Skill Is Not Performance

A tribute to Dana Gaines Robinson and James C. Robinson

I first learned about the Robinsons’ performance consulting methodology when I worked at Johnson Controls in the Learning & Development Department. Dana Robinson facilitated an all-day workshop that focused on helping talent developers improve how they collaborate with business partners.

I enjoyed the workshop, but I did not appreciate the Robinsons’ contribution to HPT until I became a manager. A couple of years ago, I read their chapter in the Handbook of Human Performance Technology, 3rd Edition, which renewed my interest in their writing. Since then, I have used their books as references to further my professional development.

Their concepts are logical and simple to understand. I discovered, though, that they are difficult to practice (what some might label as “common sense” but “not commonly practiced”).

During the past few years, I have observed clients, performance-consulting managers, and practitioners oversimplify performance needs and mistakenly identify problems to be only gaps in skills. I can understand how professionals can make diagnostic mistakes, and I’ve had my share of them!

What follows are two examples. The first is faulty, and the second is the Robinsons’ approach.

Bob, the performance consultant: What not to do

Here is a fictitious example of how this happens. Sue, a sales VP, is concerned that her sales force has trouble securing acceptable margins when contracting with customers. Bob, an internal performance consultant, believes the problem is obviously with the sales force’s weak negotiation skills. Bob prescribes the following solutions:

  • Negotiating training
  • Negotiation best-practice job aids
  • Revised contract templates that make it more difficult for salesforce to decrease margins
  • Support from Sue to require the sales team to attend training and use the new templates and job aids

Bob identified a perceived capability need rather than a performance need. Too bad he did not conduct basic analysis. If he had, Bob would have discovered that the actual problem was procedural and had to do with the timing of contractual discussions and methods used by the sales force to engage customers about pricing. Bob would have further discovered that the sales representatives who have high margins realized this selling process problem and corrected the problem in their own practice.

To summarize this example, here are two diagnostic approaches:

Bob’s approach

Simplistic analysis

  1. Interview Sue.
  2. Consider previous “successful” solutions to guess what the problem could be.

Common diagnosis type

  1. When guessing at the problem, immediately expect a learning (or capability) gap.
  2. Bob guesses that the gap has to do with sales representatives’ weak negotiation skills and probably with motivational issues.

Way to go, Bob! If Bob is lucky, instructional designers who develop the training will discover the real problem and have the power to mitigate the actual gap.

An alternative approach

For a better illustration, see the GAPS! Map and Gap Zapper in Performance Consulting (referenced below).

Basic analysis

Go for the SHOULD

  1. Based on business goals, determine what margins should be.
  2. Determine how performance should align to margin goals. Refer to any selling process documentation and training materials. As needed, interview Sue, managers, and team leads.

Analyze the IS

  1. Review the current margin to identify business gaps. Compare targeted margins to specific sales representatives. If needed, interview sales managers as well.
  2. Interview sales representatives (low, average, and high) to determine what they do to achieve their current performance levels.
  3. If feasible, observe performers applying the selling process.

Calculate the GAPs

  1. Identify business and performance gaps. If possible, use metrics.

Precise diagnosis

Determine the causes for these gaps, specifically what the sales force needs to do to negotiate contractual pricing amounts in comparison with what they actually do.

Consider three types of factors:

  • EXTERNAL to organization
    Examples: Market conditions, competitive pressures, and changing customer expectations
  • INTERNAL to the organization (work factors)
    Examples: Clarity of expectations, coaching support, and financial incentives
  • INTERNAL to individuals (capability)
    Examples: Having the required skills & knowledge, internal motivation, and previous experiences


Below are the titles of some of Robinsons’ publications that I frequently reference. Each links to publication websites where you can learn more about them.

About the author

Gary is a Leadership Author, Researcher, Consultant, and Podcast Guest. His latest book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?, is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook. You can learn more about Gary and his other books at

Gary is a speaker, author, researcher, and leadership futurist.

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