Addressing the Mismatch Between Capabilities and Challenges

Means Unleashing Human Potential

Capability Should Match Work Complexity

The mismatch between individual capabilities and work challenges is considered as an abuse of the person and the organization. People are pulled away from the state of Flow and feeling unhappy. There are two types of abuse[1]:

  • Misuse - when the work to be done outstrips what a person feels able to do;
  • Disuse - when what there is to do fails to challenge what a person feels capable of doing. As an example, micro-management leads to bored employees at the lower levels when their capabilities are underutilized.


A misused person is one being asked to take on challenges that are too great.

Mild misuse is experienced as perplexity [1]. The person stops in tracks to think what is going on in self, in tasks and between them. Their judgments are slower and less reliable, timing is slightly erratic, and intuition needs coaxing. Concentration is missing and has to be won. The pace is slightly accelerated, and the person may trip occasionally. For a misused person, it is difficult to

  • distinguish between what should be done now and what could be deferred;
  • to resist the temptation to do those things which make one feel good;
  • to avoid working long hours.
They may also suffer from occasional, mild, physical symptoms[1].

When misuse is more extreme, individuals become worried, Increasingly self-conscious and preoccupied with performance[1]. Work is frequently interrupted to ask self and others: "How am I doing? Am I doing it right? Should I be doing it at all?"" Judgments and intuition are unreliable. Conclusions are either arrived at prematurely or delayed by calling for more information. Priorities are disorganized, each case is considered as a special case, and there is a tendency to deal with tasks that provide instant feedback or make one feel comfortable, albeit briefly. It is difficult to order actions and to choose between alternative courses. Concentration has to be fought for and the pace is accelerated. The person is tired, depleted, depressed.

In the most extreme cases of misuse, individuals become anxious[1]. The unfamiliar totally overwhelms the familiar, and they begin to suffer the experience of being unable to function. Their mind is occupied by thoughts like: “I've lost my touch; I'm out of touch with myself and the world; I'm out of my depth with weights tied to both feet.” Judgments just do not happen anymore, and the person dares not listen to intuition. Time is cut off from work in progress. The pace is over-accelerated, and balance is elusive. The person is exhausted, ill, and accident-prone.


A disused person is equally inadequate, because the challenges of work are too small to encourage effective engagement.

Mild disuse manifests itself as frustration[1]. The person is self-aware and confused by the mismatch of capability and work challenges. Their mind is occupied by thoughts like: “This is so easy, why am I doing it so badly?” Trust in judgment begins to waver. The sense of progress is slightly retarded. This condition comes with occasional mild physical discomforts.

As the disuse increases, the person suffers from boredom[1]. Their mind is occupied by thoughts like: “There's no point, no challenge, it's not getting me anywhere.” They are increasingly self-conscious and preoccupied with the wide gap between their perceived capability and assigned tasks. Tasks are increasingly perceived as chores. Tasks could be done well, but as the person has fallen out of touch with them, they may not get done so well. In terms of the pace, it feels as if the brakes are on. This results in irritability, little energy for work, and tendency to scatter energy and resources to the detriment of health.

In the most severe disuse, anxiety ensues[1]. The familiar blots out the unfamiliar and the person begins to suffer the experience of being unable to function. Ultimately, judgment is lost and there is no confidence in one's capability now or in the future. Their mind is occupied by thoughts like: “It's all slipped, might as well chuck it all in. Any capabilities I might once have had are rusted and blunt.” There is nowhere to go - the journey is blocked. The person is deprived of challenge, dispirited, disoriented, and very low on energy.

Implications on productivity

No matter if the capability of the individual is above or below what is needed, there is a risk that the job is not done well, leading to direct and indirect costs for the organization. In either case, the organization is depleted, judgments cannot be trusted, people cannot be entrusted, morale erodes, constant reorganizations attempt to restore added value, but to temporary or little effect. Costs escalate, responsiveness to change is lost, and long-term viability is compromised.

