Six Boxes Performance Thinking Welcome to the Six Boxes RSS feed. Sun, 16 Dec 2018 15:12:20 PST en-us <![CDATA[ February 2019 Open Virtual Six Boxes® Practitioner Program ]]>  
The first opportunity in 2019 to complete certification as a Six Boxes Practitioner in an open virtual program will begin on February 5, and continue in 2-hour virtual meetings twice per week at 9-11 AM Pacific Time for 12 sessions through March 21 (skipping a few days due to holidays or travel). Enrollment is limited to 12 qualified professionals ready to learn a powerful performance improvement methodology, so it’s a good idea to sign up early to be sure to get a seat.

This program gives hands-on organizational leaders, consultants and performance professionals a  foundation for optimizing performance of individuals and processes, implementing programs and systems, developing people and strengthening organizational culture. Performance professionals who can use this program include those in:

  • Training & Development
  • Talent Management
  • Performance Consulting
  • Process Improvement
  • Human Resources or Organizational Development
  • Implementation Planning or Change Management
  • Culture Change
  • and more...

The program is delivered virtually, via Zoom web conference technology, with 2-hour segments scheduled generally 2 sessions per week. We record the sessions in case you have to miss one or two, but we encourage you to attend all live sessions if possible. The group beginning in February will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The fee for enrollment is $3200 per person, which includes 24 hours of instruction plus participation in five 2-hour small group project coaching sessions scheduled according to the pace of participants’ projects.  Certification as a Six Boxes® Practitioner involves completion of performance improvement project, coached by the Program Facilitator.

We accept purchase orders or credit card payments.

To download the program description as a PDF click here.

Dates for program sessions will be (9-11 AM Pacific Time):

Feb 5, 7, 12, 14, 19, 21, 26

Mar 5, 7, 12, 19, 21


Please Contact Us to Arrange a Time to Talk

We like to speak with those wanting to participate beforehand, to be sure it's a good fit for you and to answer any questions. So if you're seriously interested, please let us know ASAP.

Dr. Binder will schedule a call with you at a mutually convenient time if you contact the Performance Thinking Network by calling (in the US) 206-780-8578 or by email at

<![CDATA[ More from Harvard Business Review ]]> In the latest issue of HBR there's an article called Managers Can't Be Great Coaches All By Themselves.  I can't help but think of our Six Boxes® Performance Coaching as big solution for the issues they raise.

The first thing that pops out is the idea of the "Connector Manager" as someone who helps her people connect to other resources, mentors, tools, and other sources of performance support and development.  This is critical, since performance occurs in a system and we need to align the parts.

In our work, the Six Boxes Model provides a great way to frame and align all those enablers that the Manager or Leader can connect for their people in pursuit of talent development or performance improvement. The Six Boxes Model is a simple and comprehensive framework for thinking through WHAT factors to configure to get the best out of our people – both high levels of performance and increased employee engagement.

Beyond the Connector Manager, the shared models and language of Performance Thinking offer a leader or manager and their direct report a way of partnering to develop or improve performance. This is in contrast to the manager "doing something to" the person – coaching them.  This is about continuous, collaborative performance improvement. Our approach encourages individual contributors to become full partners in their own and their teams' development. Individuals often generate the best ideas for what accomplishments (work outputs) to prioritize and what behavior influences to eliminate, configure. The Performance Thinking conversation captures and leverages those ideas. And an organization that supports such a process can leverage those ideas to help others perform better and enjoy higher levels of engagement.

Finally, a shared language and thought process focused on valuable accomplishments needed by the business provides a vehicle for agile talent development at the point of performance.  This allows development to turn on a dime, relatively speaking – compared to the sluggish annual and quarterly reviews and learning plans still used in many organizations. The traditional approach can't keep up with change. The Performance Thinking mindset, shared across an organization, creates a culture of performance quite different from a manager or leader "being a coach all by one's self.  To borrow that old phrase, "it takes a village."  It takes a system. It takes a whole organization.  A shared framework can generate ROI simply by aligning the performance enablers in an organization more cost-effectively.

