9 31 mins 9 yrs

This is a guest post by Aileen Quinton. As we would expect, it is highly thoughtful and I hope you will read it all.

“This document, based on a paper originally written for the Disabled Staff Association (DSA), introduces the opportunity for organisations to take a lead in releasing the excellence of all their people, not forgetting the potential recruitment pool). The use of the word ‘releasing’ is deliberately used to make the point that some of this excellence is just looking for half a chance to escape.

We need to make organisations effective and efficient by making the best of all staff. The current method of developing job specifications and matching these to service delivery and to people has its drawbacks. The danger is that the job specification can become more important than the jobs that actually need to be carried out, or the skills available to us. Both can end up being shoehorned into fitting the job specification.

Very simply the Releasing Excellence concept is to identify those activities necessary to deliver our goods and service and have each member of the workforce spending as much time as possible working on those that they are actually good at, instead of agonising over what they are poor at and often have no interest in. Releasing Excellence changes the emphasis on development, including training, from weakness to strengths. Weaknesses would only be considered in terms of how to stop them being a barrier to using strengths. It is important to those with disabilities to have the focus on strengths or potential strengths and to develop them, but it also makes sense for everyone. It is basically about making better use of human resources across the board.

This idea also takes us away from the notion that everyone has to be good at lots of things. It allows for those with disabilities and indeed those with none, who have skills which are unusual and/or developed to a higher than expected degree to use them to achieve business objectives, whilst still allowing those who work best with a wide range of responsibilities to continue to operate in this way.

Releasing Excellence can be explored on many levels as it deals with very basic, yet corporate level questions of how we define our job specifications. However, individuals and their managers can also consider the ideas, even if just to try and identify key strengths and to look for innovative ways to develop them further. It is a win-win-win situation for stakeholders and investors (including taxpayers) customers (including the general public) and for all employees to have the workforce focusing on work related activities that they are actually good at doing.


to realise the potential of all our personnel, (not forgetting the potential recruitment pool), so as to obtain and maintain the optimum match between this, and the responsibilities and activities necessary to maximise our effectiveness. We need to make our organisations the soundest possible investment for our investors, which for the public sector is the taxpaying public.

Ability Model

This model of ability is based on four main categories of ability for an individual.

Category A (Easy Excellence)

Easy Excellence contains all those generic work related skills that you are or have the potential to be excellent at. All you need to realise this potential, if you haven’t already, is some training, experience, support or equipment. They could be thought of as those things that you cannot help being good at. Excellence comes naturally. They may even be things that you do not even recognise as strengths because you take it for granted and assume that it is natural for everyone.

Category B (Comfortable Competence)

Comfortable Competence contains those skills that you are or have the potential to be, although not excellent, very competent. Again you may need some training, experience, support or equipment.

Category C (Uneasy Underpinning)

Uneasy Underpinning contains those things that you have little or no potential to be good at (or at least not without a disproportionate amount of effort). However, it may be worthwhile to try and improve your effectiveness because this would have a natural synergistic benefit in relation to a Comfortable Competence, or, even better, an Easy Excellence. The term ‘natural’ is used to exclude those things that are artificially grouped by an organisation’s job specification method, e.g. welding thinking skills to management.

Category D (Pointless Purgatory)

Pointless Purgatory contains those things that you have little or no potential to be good at (or at least not without a disproportionate amount of effort) and there is no natural synergy with Easy Excellence or Comfortable Competence and it is not worth worrying about them. If someone was a wheelchair user but could, struggle up the stairs, by clinging on to the railing and hoisting themselves up, we would not make them practice this so that they can shave 5 mins off their time of three hours to get to the required floor. For some people, some aspects of work are just as difficult.

The Model Itself

If the skills, and the associated level of functioning within them, are mapped out in their categories, (A-D), along with the potential in these areas, then this forms the model.

Philosophy of Maximising Effectiveness

What any HR policy should aim to do is to maximise the focus for each member of staff on their Easy Excellence, (primarily), and Comfortable Competence. Development should be focused on these plus Uneasy Underpinning, instead of being focused on weakness (Categories Uneasy Underpinning and Pointless Purgatory), i.e. weakness should only considered, in terms of development, in order that they do not compromise the strengths and not in an effort to promote mediocrity across the board or do overcome the inadequacies of current employment practices. This also impacts on recruitment (moving away from recruiting to job specification to recruiting for skills/potential)

Simple Illustration of Omni-Competence Philosophy

If an organisation needed barking and meowing and took on several dogs and cats to span the requirement, then a system that promotes omni-competency (or omni-mediocrity), would insist that all of them had to be able to both bark and meow to a set standard. Fido would be sent on his meowing course in order to take him from a totally useless meower to just a bad meower. Meanwhile Fluff is being persecuted with a barking requirement, made even more frustrating because she can see what a mess Fido is making of her speciality. ‘Let Fido bark!’


