By Carl Binder, CPT, PhD, 2011 Workshop and Conference Presenter
I’ve spent almost 40 years studying human behavior and helping to develop, change, or otherwise “improve” it. My first teacher in this field was B. F. Skinner, with whom I had the privilege of studying during my first few years as a graduate student at Harvard. Dr. Skinner became a lifelong inspiration for me, demonstrating without a doubt that if we treat our own behavior in the way that natural scientists treat their areas of study, we can discover how to improve teaching, therapy, management, personal relationships, and other aspects of what Skinner called “human affairs.”
Skinner’s experimental analysis of behavior was simple. First, you pinpoint a particular type of behavior and decide how you will count (measure) it. Then you arrange the environment to prompt the behavior and present consequences of one kind or another when it occurs. You observe, measure, and see if the behavior changes in the right direction. If it does not, then you rearrange something in the environment and continue until the self-correcting process of “scientific method” produces the desired change in behavior. It was simple–at least in concept–but this basic process plus the experimental equipment he designed led to an entirely new field of research and application, a natural science of behavior that members of the American Psychological Association deemed the most important contribution of the 20th century to psychology.
Tom Gilbert studied for a while with Skinner, when both of them were involved in the invention of programmed instruction, the precursor to current-day instructional design. As Gilbert looked at performance in organizations outside the confines of the experimental laboratory, he recognized that it’s not the behavior of people, but the products or work outputs (accomplishments) the behavior produces that are valuable to organizations. Thus, we should pinpoint behavior by analyzing backwards from the valuable work outputs it produces. Moreover, he included in his Behavior Engineering Model other variables that obviously influence behavior in the workplace such as the “instruments” that we use to perform our jobs, the skills and knowledge we acquire, and the personal factors or “capacity” that make us more fit for specific types of work than for others. This account for why we behave as we do became a bit more complex than Skinner’s, but more applicable in the real world. Based on these insights, Gilbert and his peers created the field of human performance technology (HPT), laying the foundation for ISPI, as we know it.
As the brilliant pioneers of our field continued to build on these basic scientific and engineering concepts, their models and processes for improving performance became more and more complicated, and harder to understand and communicate to the mere mortals who inhabit most organizations. In other words, HPT became a field for experts and specialists, to whom fell the job of communicating and partnering with executives, managers. and other stakeholders in the organizations that they served. With more complex models, methods, and language, this became a challenge.
When I was introduced to Gilbert in the late 1970s, I was taken by his ideas, inspired by their elegance, and moved to dive in headfirst. I joined ISPI (then NSPI), got to know Gilbert, his protégé Joe Harless, and many of the thought leaders in our field. Harless, in particular, taught me the importance of focusing our analysis on valuable accomplishments (work outputs) before turning to behavior. Working with clients and staff in my consulting firms, I tried to move into organizations with as great an impact as possible, but found that our language and our complex models and algorithms often got in the way.
The Six Boxes® Approach emerged from that recognition. First, during the early ’80s we developed the language of the Six Boxes® Model, user-tested it, and found that nonspecialists could rapidly understand the systemic nature of behavior influences and use the model to improve how they managed performance. Then, in the process of boiling HPT down to its simplest elements, we adopted the Performance Chain from Harless’s Front End Analysis work, and extracted a seven-step Performance Improvement Logic from the many algorithms and performance problem-solving models in our field. A more recent addition is application of Carol Panza’s elegant Organization Mapping for organizational performance analysis, when we need to link work outputs (accomplishments) in the individual’s or team’s performance to business operations and strategy at the highest levels.
While the Six Boxes approach is simple, its applications are not always easy. It’s often difficult for people to shift their focus from behavior to work outputs (accomplishments), and we try everything we can during the coaching portions of our Six Boxes programs to facilitate that transition. Our goal is to help executives, managers, performance professionals, and individual contributors use our models and logic for “performance thinking” so that, in addition to completing formal projects and initiatives, they can apply the essence of HPT to everyday management of their organizations, themselves, and those with whom they share work and personal lives.
We have come a long way since Skinner, but in many ways are back to the simplicity of his science, back to the foundation he built. By adopting this simple communication of performance thinking, we believe that organizations can begin to change their cultures, sharing the simplicity of this understanding across all levels and functions, and collaborating to drive continuous performance improvement and accelerate results, based ultimately on the science of behavior.
Join Carl at his pre-conference workshop, “An Introduction to Six Boxes® Performance Thinking” as one of the 100+ presenters sharing his knowledge and expertise at THE Performance Improvement Conference 2011, April 10-13, in Orlando, Florida. If you would like to learn more, you may also attend his 60-minute presentations, “Using the Performance Chain to Drive Evaluation” or “Program Implementation with The Six Boxes® Approach.”
Skinner, B. F. (1976). About Behaviorism. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/About-Behaviorism-B-F-Skinner/dp/0394716183/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1293564132&sr=1-1
Gilbert, T. F. (1978). Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Human-Competence-Engineering-Performance-Essential/dp/0787996157/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1293564064&sr=8-1
About the Author
Carl Binder is senior partner at Binder Riha Associates, provider of Six Boxes Workshops and consulting services, and a frequent contributor to ISPI publications and conferences. You may contact him at CarlBinder@SixBoxes.com and read many of his published articles at www.Binder-Riha.com/publications.htm.