Task demands and capabilities (the complexity gap)

For decades, my colleagues and I have been working with and refining a developmental assessment system called the Lectical Assessment System (now also an electronic scoring system called CLAS). It can be used to score (a) the complexity level of people’s arguments and (b) the complexity level—“task demands”—of specific situations or roles. For example, we have analyzed the task demands of levels of work in large organizations and assessed the complexity level of employees’ thinking in several skill areas — including reflective judgment/critical thinking and leadership decision-making.

The figure on the left shows the relation between the task demands of 7 management levels and the complexity level scores received on an assessment of decision making skills taken by leaders occupying these positions. The task demands of most positions increase in a linear fashion, spanning levels 10–13 (a.k.a. 1000–1399).

After work level 2 (entry level management), the capabilities of leaders do not, for the most part, rise to these task demands.

This pattern is pervasive—we see it everywhere we look—and it reflects a hard truth. None of us is capable of meeting the task demands of the most complex situations in today's world. I've come to believe that in many situations our best hope for meeting these demands is to (1) recognize our human limitations, (2) work strategically on the development of our own skills and knowledge, (3) learn to work closely with others who represent a wide range of perspectives and areas of expertise, and (4) use the best tools available to scaffold our thinking.


We aren't alone. Others have observed and remarked upon this pattern:

Jaques, E. (1976). A general theory of bureaucracy. London: Heinemann Educational.

Habermas, J. (1975). Legitimation crisis (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bell, D. (1973) The coming of post-industrial society. New York: Basic Books

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7 thoughts on “Task demands and capabilities (the complexity gap)

  1. Do you think that it could it be so that in real life some of the managers actually do perform at higher levels because of some kind of intuitive knowledge which the LAS doesn’t measure?

    Also, in this context and/or in general, what would be the best tools to scaffold our thinking?

    • Absolutely—up to a point. I would say that there is almost complete agreement in the assessment community about the huge gap between human capabilities and the task demands of the most complex jobs and issues we face, but there is growing agreement that intuitive or “tacit” knowledge accounts for a degree of competence that we don’t measure. See the post, Test validity & tacit knowledge, on this subject. With respect to how to scaffold learning, see the new post, Promoting development.

  2. Hi Theo, our org is exploring the use of Elliot Jaques’ ‘Requisite Organization’ which appears to have many parallels to your descriptions in this blog. Michael Commons is letting us use a HC test for assessing folks for career placement/ development. We can find concordance tables with every developmental model… except Jaques’ Stratum. I’m anxious not to confuse ‘tier level unelaborated elaborated transition’ with ‘order stratum declarative cumulative serial parallel’, etc. but there must be a careful direct correspondence because they are all based on ‘math’. His RO book is particularly practical/ useful/ specific so we do want to connect it with the other research domains. Do you know where such a correspondence chart is, esp. one matching LAS, or whether it is possible? Also, do you give/ sell LAS to employers, NFPs, govt. or consultants for employment screening or career counseling/ development? Thanks for thinking (and we’re enjoying your audios!), Andrew.

    • Hi Andrew,

      Yes, we can score the levels of other developmental systems with the LAS, and I made a quick stab at lining LAS levels up with Strata a few years ago. It was pretty straightforward. The levels of most good developmental systems turn out to be very similar to LAS levels, especially when longitudinal research has been used to validate their sequences. The main difference between systems is how well they capture “core” or “deep” structure. The HCSS and LAS are good for this structure. Used properly. Other systems mostly tap the next layer of structure–what we call domain structure or surface structure.

      Although I was able to score the strata described by Jaques, I can’t say that the way they are actually used would line up with LAS levels. That would require research like my comparisons of Kohlberg and Armon’s systems with the LAS and Fischer’s comparison of skill levels with Kitchener & King’s RJ levels.

      The table below shows the hypothesized relation between Strata and Lectical levels.

  3. From the above comments. One interesting one is the relationship between E. Jaques stratified theory and Dr. Dawson’s. I use Jaque’s model since 18 years and it became the basis of my thought and services so far. One thing I am always struggling with it that the more high in the levels of work (Jaques) the more the leader will be dealing with unkown, lots of uncertainties and ambiguities when one must make decisions and, mainly, considering the time span of a decision. At high levels a decision will need to consider 5, 10 or more years ahead. So, as I have learned from my psychology background is that every cognitive complicated tasks but do not involves uncertainties and dynamic changes in variables. Usually I use the concept of ‘static vs. dynamic’ assessment. The first, e.g., are the intellectual / cognitive traditional tests like Raven and the like. The second would be something like mediated approach that would be linked to something like Luria or even Reuven Feuersteing, in psychology field, or behavioral event interview in the competencies assessment (McClelland), or even the way E. Jaques and G. Stamp (bioss international) approaches individual’s potential capability (through a structured appreciative conversation). As E. Jaques says, capability has to do with judgement, not with IQ or related concepts. So, I am pretty interested in knowing how lectical would be similar or different to that.

    • Hi Marcos,

      What a great point! You are correct, assessments like the Ravens inventory do not tap into the kind of reasoning required in complex real-world situations. This is why our assessments pose ill-structured real-world problems (what Heifitz calls adaptive challenges). Their written responses tell us which variables test-takers recognize and how they understand and attempt to coordinate these variables in their responses to open-ended questions (of the kind we’d like to see them posing in practice). Our work comes out of a clinical interviewing tradition like Jaques’. The problem is that interviewing isn’t scalable, so I decided back in 2002 to explore the possibility of written assessments. It turns out we don’t seem to have lost anything by making that move. In fact, I would argue that our data quality is better and allows for more accurate assessment.

      With respect to Jaques’ use of time-span, we have a somewhat different perspective. We think the reason high-level leaders can take on longer-term projects is because they have a more developed ability to work with time as a variable (and reality). However, in our system, we see time as one of several variables that add to the complexity of a given task or performance. I don’t mean to minimize time’s importance, only to say that it is not only the length of a project that makes it difficult. Even a fairly short term project can be highly complex or chaotic. For example, the number of and characteristics of stakeholders or the internal and external environment can pose as much challenge to success.

  4. Fascinating — Just learned about this from Jean Ogilvie- I am a long time fan of EJ and its good to see developments out of this work. I am hesitant however to forgo the focus on time span. It appears to me that there are people – particularly the politically attuned — who manage pretty complex stakeholder relationships in the present but are not future oriented. They cannot project a developmental trend forward and see their own place within it. Moreover, those who can often develop a powerfully simplifying conception of their strategy. Think Mr. walton of Walmart fame. His simplifying  strategy; "build big stores in small towns"

    We should also consider the learnings from natural science as well as mathematics- where truths reveal simplicities rather than complexities

    thanks for the great work. — Larry

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