Table of Contents

1     General Implications. 1

1.1      Reality Check. 1

1.2      Advantages of Flexibility in Job Specification. 1

2     Disability Ability. 2

2.1      Social Model of Disability. 2

2.2      Breaking out of the Limited Thinking about Job Specification. 3

2.3      Case Study (supplied by Key4Learning) 5

3     Examples of Ability Profiles and how the Model might Apply. 6

4     Benefits of Harnessing the Skills of the widest Diversity of Ability Profiles as an Integral part of a Strengths–based Organisation  12

4.1      For all staff 12

4.2      For disabled staff specifically. 12

4.3      For Investors/Taxpayers and Customers. 12

Releasing Excellence

1     General Implications

1.1   Reality Check

There are some occasions where there are operational reasons why we need to group skills in a role/job. In the policing world. actually patrolling probably does require an officer to be multi-skilled with the ability to use these skills simultaneously in quick time. It is not expected that an officer would be incapable of giving chase with the explanation ‘I don’t do chasing, we have to wait for Fred or Jane for that, they are really quick on their feet’. (Although I cannot get the image of a standard issue lasso out of my head). A midwife called out to the home without the backup of colleagues will need to be able to respond effectively and immediately to the challenges that may await. Also the skills to be considered need to be work related. This philosophy is not advocating that if a member of staff is a whiz at raffia work then this has to be channelled into the fight against crime, or the endeavour for Chrispy Oatly Rice Mucchies to take the lions share of the breakfast cereal market. Although there is arguably a need to be more open-minded about what constitutes a work related skill than many of us are used to.


1.2   Advantages of Flexibility in Job Specification

Fido may also have other sought after skills. If tail wagging is much prized and this is Fido’s second talent, but there are no specified jobs that combine this with barking, we would again be missing out, (especially if he could do both simultaneously).

Although we do not wish to arbitrarily lump barking and meowing together we should avoid arbitrarily decreeing that they must never be. For the purposes of illustration, Fido is useless at meowing, but supposing we take another from his species, Spot, who uncharacteristically, is a more than competent meower, then it may well be advisable to encourage Spot to develop and use both skills.

It may not always be clear what is in each skill category for any individual. Some Easy Excellence or Comfortable Competence may be masquerading as Pointless Purgatory, but may need some effort to be ‘released’. (Fido may need to try meowing before he can be sure he is no good at it.)

When the focus is on strengths, it tends to raise the standard across the board. Some of this may well be down to improved self-confidence.

For some people, their flexibility and their ability to multi-task is part of their strength and where they give of their best. In this case, stretching them throughout their Comfortable Competence will also enhance their Easy Excellence.

It may appear that the approach advocated here could really only work for a large organisation which could afford more flexibility to cover all the bases required. However if individuals work for their family firm then they would be used for their strengths and others brought in to pad around them. Although it is not feasible to design a large organisation’s deployment practices exclusively around the skills of any one person or group, it does highlight that the key issue is just how important the organisation considers it is, to use someone’s skills.


2     Disability Ability

2.1   Social Model of Disability

The Social Model of Disability or rather the way it is all to often explained or used is not sufficiently holistic. It is generally thought of in terms that the infrastructure of society, including its physical constructions, rules and regulations, communication mediums and social mores are based on assumptions of what people can do. A holistic Social Model of Disability would also encapsulate the implications that this infrastructure is also based on the assumptions of what people cannot do. In the land of the blind the one eyed man is actually disabled. If that one eyed man is totally deaf in a world where hearing is assumed, he is hit with a double whammy. He is excluded from full participation because he cannot hear and he has to survive in an environment that is ill equipped to harness his unusual potential. In a more enlightened environment he may be able to take advantage of his sight to get around the obstacles (literally in some cases), even if only being sufficiently financially independent to pay some one to do things that you need hearing for.


A strengths-focused philosophy is a positive ethos in which to manage disability.


We are in the dark ages with regard to awareness of developmental neuro-divergent conditions, such as dyspraxia, ADD, Aspergers Syndrome. (Dyslexia is probably the one of this family that most people are most familiar with). These conditions affect about ten percent of the population to a significant degree (considered a very conservative estimate). Painting with a very broad brush, these people tend to have major difficulties with everyday tasks, e.g. personal organisation, note-taking, but have highly developed skills in strategic, creative ‘out of the box’ thinking. Neuro-divergent people tend to have trouble being mediocre as they are either very good to spectacularly good at things or spectacularly useless at them. (The following quote is often made in neuro-divergent circles that ‘if the world was full of only neuro-typicals [i.e, those without the related conditions], then we would all still be living in caves and no-one would have invented the wheel’. In fairness it should be added ‘and if the world was full of only neuro-divergents, we would probably still all be living in caves, we would have invented the wheel and a lot of other things besides, but would lack the skills to implement them in the real world’. Of course, in reality, things are not that stark. Not all neuro-typicals are devoid of imagination and creativity and not all neuro-divergents are hopelessly disorganised). The answer to this is neuro-diversity, i.e. having a system where we can allows all of us to map our strengths against activities to deliver high quality policing.