With the 2 simple models and 21 plain English words of Performance Thinking® programs, a Leader-Coach, supported by efforts to nurture a collective practice of collaboration, becomes a point of contact with the whole system to accelerate organizational results through people.  

- Carl Binder, CEO




<![CDATA[ Accomplishment-Based Systems: The Alternative to Competency Modeling ]]>  

Years ago, a colleague and I published an article that did not get much attention, devoted to the contrast between competency modeling and an accomplishment-based approach, based on the work of Thomas F. Gilbert, pioneer in the field of human performance improvement.  At that time, competency modeling was relatively new, shiny, and heavily promoted by training companies and consulting firms. On the surface of it, competency modeling seemed to offer a way to define capability in a way that was convenient and could form the basis of discussion about performance. Countless organizations devoted many millions of dollars and person years to developing competency models, building performance management systems in which people received “ratings” on those competencies, developing learning management systems and curriculum architectures built on competencies, and so forth.  In my view, it was a scam. 

While I have hesitated for years to say this very loudly, we are finally to the point where it is possible to raise the issue in public because some leading edge human resources professionals have begun to see that “there must be something better.”  As I discussed in a previous blog post, competency-based systems are deeply unfair, ineffective, and do not, in fact, provide a foundation for a truly performance-based approach to leadership, management, or talent development.

My recent blog produced a number of thoughtful responses on LinkedIn and in other places where it was shared.  It appears that many people acknowledge the problems with competency-based systems, but no one has a good alternative. I’ve seen a few discussions in the last year or so about “traits” as an alternative to competencies. Beside putting us back even further in the history of psychology and personality theory to a time when the “inner person” was the focus of analysis and investigation, traits are just another vague and abstract way to attribute characteristics to the individual that may or may not have much impact on performance.

Performance is the result of a system of influences that include individual elements such as skills and knowledge, personal experience, and individual motives and preferences – all accounting for a relatively small portion of the variance (estimated at around 20%). Far more impactful (about 80%) are features of the work environment and management practices that either support or obstruct desired performance, including expectations and feedback, the tools and resources (including processes and work design) needed to perform, and consequences or incentives that motivate people to do their best or discourage them with intended or unintended punishment. 

Performance in the workplace (and one could argue, anywhere else) is comprised of three elements: behavior that produces products called accomplishments (we call them work outputs) that are valuable because they contribute to one or more business or societal results.  Each of these elements is essential, and without any one of them, we cannot define nor determine the value of the performance itself. This is as true at the level of individual performance as it is for teams, processes, and whole organizations. We perform to produce value for the organization or for society. And the value we produce comes, not in the form of costly behavior, but as valuable accomplishments, countable “things” that may be either tangible (e.g., widgets, documents) or less tangible (e.g., decisions or relationships). 

One can define just about any job with a set of between 5 and 30 major accomplishments (we call them work outputs).  We can discuss what makes for a “good” instance of any accomplishment as a way to set expectations and provide feedback. We can arrange conditions to enable people to produce desired accomplishments at high levels of quality, consistency, and productivity. And we can align those conditions with positive outcomes so that people are fully engaged in producing needed accomplishments and are recognized for doing so.

Unlike competencies, which are abstract category names for often large collections of specific types of behavior, accomplishments are very specific and definable. We can count them. We can also determine whether someone has ever produced a given accomplishment, or a similar one, as we engage them in behavioral interviews during the hiring process. Leaders and managers can discuss with their people the most important accomplishments needed right now, which might need improvement, and what accomplishments an individual might need to add to their capability for the next level in the career ladder.

We can create job descriptions based on major accomplishments, as some of our more advanced client organizations have begun to do. But that is a big job that probably would best be done over time with a computer database serving as a repository. We do better to train and empower our leaders and managers to work with their people to define accomplishments for each job, to target them for development, to manage them, and to continuously improve the team’s ability to produce them. This is what we do in our Coach-Manage-Lead family of programs.

