As for Nancy’s evaluation of me, she’s not quite got the theory down but, yes, coding me doesn’t come out that high. However, most of the people who commented on that earlier post actually have quite a lot going on, and are incredibly interesting, with a great deal of wisdom worth hearing. I found that post’s discussions particularly challenging.
Image Credit: Laboratory worker at the research laboratory at the C & NW RR’s 40th Street yard, examining paint samples used on freight cars and coaches of the railroad, Chicago, Ill.. 1942 by Jack Delano. Library of Congress collection.