Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 22;   May 27, 2020: Concealed Capability Inversions: Questions

Concealed Capability Inversions: Questions

by

A capability inversion occurs when the person in charge of an effort is far less knowledgeable than are the people doing that work. Capability inversions are common and usually harmless if effectively addressed. But when the person in charge conceals the inversion, and falsely claims expertise he or she lacks, trouble looms.
John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain, the inventors of the transistor, 1948

From left: John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain, the inventors of the transistor, 1948. Although Shockley was not involved in the invention, Bell Labs decided that he must appear on all publicity photos along with Bardeen and Brattain. In 1956, Shockley founded, as a division of Beckman Instruments, Inc., Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first high-tech company in what would become Silicon Valley in California. He recruited young scientists to develop silicon-based solid-state devices, but his autocratic and paranoid management style eventually led eight of these scientists to approach Arnold Beckman with a plan to replace Shockley. Their plan failed, and the eight left the company to form Fairchild Semiconductor.

One of the skills less competent leaders need for survival in their positions is the ability to sense mutinies early and deal with them effectively. In this Shockley failed, because although he was able to stay in his position, Fairchild Semiconductor, and other companies that trace their lineage to the "mutineers," came to dominate the industry. Bell Labs photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Sometimes the person in charge of an effort — a project, an organization, an investigation, whatever — isn't capable of understanding or dealing with the issues and obstacles encountered along the path to the effort's success. This isn't much of a problem when everyone involved is also at a loss. The group either fails or finds a way. But sometimes the people subordinate to the less-capable leader (I'll use the term LCL for brevity) are far better equipped to deal with the issues at hand than the LCL is. I call this situation a capability inversion. And the risk of trouble is greatest when the LCL hides his or her limitations, creating a concealed capability inversion.

In capability inversions, those who have the highest levels of formal organizational authority might also have relatively low capacity for understanding how to apply resources to serve the common purpose, while those who have lesser levels of formal authority might have superior capacity for understanding how to apply resources in service of that purpose.

When a Less-Capable Leader (LCL) openly acknowledges his or her own limitations, a very effective solution is available. Open acknowledgement enables the LCL to play a strong leadership role by designating a small group of expert advisers. Relying on the subject matter expertise of this advisory group, the LCL can consult the experts while still retaining responsibility for any necessary decisions. In matters that require breadth of knowledge of the subject matter, this leader-and-advisors configuration can usually produce results superior to the results of a single capable leader acting without advice. This happens because the breadth of knowledge and experience of the advisory team can usually exceed that of any individual. I call this leader-and-advisers configuration an open capability inversion. Open capability inversions are common in organizations; they can be very effective.

Problems become truly In capability inversions, those who
have the highest levels of formal
organizational authority might also
have relatively low capacity for
understanding how to apply resources
to serve the common purpose
unmanageable in concealed capability inversions, because solving the organization's problems can become over-constrained. Solutions must not only deal with the problems at hand, but also maintain the fiction that the LCL has actually coped with the reality of the situation. And then, after the team has found a solution, the LCL must be portrayed as having led the organization to success, when, in fact, no such thing has occurred. This over-constraining of solutions can actually prevent the organization from finding any solutions at all.

For this reason, organizations that detect a concealed capability inversion can benefit by ending the concealment, and converting to an open capability inversion with a leader-and-advisors configuration. The ability to recognize concealed capability inversions in the early stages can therefore be most helpful.

What follows is Part I of a short catalog of indicators that suggest that an organization is caught in a concealed capability inversion. In this part, I describe the styles of asking questions that LCLs characteristically adopt in the context of concealed capability inversions.

Declining to ask clarifying questions relevant to the issue
The single tactic most useful to the LCL for increasing the LCL's competence with the subject matter is asking clarifying questions. Ironically, LCLs tend to be averse to asking clarifying questions when the capability inversion is concealed. Rarely does the LCL ask questions in open discussion, probably because of a fear of revealing the fundamental level of his or her understanding.
Instead, the LCL plows ahead, making some decisions — and deferring others — on the basis of intuition or an incomplete or fundamentally mistaken understanding of the issues. To those who understand the subject matter, the LCL's behavior can seem inconsistent or hasty or tragically wrong-headed. That might be a correct assessment. But those decisions might well be consistent and appropriate, not with respect to reality, but with respect to the LCL's (erroneous and incomplete) base of knowledge.
Asking inappropriate or vague questions
Some LCLs regard asking questions in meetings as obligatory. To them, questioning is a demonstration of the power of the leader. But because of an incomplete or faulty understanding of the issue at hand, the LCL has difficulty formulating questions that contribute in any way to moving the discussion forward. The questions the LCL does ask have answers that are obvious to the well-informed subordinates, or have been previously answered, or are otherwise inappropriate. But the LCL doesn't recognize this.
To avoid embarrassment, and to avoid acknowledging the capability inversion, the LCL avoids asking questions about all but the most transparent issues. The questions the LCL does ask are vague enough to conceal the limits of the LCL's understanding.

In Part II, I'll examine techniques LCLs use to manage their images and project the (usually false) impression that they're leading the problem-solving effort.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Capability Inversions and the Dunning-Kruger Effect  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

The Lincoln Memorial at sunriseOrganizational Loss: Searching Behavior
When organizations suffer painful losses, their responses can sometimes be destructive, further harming the organization and its people. Here are some typical patterns of destructive responses to organizational loss.
Three Card Monte, Jaffa, IsraelFooling Ourselves
Humans have impressive abilities to convince themselves of things that are false. One explanation for this behavior is the theory of cognitive dissonance.
A schematic representation of a MOSFETBottlenecks: II
When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.
A 155 mm artillery shell is visible as it exits the barrel of an M-198 howitzer during trainingWhen the Answer Isn't the Point: II
Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned, rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
A pitcher plantBehavioral Indicators of Political Risk
Avoiding dangerous political interactions is easier if you know what to look for. Among the indicators of possible trouble are the behaviors of the people around you.

See also Workplace Politics and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Bay of Pigs, CubaComing September 30: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: II
Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias. Available here and by RSS on September 30.
Assembling an IKEA chairAnd on October 7: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule. Available here and by RSS on October 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.