One of the many advantages of making talent development and performance management systems accomplishment-based rather than competency-based is that accomplishments define the value contributed by individuals and teams, what we as leaders or talent development professionals need from our people. Competencies, on the other hand, are characteristics that people might or might not have, (assessed with the “refined opinion” of rating scales) and that we can certainly take into account if we wish to do so as we select or develop people. But because they are abstract labels for categories of behavior, they are only abstractly related to performance. That is, one can have every conceivable competency, but still not demonstrate required performance.  I don’t know about you, but when I select or manage an employee, I would like to make decisions based on valuable performance rather than on abstract indicators of potential.

One can easily have a 1:1 conversation with someone about a given accomplishment and what will be required to produce it. One can manage people day-to-day around accomplishments, as well as defining annual strategy about the accomplishments we will need our people to produce in order to achieve business objectives.  With an accomplishment-based approach, we frankly do not need abstract descriptions of behavior potential because we can talk about actual performance. Accomplishments are the practical and far more manageable alternative to competencies. They define the value contributed by human performance, and should be our focus.

One of our great mentors, Dr. Joe Harless, created a system called Accomplishment Based Curriculum Development (ABCB). This was, in my view, just the beginning. We can have Accomplishment Based Talent Management that meets the requirements for today’s Agile Talent Development far better than a competency-based approach because we can talk about real job and organizational requirements needed now to keep up with the pace of change – this week, this month, or this quarter.

There’s a lot more to be said about this topic. But we are finally opening it up for discussion, and I welcome comments and suggestions from our friends and colleagues.

- Carl Binder, CEO

<![CDATA[ YouTube: The Work of Robert E. Horn ]]> Robert Horn is one of those creative geniuses whose contributions have come in waves. He has been acknowledged on our web site as one of the key sources of inspiration and technical influence underlying the work of The Performance Thinking Network, particularly our efforts to communicate widely about performance improvement.

Bob was creator of The Information Mapping® Method, the structured writing methodology that came from his early research in programmed instruction and systems analysis, and that has, since the 1970s, been a standard for documentation at major corporations and government organizations around the world. His former company, Information Mapping, Inc. , continues to teach the method.

From there Bob moved on to what he calls Visual Language , optimal combination of words and pictures for effective communication.  His book called Mapping Hypertext, applying the Information Mapping method to the design of online documentation, predated the worldwide web, anticipating principles that would later guide design of web sites. 

In recent decades, Bob has combined his research on systems analysis, argumentation analysis, visual communication and structured writing to analyze global “messes” such as climate change and prospects for nuclear disarmament. In many respects, this most recent work reflects the best of Bob, who still considers himself to be a Political Scientist based on his academic training, and as a concerned inhabitant of Earth.

This brief recorded lecture on YouTube, entitled "Breaking the Wall of Organizational Ignorance," is Bob at his best just a few years ago. It hopefully provides a glimpse of why his work and friendship have been major sources of inspiration and influence on the career and work of Dr. Carl Binder, CEO of The Performance Thinking Network. 

Bob Horn is someone whose work has depth and scope that are at times breathtaking.  It's worth your time to become familiar with it.

For more information about Bob, here is a link to his web page at Stanford University, where he has been a Visiting Scholar for decades.  And here is a more recent web page, providing access to many of his work products in PDF form.

- Carl Binder, CEO

<![CDATA[ Noboby Wants to Be the Denominator! ]]> In 1978, Thomas F. Gilbert rocked the world of training and performance improvement by pointing out the obvious in his book, Human Competence:  In the “world of work,” as he called it, the WORTH of any effort to improve organizational performance is equal to the VALUE of the accomplishments (or work outputs) produced or improved by that effort divided by the COST of the behavior. He pointed out very clearly that accomplishments are valuable, while behavior is costly.  We need to pay, support, provide resources for, and otherwise invest in the  behavior of people. What we hope to get from that behavior are valuable accomplishments or work outputs that are valuable because they contribute to organization-level business results, or perhaps to societal results.

It is common these days to use a formula for ROI (return on investment) that is quite similar. ROI is equal to the value of the accomplishments divided by the cost for producing them through the behavior of people.

When calculating ROI, accomplishments are the numerator while behavior is the denominator.

