Why Gilbert Matters


Four decades after the original publication of Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, let’s consider the ongoing relevance of Thomas F. Gilbert’s most famous work. Certainly he remains the most revered and most important figure in the history of human performance improvement field. Does he still matter? 


When I was in junior high school, I was a paperboy. I usually chose to walk rather than bike my route so that I could read The Boston Globe for an hour. Here are some of the big news stories that stick in my mind from 1978: A great blizzard dumps 21” of snow on an unprepared Boston; Bucky Dent’s dramatic home run propels the Yankees to a division title over the Red Sox; Pope John Paul I dies after only 33 days of papacy. Whether or not you were following news back then, you can see that 1978 was some time ago.

The 40th anniversary of the publication of Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance is an invitation for reflection. ISPI folk celebrate Thomas F. Gilbert as the most revered figure in the history of our profession. After all he is ‘The Father of Human Performance Technology (HPT)’ and the namesake of ISPI’s highest honor. His Behavior Engineering Model (BEM) remains (possibly) the most cited model or concept in any gathering of human performance technologists.

Human Competence was first published before I entered the workforce, and Gilbert passed away before I had heard of him. After attending my first ISPI conference in 2008, I purchased a tattered copy of the Tribute Edition, which was published in 1996 shortly after Gilbert’s death. In this version, you get not only the book itself, but 17 pages of heartfelt messages that demonstrate what he meant to so many colleagues and friends. Gilbert’s unfinished posthumous autobiography, cleverly called Human Incompetence: Confessions of a Psychologist, adds 90 more pages of praise in its Addendum. The picture is clear: In addition to being a brilliant thinker, storyteller, and mentor, apparently, he was a great guy as well. I’m sorry to have missed him.

There is little question that Gilbert was great. Does he matter in 2018?

For answers, I returned to the text of Human Competence, with a reading that considers his relevance to the consultant or HPT practitioner of today. I conclude that yes, Gilbert still matters, and Human Competence is worth reading or re-reading today. Here’s why.

The Book Itself Is Great

“Length in perception has a certain independence of length as measured by a ruler. As we move away from a package of cigarettes, the length of its physical image on our retina grows smaller, nevertheless, the package seems 80 millimeters long at any distance.”

-Human Competence (Tribute Edition), page 339

Human Competence hits a rare sweet spot for a business book – somewhere between bathroom book and ponderous tome. It’s light (entertaining) enough so that it’s hard to put down, but heavy enough that you don’t want to read too much of it in any one sitting.


The quote above encompasses so much of what is distinctive, pragmatic, and charming about this book. Certainly, the reader will notice that Gilbert was a teacher at heart and professorial in tone. I find myself engrossed in his examples, immediately wanting to reread paragraphs or sections as soon as I finish them. This is the type of book that you might carry around in your bag for months, pulling it out during downtimes when you know it’s time for a break from your smartphone feeds. While there is a brilliant arc to the structure of the entire work, I find myself opening it up randomly rather than picking up where I left off. Sometimes it’s just enough to read some of Gilbert’s unique homespun verse that introduces most chapters.

The image of the cigarette package is a typical of the anachronistic turns you see from time to time. You’ll also see outdated business terminology. Hey, it was the 1970s. It’s 99% business in here, but Gilbert will take short asides on race relations, gender roles, or other contemporaneous issues. It gives the whole work a bit of a time capsule feel, which I find charming and amusing. Moreso than other books of its type and vintage, the author’s personality animates the work, and that is to the reader’s benefit.

As with this example, Gilbert’s lectures seem oblique when suddenly he makes a turn towards the subject matter at hand. Here Gilbert prefaces a discussion of the dimensions of human behavior with a discussion of the dimensions of the physical world. Side trips into scientific research methods and the relevance of animal behavior to the study of humans often underpin his messaging.

He Taught Us Timeless and Enduring HPT Lessons

“In the great cult of behavior, the appeal is to control or affect behavior in some way. There is little or no technology of ends and purposes. Indeed, behavior itself is view as an end rather than as a means to an end.”

-Human Competence (Tribute Edition), page 7

It’s easy to say that Gilbert is outmoded because he’s his best work is 40 years ago, and a lot has changed in the world. You will still find timeless nuggets of wisdom, some of which continue to be overlooked.

