Do you describe your work as helping to improve workplace performance? If so, Thomas Gilbert is someone who has influenced what you do and believe, yet he may be a name with which you are not familiar.
Gilbert wrote the book Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance. Although it is out of print, the International Society of Performance Improvement (ISPI) published a tribute edition of his work in 2007. I recently reconnected with a good friend, and in our passionate conversations about performance improvement I started talking about Gilbert’s behavioral engineering model. My friend has read Gilbert’s work several times, and as a Christmas gift to me sent a copy of the 2007 edition. The little knowledge of Gilbert’s model that I thought I possessed before the reading the book was a superficial representation of what this man actually contributed to industrial psychology, management theory, and human resources.
Gilbert was a student of B.F. Skinner, and he was well-trained in the principles of behaviorism. However, Gilbert felt that behaviorism was fundamentally misguided because it focused on actions people take, not the results of their actions. Instead, Gilbert argues that we should be focused on worthy accomplishments, or outcomes that have value. Without the context of worthy accomplishments, focusing on the behavior of people can be incomplete, misleading, or both. While this may seem simple and obvious, Gilbert provides example after example of how organizations routinely reward for behavior, and not results. If you don’t believe me, just think about the last time you worked with an organization where managers of different departments had competing metrics, and thus, when one department would win another could potentially lose. In Gilbert’s view, the worthy accomplishments in these types of situations are not defined well enough at the policy level to influence and support the creation of appropriate metrics at the department level.
There are many applications of Gilbert’s work in organizations today. For example, consider the time people spend creating mission statements for departments, divisions, and companies. Ideally, these statements are carefully constructed, simple sentences or phrases that describe an organization’s reason for being. Mission statements should also help guide and focus the work of a group. However, it seems in my experience that many organizations embark upon the journey to create them without thinking about their practical use.
Here’s a test: think of an organization of which you are a member. Can you recite the mission? Better yet, can you describe how it guides your daily actions?
Gilbert offers a simple model for creating a good mission: ACORN.
- A – Accomplishment. If a mission has been described as a behavior and not a worthy accomplishment (outcome or result), it has not been identified.
- C – Control. Do those who work in the department or group have primary control over the mission? Or does achievement of the mission primarily depend on others?
- O – Overall Objective. Is the mission truly the reason for being, or simply a subgoal of that reason?
- R – Reconciliation. Can the mission be reconciled with other goals of the organization? Or is it incompatible? This is the alignment that we all seek in the actions and goals of organizations.
- N – Number. Can the mission or the results be measured?
The next time I facilitate a strategic planning session where we are evaluating and/or rewriting mission statements, I believe Thomas Gilbert will be top of mind in helping me help my clients produce a worthy accomplishment.