Practical Applications Of Human Capability Theory

Elliott Jaques'' and Kathryn Cason''s ideas about management are grounded in a theory about the ability of people to handle complexity. They call it ''human capability''. Here, two case studies show the practical application of these ideas to build a talent pool of first-line managers and select high potential engineers.
Practical Applications of Jaques´-Cason´s Human Capability Theory

Background on the Theory of Human Capability

Dr. Elliott Jaques and Kathryn Cason have developed an integrated set of ideas about organization structure and effective managerial practices.   They talk about the   "Requisite Organization", where "requisite" implies "required by nature"; there are certain underlying aspects of human nature and human ability that you have to respect if you are to have an effective organization.

Cason and Jaques have done research on human capability, the ability of people to handle complexity, and this research is an important foundation for their ideas (see Human Capability (Cason Hall) by Elliott Jaques and Kathryn Cason).  

The key results of the human capability research are:

·               People have qualitatively different levels of ability to handle complexity.   The levels are distinct and can readily be identified.

·               People´s capability increases in a predictable way over time.

·               You can assess a person´s capability by observing the complexity of their arguments; and there are four qualitatively different types of argument.

·               Human capability, as assessed by type of argument, has a direct correlation with time span of discretion.   You can use time span to assess capability or vice versa.   When assessing capability it is called the time horizon of the individual.

Time span was the key concept in Jaques earlier work.   He found you could measure the complexity of a role by using the longest task in that role.   Jaques and Cason then found a direct correlation between the time span of the role and the mental/information processing necessary to handle that complexity.   To put it simply, time span refers to complexity of roles and time horizon to how far forward a person can effectively plan and most importantly carry out the plan.   Some people can envision and work through a project lasting several years, others can only envision and work through tasks/projects requiring a few months of work.

Cason says, "The reason we have had layers in organizations for thousands of years is that we have intuited these different levels of individual capability in the human race. We know individuals differ in their ability to handle more or less complexity and therefore longer and shorter time periods without intervention.   Our book Human Capability describes these differing levels of information processing and how to observe them.   Requisite Organization, as a total management system, incorporates these basic understandings of human nature and describes how to take these two measurements - time span of discretion needed in a role and time horizon (current information processes) of each individual -- and creates an organization that assigns all the work necessary to design, produce, market and sell your products and/or services; and also allows individuals to be placed in roles in which they can successfully add value to the organization and its goals.   We know people have different levels of capability and have intuitively tried to build layers in organizations to reflect that.   Requisite organization methodologies make it possible to use information we have sensed all along, making it observable, measurable, and usable."

The four types of mental (information) processing are:

1.                 Declarative processing
Argument by making simple, unconnected points.

2.                 Cumulative processing
Argument by making a number of connected points.

3.                 Serial processing
Argument based on an "if-then" structure, "if A then B and hence C"

4.                 Parallel processing
Several serial arguments are linked together.

There are different categories of information complexity in which you find these same four types of processing.   For example, there is a category "A" of Concrete reasoning that you would find in children which is less complex than the category "B" of Symbolic reasoning you would find in most adults.   A Concrete Parallel processor (A4) would be a level of complexity below a Symbolic Declarative processor (B1).   The large majority of managerial jobs are in the Symbolic category so typically we assume that is the category we are talking about when we assess managers.

Cason says of the work on human capability, "We uncovered and gave names to things which previously had been expressed poorly in pejorative personality terms such as, "he´s not aggressive enough" or "she wasn´t driven enough to make her deadline". Whereas if you have a 14-month deadline, and the person is processing cumulatively (not serially) it´s unlikely this person could complete the project on time, on budget having overcome all obstacles while managing all their other assignments.   They could be very aggressive, but still fail because it exceeds their level of capability."

This is a very skeletal description of Jaques and Cason work, however it is enough to understand the cases discussed below.   To learn more see the references at the end of this article.

Case 1-Engineers: Good but Not Good Enough

The Presenting Problem

A major appliance manufacturer found that their experienced engineers, now in their mid-thirties, were not capable of doing the work the company had expected.   They would be given a major design project that would take 12-14 months but these projects were not coming in on time.   Furthermore, the engineers were not able to solve all of the design problems.

