Practice management – Squaring the quality circle

Robert Pirsig, an American thinker, in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, argues that quality is indivisible. You know it when it’s there, Pirsig suggests. And, equally, you know it when it’s not. Analysis and dissection add nothing to that initial holistic perception.

Similarly, in a presentation or a report, a project or a person, all of us can recognise quality or its absence almost on sight. But if, in order to nail down the nature of the quality, we try to dissect the presentation or the person into its or his component parts, we wind up with dust.

Typically, we’re left with mechanistic tips of the kind that fill some business textbooks: “Maintain eye contact” and “Watch out for irritating mannerisms”.

Or we get anodyne generalities of the kind that substitute personal opinion for close observation: “He was such a nice person” or “She was so easy to work with”.

Push the tips and the generalities back together, and you end up with something that might work, but might also be wooden. We’ve all seen people do something precisely by the book, and still get it hopelessly wrong.

Quality, Pirsig argues persuasively, cannot be separated from the person perceiving it. Nor can it be dissected. It’s a totality. You can’t subject it to traditional Western scientific methods of analysis and synthesis without destroying it. It’s like trying to assess the Mona Lisa by measuring how much paint Da Vinci used, or judging Beethoven’s Fifth by counting the proportion of F sharps. It’s also rather like trust. You can’t half-trust someone, any more than you can be half-pregnant.

All this has echoes in a book I’ve been re-reading recently – The Change Masters, by the American business guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter. The success or otherwise of any change initiative, she argues, depends on a corporate atmosphere of “integration” rather than “segmentalism”. Kanter gives lots of examples of the difference between the two climates. But all have at their heart something that flutters just beyond definition.

Other equally authoritative thinkers about people and organisations arrive at similar views: that quality, change and the management of both have at their heart something which – like the human mind – is evident but invisible and indefinable.

This indefinability brings me back to consultancy and to one currently fashionable branch of our profession: management competencies. Because, it seems to me, the whole notion of management competency – which, after all, purports to measure quality in management – rests on the belief that you can apply engineering techniques in this area.

The competency thesis is that you can break down any job into its task and skills components and, by measuring an individual against each component, arrive at an unarguable scientific conclusion about that individual’s suitability for and quality in that job.

My worries are whether this approach misses the core of what it’s trying to measure, and whether you learn anything new in the process that you could not get from simple observation and reflection.

I would guess that if a set of experienced business-minded observers watched a selection of managers at work, they would largely and quite quickly agree on which managers ranked where in the quality league. They might find it difficult to agree on exactly why they thought so, but it’s hard to see that that matters much.

The competency approach clearly has value in defining the tasks and skills required at junior and middle levels in an organisation. But at senior levels – and, in service organisations, at almost all levels – an individual’s personal attributes seem to me to make the biggest difference to his or her performance. And those attributes cannot be dissected in the same mechanistic way. Nor can they be totted up and made equal to quality.

The attempt to prove otherwise leads only to absurdities. I recall discovering a while back that senior staff at one of Britain’s largest employers had spent four years working out what it saw as the appropriate competencies for each managerial rank, from first-line supervisor to board director.

The list for all the ranks consisted of the same vague criteria – among them, predictably and indefinably, skills to do with “initiative”, “communication” and “leadership”. The only difference was that higher ranks were supposed to score more highly on each measure.

Similarly, a competency-assessment exercise by a Big Six consultancy at a publishing firm took weeks of exhaustive testing of middle managers, cost the firm more than #100,000 in fees – and resulted, according to the firm’s editorial director, in the firm discovering only what it already knew.

But all this leaves us with a problem. If competency analysis and other attempts to dissect quality add very little value, why do we find them so appealing? Why do we go on paying large amounts of money for them?

Perhaps wrapping our intuitive readings of people in something apparently scientific makes us feel more reassured about the validity of our conclusions.

Or perhaps it just gives us an excuse to duck the issue of making up our own minds and accepting personal responsibility for the choices we make.

Either way, it raises the further question of why we’re so reluctant to make up our minds. After all, we’ve been assessing people intuitively since we first hit a playground at five.

Maybe the answer is simply not to get seduced by mechanistic approaches to quality. There is a ghost in the machine, in Arthur Koestler’s phrase – and we need to listen to it. We won’t always be right. But at least we won’t be pretending we’re objective, or insulting the people we’re assessing by treating them as mere automata.

Tony Scott, an independent consultant, specialises in business communication issues.

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