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

Concealed Capability Inversions: Questions


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-advisers 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-advisers 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

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