The Diagnosis

The cause could be lack of training, poor support systems or any number of other problems.   However, helping the managers use the Requisite Organization Talent Pool Analysis process it became evident that most of the engineers in this group, with the usual required seniority of their promotion system, were using cumulative processing and the design work that needed to be done required serial processing.   This pool of engineers was seriously short of engineers able to adequately process the complexity of information needed to accomplish their assigned projects.   This was not a group of lazy or incompetent engineers. Each of us matures uniquely over time in our ability to handle increasingly more complex information processing. When this particular group had been recruited, for whatever reason (it is usually money driven), the recruiters hired mostly individuals who would mature in capability at a slower rate than had been hired in the past.   They could not meet the expectations of their managers as quickly in their careers as recruits of the past.   They had not yet matured into using serial processing and would not be ready for that work for several years into the future.

The Solution

The organization decided to change their recruiting processes to ensure that they brought in entry-level engineers of sufficient capability so that by the time they were in their mid-thirties, they could handle this level of complex design challenges.

In the language of Cason and Jaques this meant they needed entry-level engineers who were already doing serial processing, (which is equivalent to possessing a 1-2 year time span), who would mature to parallel processing in 10-12 years.

Cason and Jaques took several days to train the campus recruiters in the assessment technique used only for outside hiring, not for internal placements.   The recruiters worked in pairs, so one would interview while the other would listen.   They recorded some of the interviews at the start so that they could check their assessments with Cason and Jaques.   However, it proved very easy for the recruiters to distinguish between cumulative arguments and the more complex serial arguments.  

Cason says cumulative reasoning sounds like, "This and this and this, never mind those other things, so therefore the problem is..." which is clearly distinguishable from serial reasoning which sounds like, "You look at A, and then that leads to B, what you find at B implies C and that leads you to D".   As you learn to listen to the reasoning you can readily tell the difference in structure between cumulative and serial reasoning.

This new recruitment process allowed the firm to hire engineers of sufficient capability to meet their current and future needs for engineering design and management of designers.   Current managers were delighted with the addition of this much-needed level of work capability and the over-employed engineers reported considerably less stress and more satisfaction in their new assignments.

Case 2 - Building a Talent Pool for First Level Managers

The Presenting Problem

A large industrial organization with 9,000 staff working primarily in the trades and technical maintenance, production, safety, quality control, labs and technicians, etc. had continuing difficulties between "management and the union".   There were other problems that grew in severity and volume: difficulties between shifts about work not finished, tools not where they should be; routine maintenance was way behind schedule and emerging work was steeply on the rise as was injury rates; production was below projections and revenues had begun to drop; to name just a few.

The Diagnosis

Using Requisite Organization analytical processes it became evident to everyone that there was a missing layer of management. This is a very common problem in most industries today.   (However, popular ideas today are more supportive of the notion that managers are bad and unnecessary except to do administrative type tasks.) There were no managers at the next level of work complexity from the maintainers, production line workers, technicians, inspectors, etc.   No one person was held accountable for any particular group of workers -- their safety, the quality and timeliness of their results, to see that they had the necessary resources and skills to successfully complete work assignments, etc.   The bulk of employees in this company had no accountable manager.   The first identifiable manager was two levels away and usually spent his days in meetings and with mounds of paperwork, not on the shop floor.

The organization needed to create hundreds of new roles and identify a pool of talent by identifying who on their shop floor staff had the information processing capability/time horizon to be a first line manager.

The Solution

Whereas in the first case the recruiters assessed outside people based on the complexity of their arguments, this company did not need to go outside.   They had a sufficient number of staff and knew some of them would make good managers.   They used managerial assessment of individual time horizons to identify potential candidates.

Step one was to prepare lists of all employees by work groups.

Step two was to work with the lowest two levels of identifiable managers in these work groups, for they would be most likely to know most of the 7-8,000 staff.   These managers were in roles working at time spans of 12-24 months and 2-4 years.   Each manager in each group and each location made judgements about each individual he/she had any contact with or knowledge of.   They were asked to assess how far forward in the future they would be comfortable giving the individual a task, project or special assignment to complete, using his/her own discretion as to when he needed to ask for help to overcome obstacles as they arose or were anticipated and planned for, without someone more capable looking over her shoulder.   For example, answering the question, "if this person had the opportunity to gain any technical knowledge and skill needed could this person complete a three month project on their own?   A six month project?"

