By Fred Nickols

In last month’s column, I reviewed the GAP-ACT model of human behavior and performance (see Figure 1). If the model could speak it might say something like this:

We human beings select or target certain variables in our environment (T). We set goals (G) defining the state we wish those variables to be in and we compare our perceptions (P) of the actual or current state of those variables with the goal state we have set for them. If there is a discrepancy (d) between these two states, we intervene (i), we engage in actions (A) aimed at reducing or eliminating that gap. For the most part, we are successful. We are “living control systems” and we do a pretty good job of controlling things. However, there are other conditions (C), other actors and factors that affect the same variables we want to control. For the most part, these other actors and factors pose minor disturbances to our control, and we can compensate for them. But on occasion they can overwhelm our best efforts. Our control is far from perfect.

In last month’s column, I also promised to address how the GAP-ACT model can be put to use. In this month’s column, I will keep my promise by providing some general guidelines and by pointing you to some more in-depth sources.

PX July 2014 Fig 1 Performer and Situation

Figure 1. The GAP-ACT Model of Human Behavior & Performance

General Uses

  • As a diagnostic framework
  • As an aid to understanding human behavior and performance
  • As a tool in providing performance support
  • As a tool for solving performance problems
  • As a tool for preventing performance problems

These general uses are elaborated upon below and in the additional resources given.

In-Depth Treatment
The GAP-ACT model is also known as the target model (owing to the use of a bull’s-eye to represent the target or controlled variable). Previously published papers and some unpublished papers provide much more detail about putting the GAP-ACT/target model to work. Following are some brief explanations of the more useful of these papers along with links that will take you to them. Collectively, these papers illustrate the general uses listed above.

  • The Target (GAP-ACT) Model: A Mainly Visual Presentation. If I could have you refer to only one additional source this would be it. This paper is mainly visual in nature, but it also contains lots of illustrative examples and a couple of cases in point. Of particular interest are the notions of proximate, intermediate, and ultimate targets. It also presents a version of the GAP-ACT model that is annotated with diagnostic questions. Click here.
  • A Puzzle Solved. This is about an incident I encountered when I was working with a field sales force. The sales manager asked me to look into a puzzling situation pertaining to a high-performing sales rep who would call in sick in the middle of a hot run of sales. I looked into the matter and the puzzle was solved, although not in the way the manager had hoped for. However, the GAP-ACT (target) model helped her understand. This case, although true, is told in fictionalized story form and I am told it makes good reading. Click here.
  • A Model for Helping People Hit Their Performance Targets. This paper was published in Performance Improvement (Nickols, 2010) and is available to ISPI members in the resources section of the ISPI website. It presents the GAP-ACT (target) model and then presents a detailed analysis of an operations problem using the model as a diagnostic guide. Click here.
  • Managerial Performance: Achieving Stable Results in Varying Conditions. If any people have to vary their behavior in response to shifting, changing circumstances, they are managers. This paper examines managerial performance in light of the GAP-ACT (target) model. It was published in Proven in 2012. A copy of the article is available on my website. Click here.
  • Manage Your Own Performance: No One Else Can. This paper was also published in Performance Improvement (Nickols, 2011). It uses the GAP-ACT (target) model to take a look at a task all of us face; namely, managing our own performance. It is available to ISPI members in the resources section of the ISPI website. Click here.

Concluding Remarks
Some of you reading this column might ask, “Why? Why bother with this GAP-ACT or target model or whatever you care to call it? Why is it so all-fired important?” For me, the answer goes back to 1983 when I published my first article dealing with the shift to knowledge work (Nickols, 1983). That article, too, is available to ISPI members on the ISPI website. Click here.

The shift to knowledge work was a multifaceted shift in the nature of work and working. For one thing, the basis of work shifted from materials to information. For another, working activities shifted from primarily prefigured or pre-scripted routines carried out under standardized conditions to configured responses to the circumstances at hand. This means the performer must figure out what to do instead of simply doing what someone else has already figured out. Just as important, this means the performer is most profitably viewed as an agent, acting on the employer’s behalf instead of as an actor following a script. We need a view of human behavior and performance that incorporates self-control, self-management, autonomy, and the pursuit of specified results under varying circumstances. In short, we need a model of people that recognizes they are adaptive and adaptable “living control systems” (Powers, 1989, 1992, 2008). The GAP-ACT (target) model is just such a view.

Finally, in case you do not have time or do not care to check out any of the resources I have pointed you to, shown below, in Figure 2, is an annotated version of the GAP-ACT (target) model. It illustrates the kinds of issues that are useful in diagnosing, designing, supporting, and managing human performance in the workplace. It should prove useful.

PX July 2014 Fig 2 Performer and Situation Annotated

Figure 2. The GAP-ACT/Target Model–Annotated

Nickols, F.W. (1983). Half a needs assessment: What is in the world of work and working. Performance and Instruction Journal, 22(8), 24–27.
Nickols, F.W. (2010). A model for helping people hit their performance targets. Performance Improvement, 49(8), 21–26.
Nickols, F.W. (2011). Manage your own performance: No one else can. Performance Improvement, 50(2), 1–35.
Nickols, F.W. (2012). Managerial performance. Proven, 5(1), 20–23.
Powers, W.T. (1989). Living control systems. Gravel Switch, KY: The Control Systems Group.
Powers, W.T. (1992). Living control systems II. Gravel Switch, KY: The Control Systems Group.
Powers, W.T. (2008). Living control systems III: The fact of control. Bloomfield, NJ: Benchmark Publications.

FredNickolsAbout the Author
Fred Nickols, CPT, is a performance improvement professional and the managing partner of Distance Consulting LLC. He is a former Navy technician who was also trained as an internal organizational development consultant, an instructor, and a programmed instruction writer. Fred took up a second career in the private sector as a consultant and executive. He is a long-time member of ISPI and a frequent contributor to its various publications. He can be contacted via email at or on his website at