When we talk about the Five Requirements Necessary for Effective Management, we are referring to are those specific activities managers need to carry out be effective: the five things all managers must do well. The related question is how do you ensure that you are hiring managers into positions where they can be successful? In other words, how do you ensure managerial effectiveness beyond thinking about the specific work they’ll do once they’re there? In this respect, there are Three Fundamental Capabilities of Managers: Problem Solving Capability, Skills and Knowledge and Application.
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The concept of Problem Solving Capability derives from Elliott Jacques excellent work on mental processing capability, which describes the way in which individuals solve problems. As people age, they go through a natural maturation process. Physically, they grow in height, put on weight, go through puberty, and so on. The mind matures as well with respect to how it processes information. Jacques categorizes eight different stages an individual goes through in the mental maturation process. And in the same way there is an end to physical growth, there is an endpoint in maturation through these eight different mental stages.
Complexity of Work and Problem Solving Capability Must Be Aligned
For an individual to be successful in any position, the stage of maturation of their Problem Solving Capability must be equal to the complexity of the work they need to do. Complexity of work varies by level in the organization. For example, front-line workers solve problems differently than managers, who solve problems differently from directors, vice-presidents, and so on.
We wouldn’t necessarily expect a front-line mechanic who repairs a broken engine to be promotable to a vice-president’s position the very next day. Why? In most cases, the problem solving capability simply would not exist in that individual to handle the complexity of VP-level work. Over time, it is completely feasible for someone to start a career as a mechanic and mature through his or her career progression from front-line worker to manager to director – even to head of the organization. The key is understanding that problem-solving varies and there needs to be alignment between the complexity of work being done and capability of the individual doing said work. Promotability needs to be aligned with capability.
The Consequences of Not Fully Understanding Problem Solving Capability
What happens if you over-promote someone? The “Peter Principle” is well known, and is exactly what happens. Individuals who are promoted inappropriately without possessing the right Problem Solving Capability will not be successful at doing that level of work. When someone is really good at producing results in a particular position, there is a natural tendency to want to promote them. However, if they haven’t matured sufficiently and lack the necessary problem solving capability for the next level, they will likely fail. Essentially, you can be taking your best director and turning her or him into your worst vice-president. Despite being exceptional at their current position, without the capability to solve problems at the next level of complexity, employees will not excel. It is critical that Problem Solving Capability is understood to ensure success.
The opposite of the Peter Principle occurs when someone who is overqualified for a job is hired into a position, or when there is failure to promote someone who has matured to the next level of problem solving capability. In either case, the individual will not be satisfied with the position they are in because they won’t be able to use their full capability in their job. In most cases, they’ll want to solve problems at the level above them, where their boss resides – and he or she will resist. From the perspective of the employee, they are unable to use their full capability and judgment. As a result, work feels routine and dreary.
Elliott Jacques teaches us that problem solving is not about knowledge or skill, but the mental working process itself. Problem Solving Capability has to do with how individuals process information they receive, and from there, how they apply their knowledge and procedural skills to use their best judgment to make the best decisions.
Good managers instinctually understand when their employees are not ready to be promoted. They appreciate that individuals have capability that matures over time. Recognizing what lies under this, Problem Solving Capability, can help improve the precision of how and when managers promote their people.