Advertisment design study for Pierce Arrow automobiles (1915). By Edward Penfield. Via Library of Congress collection.

Top 5 Job Assignments That Produce Learning

Forrest ChristianCareers, Learning 2 Comments

Not every posting is equivalent to build great managers. That’s pretty clear to even the densest of us (me). What’s not is which of the quality postings will produce better learning than others.

Morgan W. McCall, in Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job (1988), cites the following as the Top 5 job assignments to produce learning:

  • Project / Task Force: limited duration assignments to complete either a goal or solve a project. I would imagine that special projects are what he is talking about and not the “project-oriented” organization where everything is projectized.
  • Line-to-Staff switches: where you go from working within a Line of Service (LoS) to a cross-departmental position. This is pretty obvious: staff positions require you to know about the business as a whole instead of just your little part. They also have you work on a variety of problems under greater pressures, much like projects.
  • Start-ups
  • Fixits / Turnarounds: I’ve worked on several of these and I doubt that someone who can’t learn quickly could survive. One of the issues with a Fixit is that the common knowledge doesn’t work. You have to listen to the system and just try things until something works. You often have no idea why it worked, only that it did. Which may not really be learning.
  • Leaps in Scope of Responsibility: Although if you leap beyond your actual level of Competence (as defined by Jaques in Requisiste Organization) you may end up learning to fail. In a wretching, awful way.

These five worked because they taught managers confidence, toughness and independece. Kent W. Seibert and Marilyn W. Daudelin, in The Role of Reflection in Managerial Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice, note that “It is what you have to face on the assignment that produces learning, not the assignment per se.”

A resulting problem is that in order to maximize learning and thereby maximize future innovation (learners are more likely to accept innovations), a company must be willing to take someone who is performing well in a job and put them into a position where they may fail. Risk is inherent to all of these jobs.

Of course, there are several studies (including Drucker’s Innovation) that illustrate that successful entrepreneurs, whether internal or external, do not run towards risk. In fact, their behaviours reduce risk because they reduce the amount of noise in the channel.

Still, many companies find it impossible to put off current profits for future ones. Perhaps this is a problem of not having people with long enough Time Spans of Discretion (TSD) in the right roles.

Image Credit: Advertisment design study for Pierce Arrow automobiles (1915). By Edward Penfield. Via Library of Congress collection.

Comments 2

  1. Confidence, Toughness, Independence.

    Pretty much sums up my experience. Being “right” is virtually never related to success. Being “smarter” is, but only in the presence of C, T, & I.

  2. The only other thought that hit me this morning in the shower is how you cycle effective managers through corporate staff time without impregnating them with “staffitis.”

    Staffitis = inflamation of the brain and meninges that results in the manager creating needless busy work that does not add value to the bottom line. (very similar to meningitis, except it only impairs brain function and isn’t life threatening.)

    It is a truth that corporate HQ’s create 80% of the problems field offices have to deal with.

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