Capability in Role: The "Other" Gaps & Compressions

Can the incumbents in your roles function at the level of complexity required?

This is a follow-up to an earlier article: "The Nature of Things".

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We have learned about the phenomenon of gaps and compressions where Direct Reports are either micro-managed or lost in the wilderness.

We have also learned that there is a natural levelling in organizations based on the nature of work at level, and that when roles fight against that nature, the result are gaps and compressions.

Sometimes this “mis-levelling” is a function of plotting roles without truly understanding the distinction between the levels. The result is either too much “space” between roles (gaps), or too little (compression).

Sometimes, though, a gap or compression appears not because of “mis-levelling”, but because of the capability of the incumbent in the role. In other words, you may have carefully plotted a Level 3 role – typically a Director focussed on unpackaging functional strategy into coherent processes – but the role is occupied by an employee who does not have the capability to do the type of work at that level.

That lack of capability could be a skills and knowledge shortfall, an attitude or motivation misalignment, or a temperament issue. If so, each of these capabilities can be addressed through training and coaching.

But, what if it’s an issue of mental horsepower? Recall cognitive capability – that part of human capability concerning the ability to handle complexity and which cannot be accelerated. Cognitive capability is directly connected to work-at-level through time span. As we have seen, each level of work is associated with a particular time span reasonably expected to complete the work at that level of complexity. It follows that the longer the time span needed to conduct work, the greater the complexity, and therefore, the greater the cognitive capability required. If an incumbent occupying a role at, say, Level 3 does not have the cognitive capability to handle the complexity of the 1- to 2-year time span for work at that level, then he cannot by definition do the type of work at Level 3.

The result is that she “drops down” into doing lower-level work, creating a gap between herself and her Manager, and very likely a compression with her Direct Reports. Not to mention being compensated for the type of work that she cannot perform.

The symptoms are the same as any other gap or compression: the direct reports “below” the gap feel micromanaged, and the Manager “above” the gap feels frustrated that his own Direct Report cannot complete the work assigned.

The solution is also the same. The Manager should take a very hard look at the role (not the person in the role!) and confirm that the role is necessary (connected to strategy) and necessary at its level (the nature of work at that level). Only then, should the Manager look at the incumbent and compare his capability to the accountabilities and authorities of the role. If a disconnect persists, then for the sake of organizational strategy, the incumbent should be given a different role, one within his capability.

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