Lesson 1: Behavior ≠ Performance

Before we get through the first 10 pages of Human Competence, Gilbert introduces “the great cult of behavior,” and the image endures. He observes that managers equate performance with behavior at their own peril, and we all see the same today. This thinking leads to the still ubiquitous management anti-pattern: The assumption that performance is mostly a product of an individual’s knowledge, hard work, and intrinsic motivation. Who here hasn’t seen the manager who blames poor outcomes on incompetent or unmotivated employees instead of factors in the environment?

Lesson 2: It’s about the Environment

The most commonly cited lesson comes from the application of his Behavior Engineering Model (BEM): Factors in the environment have a greater impact on human performance than factors within the individual. Seldom does a week pass in my work where I do not need to correct a manager’s notion that remediating individual capabilities through training alone is going to have an impact on the problems their business face.

Lesson 3: Start by setting expectations

Gilbert sequences the six boxes of his BEM according to the likelihood of causing performance deficiencies. The failure to set proper expectations with employees is the number one contributing factor to poor performance. If people only knew what was expected of them and what outcome is expected of them, they would have a much better chance of doing a good job and helping to achievement of organizational goals.

He is Still Relevant for the 21st Century

“To love is to stand in the human vantage point, which requires us to stand with others for a common purpose.”

-Human Competence (Tribute Edition), page 348

The idea of starting with a common purpose is as old a humankind. Ancient hunter and gathering people would not cite their purpose as having sharp tools. Their purpose was to keep the family from starving to death. Now in recent years, we see many contemporary business books that espouse the same idea that Gilbert had. See the Purpose-Driven Economy by 2016 ISPI keynote speaker Allen Hurst. Look at Influencer, one of whose co-authors was 2014 ISPI keynote speaker David Maxwell.

As time passes, simplistic misinterpretation of Gilbert’s writing is common. Judging his masterpiece by its cover, the idea of “engineering human performance” conjures up the image of a pointy-headed solitary figure emerging from his cubicle with a finely-honed solution to underperformance. But for most savvy managers, the idea that you can engineer performance of humans through monolithic analysis is specious or misguided. It certainly flies in the face of how the world of work has evolved, where collaboration and adaptability rule the day. Such an approach puts too much weight on the process side of things and not enough on the human side of things.

This misinterpretation is not Gilbert’s fault. Empathy for the human condition is the subtext of all of Gilbert’s writing. We see poetry; we hear about love; we learn how people are different from animals. He is abundantly clear that the manager’s job is to address systemic conditions that impair the ability of individuals and teams to fulfill their stated purpose. Certainly analysis is necessary, but he doesn’t say that the supporting analysis needs to be onerous or without regard for the people in the system.

Any time you spend doing detailed performance analysis is time that problems continue to fester. What if you did a nominal amount of analysis, and then started with a plan to remediate the biggest obvious problem? Through an iterative cycle of retrospection and re-planning, you make early continuous progress toward your vision. Human Competence provides sufficient tools for doing this analysis in a lightweight way.


“Human competence is a function of worthy performance (W), which is a function of the ratio of valuable accomplishments (A) to costly behavior (B).”

-Human Competence (Tribute Edition) page 18

Being a devotee of Gilbert and an evangelist for his Behavior Engineering Model (BEM) can be exhausting. Outside of ISPI conferences or chapter meetings I never hear anyone but myself talk about, much less apply, what Gilbert taught us.

My book, Agile Performance Improvement, is the story of my learning to blend the mindset of HPT with the values and principles of Agile. HPT teaches us the value of front-end analysis, including root cause analysis, so that you can feel more certain that your efforts focus on the right things. Agile provides a set of methods to guide the actual doing of the work, the process of making performance improvement happen.

The way you did work in the 1978 will not really fly in 2018. The Agile Manifesto (and the methods inspired by it) are based on the idea that preplanning large (creative) projects introduces risk, because the moment you plan every task and dependency occurs at a point when you know less about the situation than you will know at any point thereafter. The iterative nature of Agile methods ensures that you regularly revisit and re-plan based on what you have learned (usually every two weeks). The notion that one person with a few spreadsheets can “engineer performance” undermines the idea that in a truly collaborative, empowered and nimble team environment, everyone can contribute to engineering worthy performance.

These are the reasons why Gilbert still matters. I have not read every book in our field, but among the ones I have, Human Competence remains the greatest, even 40 years after its initial publication.


Gilbert, T.F. (1996). Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance (Tribute Edition). New York: ISPI.

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