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Capability: Part 6 – Task Performance

Task Performance

  • Formal

  • Meta-Formal

  • Systematic

  • Meta-Systematic

  • Paradigmatic

  • Meta-Paradigmatic

This particular set of elements as a component of CAPABILITY DYNAMICS is a linchpin, as we try to conceptualize the complexity of task performance.

“Agents residing on one scale start producing behavior that lies one scale above them: ants create colonies; urbanites create neighborhoods; simple pattern-recognition software learns how to recommend new books.” – Emergence, science writer Steven Johnson

Creating Behavior-ologies!

“Commons and Richards (1984a, b) argued that a successful developmental theory should address two conceptually different issues:
(1) the hierarchical complexity of the task to be solved; and
(2) the psychology, sociology, and anthropology of such task performance and how that performance develops.” – Hierarchical Complexity of Tasks Shows The Existence of Developmental Stages, Commons, et al, 1994

Perhaps the easiest way to think about that process is to rely on the Model of Hierarchical Complexity by Michael Common, et al. The following discussion is adapted from The Model of Hierarchical Complexity as a Measurement System,

Mathematical Model

The Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC) is a mathematical model based on the “Theory of Measurement” that has gone through a number of iterations as a measurement system.

Hierarchical Measurement System

The Model of Hierarchical Complexity sets forth the measurement system by which actions are put into a hierarchical order and each order is assigned an ordinal number.

Cross-Domain Relevance?

The model assesses a general, one-dimensional developmental measure of difficulty across domains. Dawson-Tunik’s (2006) studies have found that the stage of development scored according to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity was consistent with multiple other instruments that were designated to score development in specific domains.

Developmental Theory Based on Task Performance

Model of Hierarchical Complexity is not the only theory of development based on task complexity.

Measures Horizontal and Vertical Capability

Other metrics of task complexity have been proposed as well. Horizontal or classical information complexity is one of them. It describes the number of “yes-no” questions. In classical information complexity, if a task requires one such question, the answer would transmit 1 bit of “horizontal” information.

Similarly, if a task requires two such questions, the answers would transmit 2 bits. Each additional 1-bit question would add another bit. Horizontal complexity, then, is the sum of bits required by tasks that require “yes-no” questions. The number of actions is 2n.

Developmental Stages Based on Increasingly More Complex Task Hierarchies

MHC also seems to have advantage over previous proposals about developmental stages of humans. While previous models attribute behavioral changes across a person’s age to the development of mental structures, MHC posits that task sequences of task behaviors form hierarchies that become increasingly complex.

NO Skipping Stages

According to this model, less complex tasks must be completed and practiced before more complex tasks can be acquired. Thus, it accounts for developmental changes.

Stimulus and Response are Considered

Furthermore, previous theories of stage have confounded the stimulus and response in assessing stage by simply scoring responses and ignoring the task or stimulus.

Task Separated from Performance

The model of hierarchical complexity separates the task or stimulus from the performance. The participant’s performance on a task of a given complexity represents the stage of developmental complexity.

Includes Sub Tasks to Explain Transition Between Stages

Another factor which sets this model apart from previous models is that it not only extends developmental stages up to 15 stages, but also includes subtasks and sub-subtasks which explain what happens between those stages.”

Hierarchical Task Performance Critical for Leaders

“Because hierarchical complexity is such an ever-present dimension of tasks, taking it into account will make certain behavioral science issues more coherent and our analysis of them more powerful and effective.

This is because every task has an order of complexity associated with it.

This means that within behavioral science every experimental task, every clinical test, developmental task, survey item, or statement by a person can be characterized in terms of its hierarchical complexity. Other tasks and activities can be similarly classified; for example, jobs and activities, political systems, or economic systems.

Measures that ignore the hierarchical complexity of tasks collapse the performances obtained in ways that obscure the factor(s) that are actually causing the variability in behavior.

For example, one speculation is that as individuals in given societies get more educated, class status is due less to education per se and to parental status, income and occupation. This might be because the hierarchical complexity of the tasks a person solves determines income now more than education. Few can meet the highest demands or can solve the most hierarchically complex tasks, quite a few can meet only the minimal demands.” – Hierarchical Complexity of Tasks Shows The Existence of Developmental Stages, Commons, et al, 1994.


While MOST leaders are going to want to leave this “complexity stuff” to someone else, I now believe that training leaders in the fundamentals of understanding hierarchical complexity is as critical as training them in financial analysis.

Yet, it’s not happening because it’s still a process that is being formulated at a variety of levels.

“Modern science has come to realize that all scientific theories are approximations to the true nature of reality; and that each theory is valid for a certain range of phenomenon. Beyond this range it no longer gives a satisfactory description of nature, and new theories have to be found to replace the old one, or, rather, to extend it by improving the approximation. – (Capra, 1982: 101)”

It’s much the same as we encounter in beginning to teach leaders about SYSTEM DYNAMICS, again an entire discipline that in large part is reserved for experts and academics, However, leaders are the one’s allocating resources and thus need to understand how these basic concepts affect all of our assumptions about how the world works… and people have lives.

The essence of the model leads to particular next steps:

“…less complex tasks must be completed and practiced before more complex tasks can be acquired.”

If we are asking leaders to allocate resources and lead people to utilize those resources efficiently, effectively, and sustainably, then we need to add additional tasks to the capability of leadership.

In our next installment, we will breathe a sigh of relief as we consider how TALENT>>CAPABILITY!

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    Mike R. Jay is a developmentalist utilizing consulting, coaching, mentoring and advising as methods to offer developmental scaffolding for aspiring leaders who are interested in being, doing, having, becoming, and contributing… to helping people have lives.

    Mike R. Jay
    Leadership University

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