I was told sometime, somewhere, by somebody (you can see the strength of my recollection), and then found this again on a website, that, the German Army in World War I had little time to train new recruits and needed a quick classification and allocation of responsibilities. They created a simple 2×2 classification where the coordinates were Competent-Incompetent and Energetic-Lazy. People then could fall into 4 categories
Competent and Energetic: The most preferred, they got the best command jobs.
Competent and Lazy: Sent to military administration, or planning and logistics.
Incompetent and Energetic: A worrying combination where the energy could be applied to the wrong places and create havoc
Incompetent and Lazy: Perhaps sent to depots and stores.
If we were to translate this today to our modern ‘overplayed’ and ubiquitous Employee Engagement frameworks, this would be the translation:
Competent and Energetic: Perfect employee credentials. Will go the extra mile. Will show passion.
Competent and Lazy: Survives. Will do 9 to 5. Don’t expect too much risk taking. Will navigate by floating, not swimming upstream.
Incompetent and Energetic: Will be extremely busy (busy-ness, no business) on the things that don’t matter much.
Incompetent and Lazy: Shows up, gets paid and, on top of this, is high maintenance.
The type, which I personally fear most, is the Incompetent and Energetic. Give them a blackberry or a smartphone and they will be the busiest of the team pursuing the most irrelevant of the avenues and consuming time from many others. A management nightmare.
This harsh, unkind and unsympathetic classification, credited to the German Army, has always given me two possibilities. One, light, funny and ice breaker; a good way to engage in conversations. Two, a serious one, the need for leaders to do something that, in my view, it is not obvious we are doing well: make sure that people are in the right places, in the right jobs, with the right expectations, and that performance is managed in a sensible and human way, but also on unequivocal terms.
We are good at celebrating and promoting the Competent and Energetic types but not quite so good at confronting those who promote un-focused busy-ness, those who are high maintenance, and those who show up and get paid. I have no problem with people who show up and get paid, as long as they do a decent job. I have a problem with leaders who cannot distinguish those from the ones who make the real difference. In most organizations, 20 % of people do 80% of the work. Perhaps a little dose of World I, German Army thinking could be a good start to improve order.