Mismatch between capabilities and challenges means: underutilized and wasted human potential.

We can visualize that as in the diagram below. On the vertical axis we have the outcome that software developers delivered. The scale presented is "Poor", "Mediocre" and "Awesome". Of course, we can replace that with something else such as Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) or Net Promoter Scores (NPS). On the horizontal axis we have the knowledge needed to be discovered in order to deliver a certain outcome.

Value created vs. knowledge discovered

Things to notice on the diagram are the happy and sad faces. They symbolize two things. First is, were the outcomes as expected? So a sad face means a poor outcome, a happy face means awesome outcome. Second is, how the developers felt while delivering the outcomes? A sad face means developers faced a painful perplexity while producing that outcome. A happy face means developers face tolerable perplexity while producing that outcome.

Most importantly is that the best place in the diagram is not the upper top right hand corner where KEDE is maximal at 99 and the outcome is awesome. That is actually the same face as the upper top left hand corner where KEDE is minimal at 1 and the outcome is awesome. The reason is that maximum KEDE means boredom And minimum KEDE means anxiety.

All of the top boxes show the same awesome outcome, but achieved using different levels of prior knowledge. The best place to be is where KEDE is 50 and the outcome is awesome - in the second top right hand corner with the stars. It shows developers delivered awesome value while applying their prior knowledge. It also shows the developer was in a state of Flow. That is, the actual capabilities were in balance with the actual challenges of the work done.

The worst place to be is in the bottom left hand corner. It shows developers delivered poor outcomes while spending time acquiring new knowledge they didn't have. In practice that would mean junior level developers worked and achieved relevant results.

Let's imagine a situation where the output was a single web page and it produced a fabulous outcome of $1 000 000 for the software development organization. If you were the manager of that organization wouldn't you like to know how perplexed the developer was while producing that fabulous outcome? Wouldn't you like next time to produce the same outcome with less perplexity for the developer?

How to Restore the Flow?

Both software developer and organization can benefit by matching each individual's current level of capability with work at an appropriate level of complexity. Ensuring that this match is maintained on an ongoing basis, as the organization's challenges change and individual's capabilities grow. Software developers will be energetic and well at ease. The morale will be high. Judgments of staff can be trusted. They can be entrusted with resources; and they trust and are connected with the organization. The organization is cohesive and coherent and better positioned for long-term viability.

Poor performance of a software developer is usually obvious to others, but the reasons for the dysfunction are less clear. The problem typically stems from misalignment between the person and the role, but it is difficult to judge if it is due to capabilities being above or below the complexity of a work item. The diagnosis may be wrong and interventions consequently misplaced. For instance, a disused person of high capability may be severely underutilized, utterly bored and perform unsatisfactorily. Classifying this poor performance as an attitude problem, laziness or lack of capability would be deplorably misguided, do no justice to the person, and constitute a waste of talent for the organization.

Managers need to maintain a match between the individual's growing capabilities and increasing work responsibilities.

To remain in Flow, one must increase the complexity of the activity by developing both new challenges and capabilities[5]. At work, managers need to maintain a match between the individual's growing capabilities and increasing work responsibilities.

Reliable information about individual capabilities, their expected growth, and the complexity of work is thus a prerequisite to restore the healthy flow of work. Assessments of the balance between individual capability and work complexity can be done using KEDEHub will help put a finger on many performance issues and organizational dysfunctions.

This diagnostic information is very powerful. It shows where people's capability goes underutilized and where they are out of their depth. It also indicates developmental trajectories of the talent pool and makes visible the necessary accountabilities, level of complexity, and capability requirements of roles. Mapped across the organization, this information supports recruitment, training, development, succession planning, and organization design - all aimed at individual and organizational well being through regained flow.

Works Cited

1. Stamp, G. (1991), "WELLBEING AND STRESS AT WORK", Employee Counselling Today, Vol. 3 No. 3, pp. 3-9.

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