Observe first, or, don’t go to MSU

Last year on the Whiteboard, I mentioned the Six BoxesTM model for performance management. Six Boxes now has a blog, and principal Carl Binder’s Beware of MSU is well worth reading.

No, that MSU is okayMSU in this case is not Michigan State — Binder was talking to customer service reps about the problems that arise when people lack knowledge or can’t find what they need.

In reply, one rep said, “Oh, you’re talking about going to MSU.” As in, Makin’ Stuff Up.

Mnemonics can help people organize and retain information. While I hardly ever do biological classification, “King Philip, come out, for God’s sake” certainly retrieves kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species from my longterm memory. Binder is in favor of tools to help people master constructs or basic facts.

But you don’t want to go to MSU, he says, if that means you try and fit a model onto the world without starting by looking at what’s in the world. In other words,

…We need to resist the tendency to create clever frameworks, concepts, and categories a priori (before we observe), but instead really look at behavior and its outputs, catalog them, see how they actually cluster together, and describe them accordingly. This is often sloppier and more difficult than armchair concept creation because the actual work outputs and behavior might not be immediately obvious, and one might have to observe and interview repeatedly, dig more deeply, and gather more information to determine what is actually the case.

You see the aftereffects often. How many people in the training/development world talk about “form, storm, norm, perform” as if they’re an add-on to Newton’s laws, as opposed to a rhyming version of a simple model? Will Thalheimer valiantly tackled another example that just won’t stay dead (that nonsense about how you remember only 10% of what you read but 80% of what you do).

As Joe Harless said (and Binder quotes), an ounce of analysis is worth a pound of objectives.

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