Often programs designed to improve communication, develop software skills, build strategic thinking, and so forth, focus on developing the behavior of people who complete those programs. Similarly, we typically instruct coaches to focus on the behavior of the people whom they coach. But those things are all costs. What are the valuable accomplishments that the people will produce as a result of the coaching or training?

That's where we get a positive ROI.

We can encourage people to behave in different ways, but until we specify the valuable work outputs or accomplishments that they will produce, neither they nor the organization can identify the value of their performance, or determine the ROI for our efforts to help.

Training, management, and development programs that focus on behavior without specifying valuable accomplishments are part of the denominator in the ROI equation. We cannot determine whether they deliver value unless we know the work outputs.

In whatever role we play, we want to be or be associated with the valuable accomplishments, not merely costly behavior.

In short, nobody wants to be the denominator!

We want to optimize value delivered.  And that is why we begin our analysis using the Performance Chain by identifying, and anchoring the rest of the analysis, in work outputs or accomplishments of people that contribute to business results.

- Carl Binder, CEO

<![CDATA[ Why Competency Based HR Systems are Unfair and Ineffective ]]> Competency-based human resource management and talent development systems are profoundly unfair to people, and are inherently flawed. Competency models have a stranglehold on many HR departments, performance management processes, learning management systems, and other forms of performance assessment and instructional design in organizations.  I have railed against them for decades from the perspective of performance engineering and behavior science. But it has often been hard to push back against something that is so often accepted without question. 

Unquestioned acceptance of competency-based systems often reflects substantial financial stakes for those who establish competency models, promote training programs to address them, build performance management systems that leverage them, and control HR budgets that have invested in them for years. For decades, those who have questioned the use of competency models as a foundation for talent management and development have risked being figuratively “burned at the stake.” But enough is enough. We must speak up for more effective and fairer systems of talent development and performance management.

It’s good that some innovative HR organizations and leaders are beginning to ask if there is something better. It’s not so good that some of them are suggesting a replacement with “traits” – a throwback to an even earlier and more primitive era in personality psychology. Here’s why competency-based systems are unfair and therefore can lead to cynicism among those who use them.

Competencies are inherently abstract.  When one looks at typical competencies such as commercial awareness or results orientation, it’s clear that the behavior to which they refer will differ greatly from one situation to another, depending on what the employee or performer might be working to accomplish. It is ludicrous to think that such words and phrases, even when accompanied by examples of behavioral indicators, can be used to help individuals focus on behavior that is specific enough to reliably deliver value to the organization. I find such verbal abstractions appalling as I try to keep a straight face when people use them to describe and evaluate performance.

A competency is commonly defined as “an underlying characteristic of a person which enables them to deliver superior performance in a given job, role, or situation.“ Harvard Psychologist David McClelland is often cited for research related to competency models, as an alternative to aptitude and IQ testing for matching candidates for jobs. But how this approach emerged in human resources applications is quite revealing.

A few years ago, our colleague, Bob Reticker, who once worked at a major training provider to develop competency models for client organizations, shared with us the origin of workplace competency models. He explained that a group of analysts was attempting to identify behavior that characterizes excellent leaders. They identified a very long list of specific types of behavior, which was a difficult to manage because of its length. They sorted the behavior into piles or clusters, to break up the long list, and then named the piles.  Those category names become “competencies.” 

How crazy is that?  First, a specific behavior will vary from situation to situation depending on what the leader is attempting to accomplish, and why. So a generic description of behavior is already less specific than one can teach, much less manage or effectively measure from one context to another. But then we put a whole bunch of such generic behaviors into piles, name the piles, and think we can use those general category names to help people develop! At this point, I would expect someone not caught up in the doctrine of competency modeling to say something like, “Are you kidding?”

The next step away from specificity sufficient to support training or management is that people use rating scales to assess competencies.  “Let’s see…. Is she a 3 or a 4 on this one?”  In other words, people use what my late colleague, Dr. Eric Haughton, called “refined opinion.”  There is no absolute or standard measure of performance in this approach.

When delivering workshops and presentations I often ask the audience what they think about using rating scales for competencies. Many roll their eyes, clearly based on their own personal experience. When I ask if a ratings, easily influenced by the rater’s mood or particular circumstances at the time of rating, might produce cynicism among all involved, there are usually a lot of nodding heads.

