Sunday 17 March 2013

The Difference Between Knowledge and Performance (Or What my Five-Year-Old Taught me About Workplace Performance)

Yesterday, my son overheard the grownups talking about counting. He decided this was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his mathematical prowess. So, he counted…
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 ,26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59.”

Did you catch it? There’s something a little off about that series of numbers. If you did then kudos to you. If not, go ahead and re-read that last paragraph. I’ll wait.
Ready? Did you spot it? If not, go back and try again. Seriously, you’ll feel much better if you find it yourself than if I just tell what it was.
OK, moving on. If you didn’t notice the missing number the first time through, don’t sweat it. There are many possible reasons to miss it.
  • Maybe you’re tired.
  • Maybe you read the first few numbers, figured you knew what was coming (you can count, right?) then skipped to the last few numbers to see how far my son got.
  • Perhaps you don’t like numbers.
  • It could even be that the air raid siren sounded every time you started to get into the numbers.
Your reason could tell you something rather interesting about yourself
  • You’re tired: Um… is this what passes for bedtime reading in your house?
  • You skipped ahead: Do you “skip ahead” in other things? Do you stop listening once you think you know what someone’s trying to say? What are you not reading/hearing because of this?
  • You don’t like numbers: OK, so maybe there were a lot of numbers there, but at least there wasn’t any math. Besides, you can trust me, I won’t make you do any calculus – at least not today.
  • The air raid kept going off: I can’t help you with that one, but I’m flattered you chose to read this despite the threat of imminent bombing.
I’ll leave you with that point to ponder, mainly because it’s not actually what I wanted to discuss today.
Getting back to my son’s counting. He missed the number 16. Now before you all start writing me scathing e-mails about my ineptitude as a trainer (“How can you presume to be a training guru?! Your son doesn’t even know the number 16!”) or concern about my son’s future (“How will he know when he’s old enough to get a driver’s license?”), I want to tell you something.
He knows the number 16. That’s right. He knows it’s there, he just chose not to use it.
 “Why did he choose not to use it?” I hear you asking. I don’t actually hear you asking, it’s more like I imagine you asking. In fact, I’m imagining you asking using the voice of Grover from Sesame Street. In any case, I’m glad you asked (and still giggling a little at that Grover voice). He chose not to use the number 16 because it’s “yucky”.
Some of you may be wondering why I’m telling you all this and what it has to do with training and performance. The more astute among you (that’s all of you, right?) will have realised that this is an example of a situation where knowledge and performance don’t match up (or maybe the title of the post was a clue).
I bet you’re thinking “Hey, this is kind of like one of those parable things.” Yes! It’s exactly like one of those parable things, except that it doesn’t have a fox or a crow (although my son does have a frog costume and my other son has a chicken mask).
How does this relate to workplace performance? Like this:
When you come across a situation where there’s a performance gap, I want you to do the following:
  1. Identify what performance is lacking. This should be pretty easy, especially if it’s a situation where someone is asking for your expert assistance.
  2. Example with the number 16: We had experts (myself included) listen to the counting. They correctly identified the missing number.
    How to do it yourself: If a manager is asking for training, ask them what they need it for. You could also ask a subject matter expert what performance is missing.
  3. Determine whether the performance gap stems from a knowledge gap (they don’t know how to do it) or an application one (they know what to do, but they’re not doing it).
  4. Example with the number 16: This was pretty easy. We just pointed out that he missed the number 16. He replied that he knew. Ta da! Not a knowledge gap.
    How to do it yourself: This is proverbial gun test (i.e. could they do it if they had a gun pointed to their heads – although I highly discourage the use of firearms in training needs analysis!). Sometimes it’s as easy as asking the person if they know how to do X. Sometimes it’s easier to have them do a test or demonstrate mastery.
  5. If it’s not a knowledge gap, figure out why the skills/knowledge aren’t being used. This is where the rubber meets the road.
  6. Example with the number 16: Again, this was really easy in this case. Kids are (mostly) pretty honest. 16 = “yucky”, good to know.
    How to do it yourself: There could be any number of reasons. Some examples that I’ve seen include a lack of incentive (or even a disincentive) for desired performance, not seeing the value in it, lack of appropriate tools/supports, and even lack of time.
  7. Work out a plan to get them applying the skills/knowledge.
  8. Example with the number 16: How to make 16 non-“yucky”? Well, we could show my son how “cool” 16 can be. Maybe get him a #16 stuffed toy, or bake a cake shaped like the number 16 (cake can’t possibly be yucky).
    How to do it yourself: Depending on what the reasons are, your approach will have to change. For example, if you the reason has to do with a lack of incentive you’ll probably want to talk with the manager about rewarding performance. On the other hand, if it’s because they don’t see the value in doing what’s expected you should help them find the value (after all, if there’s no value to be found, why do we want them doing it?). If it’s a lack of tools/supports, maybe you can help design and/or emplace them. I’ll probably dedicate an entire post to this topic down the road (sound off in the comments if you’d like to see that).
So friends and colleagues, that about wraps it up for today, except … parables are supposed to have a lesson, right? Here goes:

A gap in performance doesn’t necessarily indicate a gap in knowledge.

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