When you need incompetence fast

I rearranged my office for the second time in a week, proving to myself once again that my platonic ideal is apparently a mirror image of an earlier one.

Tired from trying to arrange the rug under the desk, I revisited an old friend — Tom Gilbert’s Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance.

Gilbert was a major influence on human performance technology (as in the HTP model of ISPI). He also underscored his insights with wit, as in his Behavioral Model for Creating Incompetence.

You wouldn’t think people would need a model for that — incompetence happens pretty much everywhere. But his point was to highlight the dysfunctional ways that organizations operate.

The model has two levels: environmental (the organization as a whole) and individual.

Creating Incompetence (environmental level)


  • Don’t let people know how well they’re performing.
  • Give people misleading information about how well they’re performing.
  • Hide from people what’s expected of them.
  • Give people little or no guidance about how to perform well.


  • Design the tools without consulting the people who use them.
  • Keep the engineers away from people who use the tools.


  • Make sure that poor performers get paid as well as good ones.
  • See that good performance gets punished in some way.
  • Don’t make use of nonmonetary incentives.

…and the second level is like unto it:

Creating Incompetence (individual level)


  • Leave training to chance.
  • Put training in the hands of supervisors who are not trained instructors.
  • Make training unnecessarily difficult.
  • Make training irrelevant to the students’ purposes.


  • Schedule performance for times when people are not at their sharpest.
  • Select people for tasks they have intrinsic difficulties in performing.
  • Do not provide response aids (e.g., magnification of difficult visual stimuli).


  • Design the job so it has no future.
  • Avoid arranging working conditions that employees would find pleasant.
  • Give pep talks rather than incentives to promote performance in punishing situations.

5 thoughts on “When you need incompetence fast

  1. Ken, Gilbert was a sharp observer and an engaging personality. Here’s an article by Boyett and Associates, summarizing the behavior engineering model — and explaining why addressing training (skill/knowledge issues) comes fourth in Gilbert’s sequence. (By the way, Gilbert’s book first came out 30 years ago — it’s sadly amusing how apt his model for incompetence remains today.)

  2. Dave,

    This is hilarious. Presenting the points from a negative perspective like this is really efffective. I’m going ot have to get me this book!

    Ken Carroll

  3. I love this. Love love love. I want to paste the whole thing to my office door.

    Sometimes when doing a training session on how to teach/present (e.g. to grad students), I’ll ask them to think up ways in which a teaching session could be made less good. We usually come remarkable close to describing the university’s default settings. It’s a good tool, this reversal.

    Also: it was good to chat earlier! Now I really am going to dig in and do some work.

  4. Chris, I enjoyed our conversation as well.

    Gilbert should be far better known that he is. Admittedly grounded in behaviorism (he studied under Skinner), he worked tirelessly to shift the initial focus from what you do to what you get done — and why you think that matters. (“Behavior you take with you; accomplishment you leave behind.”)

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