Most thoughtful leaders, managers, individual contributors and HR professionals know this. But competencies are so convenient, so easy to use, and so widely accepted, that few push back.  And, as far as most people know, there are no compelling alternatives.

But there is a more practical and effective alternative to competency modeling. In his groundbreaking book, Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, Dr. Tom Gilbert encouraged us to shift our focus from what he called “costly behavior” to “valuable accomplishments” – the things that people produce with their behavior and contribute to their organizations, or to society. In my view, accomplishments (or what we call work outputs) provide the missing link between people’s behavior and the organizational or societal results to which they contribute.  Furthermore, they are both more concrete and easier to assess than competencies.  Simply stated, one can count work outputs that meet objectively agreed-upon criteria rather than rating them based on subjective opinion.

Understanding that we can identify specific valuable accomplishments, instead of relying on abstract competencies to define what we need people to contribute, is a huge step forward. By anchoring our performance management, coaching, training design, and assessment in the valuable work outputs that people produce, we can better define specific behavior needed to produce those work outputs. In addition, with this approach we can often identify exemplary behavior – what exceptional performers do differently from others to achieve exemplary levels of work outputs.

To gain a better understanding of this, check out our Performance Chain model or take a look at my article, What It Really Means to Be Accomplishment Based. And stay tuned for more posts about how we can drive continuous talent development by enabling leaders and their teams to focus on valuable accomplishments (work outputs) rather than on vague and abstract competencies.

- Dr. Carl Binder, CEO

<![CDATA[ The Problem with 360 Degree Feedback ]]> Many organizations routinely arrange for 360 degree feedback for their managers and leaders.  They typically adopt processes and tools provided by external vendors, or sometimes execute the process themselves.  In either case, there are serious limitations with this approach, to the point where many experts think it is a waste of time and money.

Here's a good article summarizing the limitations of 360 degree feedback from Talent Development a few years ago.

Performance Thinking® Programs encourage using feedback as an essential element of any performance system. However, we teach people to arrange feedback based on the criteria for good work outputs (accomplishments) and with respect to the specific behavior required to produce good work outputs.

In a system that provides frequent, specific feedback about accomplishments and behavior, 360 degree feedback fades by comparison to yet another check-box item that organizations arrange for their people, unlikely to have much useful impact.

- Carl Binder, CEO

<![CDATA[ YouTube: Leaders & Managers Drive Continuous Talent Development ]]> Here's a recent recording of a presentation that I did virtually for the Hampton Roads, Virginia, chapter of the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI).  Click here for the YouTube video .

It provides an overview of our Six Boxes Performance Thinking® Approach, and how we are using our Coach-Manage-Lead programs to enable leaders, managers, and coaches to be agents of continuous talent development in their organizations.

It was a very informal presentation, roughly an hour and a half in length. So it's most certainly not a "quick hit, but intended to provide an overview and introduction to what we have been working to achieve for much of the last decade.

- Carl Binder, CEO

<![CDATA[ When Good Enough is Good Enough ]]> This blog post assumes you know about The Performance Chain.  If you don't, check it out for a minute. You'll get it.

I was cleaning up my sink after preparing a delicious dinner of vegan pizza.  I noticed that I was doing a fine job, but not the compulsively shiny job that I sometimes do when I want every single kitchen implement in place. We all have things like that, I suspect – where we might take pride in doing a superb job and produce a "work output" that surpasses all expectations, just for the sake of it. Or, as in an operating room, where we need to be very careful about our work outputs. But there are a lot of other areas in our lives where good enough is good enough. That is, we just need to finish the task to produce the work output that meets some minimal standards, or criteria for "good."

In Performance Thinking® programs we make a big deal of the discussion about criteria for "good" work outputs. They are specific, easy-to-agree upon characteristics of the work output that make it good. We can measure by counting good ones and not-good ones.

Getting clear with stakeholders about "what good looks like" can cut through all kinds of unintended problems in personal relationships, in management, and across whole organizations. That's what we call Box 1 – Expectations & Feedback.