The managers were trained by having Cason work through the first 10-20 assessments.   It took about an hour to do the first 20 assessments-a surprisingly short amount of time.

After five or six assessments most managers had a pretty good sense of assessing the time horizon of individuals he knew.   However, the consultants had to keep reminding them that they were not talking about anything but raw, innate capability.   It doesn´t matter what college they went to, or even if they went to college at all.   Some individuals in this employee group may not have had the opportunity to finish high school.

Step three, everyone went away and made their own assessments of everyone on the lists they had been given and brought those assessments to the next meeting.

The final step in the assessment process was to bring the managers of work groups and their subordinate managers together to review each individual for a final time and discuss disagreements. The final decision was not a consensus, in this case it was the accountability of the highest-level manager in the work group to make the final statement of individual capability.

After this assessment process those who were assessed to be potential candidates were contacted by managers at both levels to let them know that they were seen as promising candidates for the new managerial roles and they were encouraged to apply for these positions.

Interestingly, a number of these potential candidates said, "I see how you treat managers around here and I don´t want to be promoted".   This was an unwelcome, but valuable lesson for the company.   Cason says that, "The use of requisite organization principles informs management.   When we act appropriately, using principles that create trust inducing managerial systems, we get amazing information that is generally unavailable or not attended to in other settings."

Aside from learning that people didn´t want to be managers, the organization ran into two other difficulties.   One is that they had a very hard time letting go of the idea that to be a manager you must have a degree.   As a result they overlooked strong candidates the talent pool assessment process had identified.   The other issue they ran into was that they promoted too many engineers who did not have detailed knowledge of production and maintenance and of the real everyday problems of the shop floor.   This lack of knowledge put them and their people at a disadvantage and demonstrates that mental capability isn´t alone sufficient, there has to be appropriate training and experience opportunities for the various talent pools in an organization.


Cason says that requisite organization consulting is different from most other consulting work.     She doesn´t do something for management or to managers, rather managers are trained how to think about the work they are doing and are helped to get a deeper grasp of the requisite principles that underlie sound managerial leadership.   It also involves helping decision makers put in place policies and procedures which are not onerous but which set appropriate boundaries and working relationships so that everyone experiences sufficient room for use of discretion - which is really what WORK is, and is what we all want to be recognized for and paid equitably for doing effectively.

The two organizations discussed have been working with requisite organization principles for three and five years respectively.   The willingness of the organizations to stick with this approach over many years is a good sign that they find it helpful.  

What has struck me as I´ve learned more about the requisite organization total management system, is that while the theory can seem complicated, the actually practice is very simple, simpler than most other consulting approaches I have seen.

My personal advice is to echo what Tom Helton, EVP HR for United Stationers told me.   He says, he doesn´t "do requisite organization", he never even mentions the term, he simply tries to bring the best solutions to bear for his company and requisite organization principles work.   In the cases we´ve seen one organization had a problem getting good engineering designs in time, another had a problem filling the first line manager role.   These organizations each had a business issue and drew on requisite organization principles and diagnostic processes to understand and resolve their business issue.   That, to my mind, is the correct way for HR to approach their job.

Where to learn more:

Articles on

Interview with Kathryn Cason
Learning Series on the Requisite Organization
Interview with Elliott Jaques (1/2)
Interview with Elliott Jaques (2/2)
Interview with Tom Helton


The Requisite Organization (Cason-Hall) by Elliott Jaques
Executive Leadership (Cason-Hall) by Elliott Jaques and Stephen Clement
Human Capability (Cason Hall) by Elliott Jaques and Kathryn Cason

The Requisite Organization Institute

Cason-Hall Publishers

List of all Interviews

The HR industry´s premier online community and resource for Human Resource professionals: HR, human resources, HR community, human resources community, HR best practices, best practices in human resources, online communities for HR, HR articles, HR news, human resources articles, human resources news, HR events, leadership, performance management, staffing and recruitment, benefits, compensation, staffing, recruitment, workforce acquisition, human capital management, HR management, human resources management, HR metrics and measurement, organizational development, executive coaching, HR law, employment law, labor relations, hiring employees, HR outsourcing, human resources outsourcing, training and development human resources management resources for hr professionals. | HR menus | HR events | HR Sitemap