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Minimum and Optimal Thresholds of Competence

People naturally have varying levels of ability in the different aspects of their work (and life). These varying abilities are often divided into two categories: strengths and weaknesses. In the reading I have done in the literature on personal improvement, employee performance management, and entrepreneurship I have come across widely differing advice on how to deal with strengths and weaknesses.

Some authors recommend focusing on improving your (or others) weaknesses. They generally believe that being well-rounded is important, and a common analogy is a chain of many links only being as strong as the weakest chain. The strongest case for this position I feel comes from the entrepreneur literature: for a business to be profitable, you not only need a good product or service, but you also need the marketing and sales to have sufficient sales, and the financial management to manage your cash flow and ensure profitability. A weakness in just one area can jeopardize your entire business.

Other authors recommend focusing on developing your strengths. A common argument is that building specific expertise generates the most value, and that it is easier to improve areas of natural ability than weaknesses. Areas of weakness can be delegated or outsourced to others. This recommendation corresponds with the general trend in the labor market of increased specialization.

As I have observed the performance of individuals and teams and dealt with employee performance problems, I have come to realize that this strength / weakness categorization is largely artificial and is not the best model.

I have instead adopted a model based on defining the minimum and optimal thresholds of competence for different aspects of a specific role. The minimum threshold defines the level under which a person will fail (have inadequate performance) in the given role. As your ability increases above the minimum threshold, your performance in the given role improves until you reach the optimal threshold. Beyond this point, increased ability will not improve performance. See the diagram below for a visual representation.

Thresholds of Competence

This model accounts for the phenomenon where people who have been doing well or even excelling in a particular position suddenly encounter difficulties when moved into a different position. The reason is that the new role demands a different set of thresholds for which the person falls below the minimum in one or more areas. The classic example is taking an exceptional software developer and promoting them to a manager. This person’s software development skills now exceed the optimal threshold required for a manager, whereas the communication and management minimum thresholds required as a manager are much higher.

The impact of what are traditionally considered strengths or weaknesses depends on the particular role. In some cases a personal weakness may still at a sufficient level to exceed the minimum threshold of competence. One example is having a fear of public speaking (which is apparently quite common). For the typical software developer position, the minimum threshold required for public speaking is very low – a developer just needs to be able to participate in team meetings and group discussions. So this weakness is not particularly relevant for the role. In other cases the team has mitigation strategies in place to address common weaknesses, thus lowering the minimum threshold required for certain roles. One example is developers performing manual testing. This is often not a strong ability for many developers due to the different mindsets required. So development teams incorporate dedicated testers to address this issue.

If personal strengths and weaknesses are misaligned with a role’s minimum and optimal thresholds, with a person being above the optimal and below the minimum in a number of areas, then this generally indicates that the person is in the wrong role.

Even personal strengths may fall below the minimum threshold of competence. This often indicates that the person has been given an assignment too difficult or challenging for their level of experience. One example is giving a good junior developer extremely complex functionality to implement from scratch without guidance. A senior developer could get the job done, but the junior lacks the knowledge and experience – their ability falls below the minimum threshold, despite being a strength for them personally.

A common mistake is to continue to focus on developing your strengths after you exceed the optimal threshold, due to a logical slippery slope. If you begin a new role with most areas below the optimal level, then you will naturally be motivated to improve your strengths and see a corresponding improvement in performance. This motivates you to continue to improve in these areas, even after they exceed the optimal threshold. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers the Story of Success provides a specific example of this phenomena dealing with I.Q. Most people believe that being smart helps one succeed in most areas of life, and that having an even higher genius-level I.Q would be better. I admit to having shared this belief. The extensive research study discussed by Malcolm, however, clearly contradicts this by finding that individuals with genius-level I.Q. did no better in terms of career than those who are ‘only’ smart. So across many fields I.Q. does have an optimal threshold as well as a minimum.

Using this model of minimum and optimal thresholds of competence clears up the confusion in the literature on whether to focus on strengths and weaknesses. Ignore those labels and instead focus on how your abilities align with what the minimum and optimal thresholds are for a given role – either your current role or the role you desire.

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