In some situations and jobs, it's very important to meet  high standards for work outputs, and even to continue increasing standards for "good" e.g., in funding or hiring decisions, in business analyses, in proposals, in software designs, in working relationships. To produce some work outputs, people need to behave in precisely defined ways to produce the outputs to meet very exacting criteria, as in a nuclear submarine where a lot is at stake.

In other areas the criteria for "good" might not pose such a high bar, as in some marketing and sales situations where "just showing up" at the right place at the right time is about all you need to accomplish, and the rest will take care of itself. 

One of the benefits of our emphasizing that stakeholders agree on criteria for "good" is not only that it helps us set levels of excellence we need in some areas with exacting standards. It also frees us up to be less precise and sometimes quicker when criteria for a "good" work output need not be quite so precise e.g., for stacked logs of firewood, 5 feet tall that won't fall down. Not too complicated.

In any case, "good enough IS good enough," as long as we specify in advance what we mean by "good." 

In my view, the second most important thing in the Performance Thinking® process and logic, after identifying work outputs that contribute to organizatonal or societal results, is to identify the criteria for those work outputs that we consider "good."  With that done, we're halfway there.

 They don't call it Box 1 for nothing!


- Carl Binder


<![CDATA[ We Love Situational Leadership®, but... ]]>

Many of our clients use Situational Leadership® programs, based on the popular model to improve the interpersonal skills of leaders and managers. Situational Leadership helps leaders and managers adapt their communication approach with those whose performance they need to support and develop. It’s a powerful program that has helped many leaders and managers communicate more effectively in key working relationships. Like other programs that teach critical interpersonal soft skills, it can have significant impact on how leaders and managers relate with their people.

Like many programs for leaders and managers, Situational Leadership teaches how to communicate, how to relate to others, and how to have important conversations. We’re always happy when client organizations have adopted one of the Situational Leadership programs, or other coaching and leadership models and programs that teach critical soft skills.

However, when it comes to talent development, performance management, and conversations aimed at helping people improve how they contribute to the organization, it is also critical to know what to discuss.  Leaders and managers must know how to describe two things, in actionable terms:

  • Desired performance for individuals or teams, and how it contributes to business results
  • Possible action steps for developing, improving or supporting that performance.

This might seem obvious, but most coaching or management development programs are vague, incomplete, or open to wide interpretation about what to talk about in coaching or management situations. They don't teach a vocabulary for describing the elements of performance that leaders and managers seek to develop or improve.

Our Performance Thinking® programs are distilled from decades of research in behavior science and performance engineering, then time-tested and refined in client organizations. We teach participants exactly what to discuss when pinpointing performance and agreeing on action steps for development or improvement of employee performance. We give participants an easy-to-understand, plain English, research-based vocabulary for describing performance and its drivers.

We use two visual models – the Performance Chain and the Six Boxes Model – to serve as guides and integrating frameworks for day-to-day performance development and leadership. Labeled with 21 plain English words, the models are easy to understand and apply. Participants in our programs begin with simple 1:1 coaching or management conversations, and then learn to extend application of  the same models and logic to more complex team, departmental, or business unit performance. They literally learn a way of thinking and talking about performance that is flexible, precise, and powerful when applied at any level.

Our programs enable leaders and managers to accelerate business results through the performance of their people, and to support continuous talent development. Clients love these programs because they fill an important gap left between programs that help leaders and managers know how to talk with their people (such as Situational Leadership® and GROW coaching programs), and the specifics of the business performance they need to achieve, by teaching what to talk about.

We encourage you to super-charge soft skills training of your leaders and managers with Performance Thinking® programs and tools that enable them to:

  • Conduct conversations that pinpoint performance in actionable ways
  • Identify and agree on action steps for improving target performance, and
  • Easily monitor and measure the performance they want to see in their people.

Our Coach-Manage-Lead programs provide a lot more than leadership or management development. Their greatest value comes from empowering leaders and managers as point people for continuous talent development with those who work for them, effectively increasing the organization's human capital and accelerating business results through people.

By Carl Binder, CEO