Could They Do It If Their Life Depended On It? (..and other silly questions by Robert Mager)


There’s a book I want you to buy and read because it will help you quickly solve all sorts of people problems, by giving you some great questions to ask.

There’s one question in this book that I don’t like, though. The classic version of the question came in this form:

“If you held a gun to the person’s head, would they be able to do the task?”

Perhaps the question sounds too harsh, too close to the military roots of the Instructional Systems Design field. Infact, I’ve always brushed this question off as standard instructional-design-tough-guy talk, the kind of stuff you hear from “gotcha” naysayers and self-promoters who have a grain of truth and a boatload of bluster… but then again, the guy credited with popularizing that question 25+ years ago, Robert Mager, is no mere blowhard.

Required Reading: Analyzing Performance Problems ISBN 1879618176In their (awesome, required reading) book, Analyzing Performance Problems, Robert Mager and Peter Pipe — perhaps sensing kinder gentler times — rephrased the question in less trigger-happy, but still dramatic manner:

“If the person’s life depended on it, would they be able to do the task?”

This question is designed to help you — the trainer, instructional designer, needs assessor, consultant, manager, parent, friend, whoever you are — diagnose whether a person’s “performance discrepancy” (or as Mager & Pipe put it, the thing you think that they “should really outta wanna do“) is a training problem, or a motivation problem.

In other words, this question is supposed to be a kind of acid test for the Skill-Will Matrix. The authors say that this question — used together with the other questions —  will give you a kind of “x-ray vision” that will allow you to see through problems.

(back in my day, you could get x-ray vision for a dollar)

Here’s the thing:  Recognizing that this is only one question, and only a part of a much more extensive toolkit that you will get when you buy the book, still, I dislike this question.

I dislike this question for three reasons:

1) The question evokes an image of an emergency scenario where performance criteria levels are lowered, thus muddling the issue. The question of “does it need to be done to this level of performance” is another question (also covered by this book), but different than the “can they do it if their lives depended on it” question.

2) The question assumes a scenario which takes out the motivation variable completely: the individual is fully motivated by urgent self-preservation. Okay, fine. However, organizations don’t run like that… at least not for very long. As Mager & Pipe note in their introduction, the causes of a performance discrepancy are usually a blend of issues, and the motivation factor is not just a “variable” that can be “controlled for” …the issue of motivation interacts with all of the obstacles (and enablers) in the situation, and so has to weighed with each aspect of the problem.

“You see in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.” – Clint Eastwood, Performance Consultant

Ah, well perhaps the real reason I dislike this question is that I think the answer would most often be “yes, yes they could if their lives depended on it” which doesn’t really tell me much.  However, I suppose if the answer was, “no, no they couldn’t if their lives depended on it”  then that would be very interesting and it would tell me a lot.   So maybe, just maybe, it’s a useful question if only for the possibility getting a literal “no” as an answer.

Oh wait, that reminds me, there was a third reason I dislike this question:

3) If the point of the question is to be “literal” or “black-and-white” in our thinking, well then — ahem — literally no. Most people could not perform complex tasks very well, under the threat of certain death.

World-class athletes receive millions of dollars in physical and psychological training in order to perform under the pressure of a high stakes competition. Top notch CEOs and business executives may or may not receive formal psychological training, but they too are subjected to tremendous pressure and scrutiny. Earlier this year, in the face of large numbers of vehicle recalls, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda bowed to media pressure — literally and figuratively — though after the bow he managed to stand up straight again and go about fixing things.  Sometimes the pressure is too great and the executive will permanently crumble under the weight of an Epic Fail: Witness Kenneth Lay at Enron and Tony Hayward at BP. We expect our leaders to be able to perform under pressure, but even they have their limits.

So this question about “performing it if their life depended on it” wants me to think literally about one aspect of the scenario, but metaphorically about another aspect of the scenario. When I try to answer it, the situation doesn’t really gets simplified. So the answer is “No, Mr. Toughguy Consultant, they couldn’t do it if you put your Big Consultant Gun to their heads.  So what else do you want to ask me and make it quick, because I have three more Fancypants Consultants to talk to, before I can get my lunch ??”

Ok, so maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe it’s not a completely dumb question.  Maybe sometimes people really can’t do something, no matter how hard they try, without a bit of assistance.

Maybe this question helps people who are getting confused by the issues, confusing by the phrase “we need to teach these people to…etc…”  where the word “teach” does not always mean “instruct”  but rather…

“motivate,” or…

“give proper incentives,” or…

“give opportunities for receiving effective timely feedback and/or opportunities for practice,”  or…

“help by removing impediments to performance,” or even…

“give better tools or more resources.”

Yes, this book delivers on its promise, and gives you a kind of x-ray vision which allows you to figure out why people aren’t doing what they should be doing, and how to fix it.

The book will help you figure out how much of any perfomance improvement solution needs to involve some sort of training or new learning, and how much of it needs to be other things, like simplifying the task or replacing the person.

In summary:

* If you are a consultant and you don’t buy and read this book, your clients should sue you for malpractice.

* If you are a manager and you don’t buy and read this book, you should be fired and replaced by one of your poor underlings.

* Read the book at least once and then contemplate it.  Then, keep the book (and its handy reference flowchart of questions) as a desk-side job aid, or as wall decor.

Yes, it’s that good.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on November 25, 2010, in Business, Instructional Design, Learning, Life, Productivity and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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