If we take Autistic savants, those people, who, for most aspects of life, are profoundly disabled and not capable of independent living, but have one area of pure genius that leaves most of the rest of us in awe, (as in the film Rainman). Is it not possible that there are savants who could, say, look at a non too clear old photograph and spot the individual in a crowd, disguised or not? What potential might there be there for counter terrorism, for medical diagnosis at the onset of conditions, either by directly glancing at a person or at test results, including those scrutinised through a microscope, or for analysing consumer behaviours. The key aspect is recognising patterns and where they do or do not appear..

For many disabilities, having had to function in a world not designed to accommodate them often means that the individuals have had to hone their problem solving skills to get around (literally and metaphorically) the many obstacles in their way. The determination not to be beaten by an unaccommodating world is another common characteristic than can be transferred to tackling other problems. It is perhaps not so much a skill as an enabler, increasing the chances of other skills being used to full effect.

We operate on too low and too narrow an expectation of human potential. It is hard to think of any responsibility more complex, more important and more challenging than policing. We need to be harnessing as much diverse skill and experience as we can get our hands on. Criminal Groups are probably more open to using skills imaginatively than we are. (Crime is an equal opportunity employer!). Disease does not shackle itself with policies than inhibit its spread.

2.2   Breaking out of the Limited Thinking about Job Specification


Reslicing and Packaging (Pick ‘n Mix)

If an organisation, wedded to the cult of mediocrity/omni-competency, needed equal amounts of ten activities A, B, C, …J and 100 people to carry them out, it might decide to parcel the work up by defining a job which requires equal amounts of each of the activities and try and recruit 100 people to do this. This is an arbitrary a way of spanning the requirement.

Another arbitrary way, at the other extreme, would be to specify 10 jobs dedicated to A, 10 dedicated to B, etc.


………………………..Etc 100 times

Each “job” is bordered by the thick black line. Each representation of A, to J equates to one tenth of a full time commitment.)

If we take some potential employees with some relevant skills:-

Tom             He is just about able to do all of them to an only just acceptable standard. He and those like him are in with a chance.

Dick ……… He can do E to J very well. He has a disability that means that he needs some equipment in order to do C and D well and B reasonably OK. A is impossible for him. He and those like him are probably in with a chance, because of the DDA. The equipment and tailoring the job so that he doesn’t have to do any A, could be considered as reasonable adjustments.

Harriet ……… She also has a disability. She is Neuro-Divergent (ND – Aspergers and Dyspraxia) and, for her, that means that she cannot do F to J at all, and D and E only with great difficulties and cause her great stress. A feature of her disability is that she is exceptional at A and B. She also could be usefully developed to take on C, although not with out some difficulty. She has little chance of getting one of the “jobs”, even if she thought it worthwhile applying for it. She could be excluded because she did not come close to fulfilling the requirements for “the job”, even though “the jobs” did not need to be specified in a way that excluded her. There is little meaningful recourse from the DDA as that would require an understanding of the discrimination involved in job specification on the part of those

Omar ………. He has a similar problem to Harriet, in that his skills, although very useful to the organisation and its real requirements, do not fit the specification. He has Dyslexia and ADHD and is brilliant at D and E, but useless at everything else looked for, except B where, with a bit of technology, he could be good.

Shera ……….  and Peter ………. have a less dramatic ability profile than Harriet and Omar.

Shera is very good at G to J and can be usefully developed in F, while Peter is very good at F to I and can handle E and J. Again as, Shera can only do half of the job and Peter not much better, they are unlikely to be employed. We do not know if Shera and Peter have a disability and if they have, they may not know and it may even be one as yet uncharted by the medical/scientific profession.

If we break out of the job straightjacket and consider the following:


 Allowing for flexibility in defining the jobs in the first place, as opposed to just adjusting already defined jobs as may be required by the DDA, we are able to harness the skills of all of the above, including those who can competently span the ten activities. We may not take Tom on, as he is only just able to undertake the activities required and we can afford to be a bit more choosey because we have widened our potential recruitment pool. However, it is to be hoped that Tom will discover his niche.

Of course there could also be an activity K, that if undertaken could boost performance to new heights, but where those setting the standards have no idea could be useful or be could be possible. It is not the fault of the people who have these skills that they are not used.

At present there is no real recourse to Harriet and Omar through the DDA, for being excluded from employment from this practice, as that would take an awareness and understanding of the issues of their sort of difference that does not exist at the moment. With regard to the Public Sector, there is no meaningful recourse to law for the taxpayer for the misuse of public money involved in not recruiting in a way to get optimum performance.


2.3   Case Study (supplied by Key4Learning)

Henry does not suffer from Aspergers Syndrome! He has Aspergers Syndrome. He suffers from a lack of understanding and accommodation of his difference from other people and the systems and frameworks that they establish and expect him to operate within.

He was in a job in part of the Public Sector as an Administrative Assistant (AA), performing a clerical role, giving out mail, filing, checking stationery cupboard, etc. To many people this would be considered an “easy” job but it is the sort of job that is not suited to many Aspergers people; it is full of their Pointless Purgatory. It was extremely stressful for him and those around him and he was moved to be an AA somewhere else. This did not help. He was still not performing satisfactorily and was criticised accordingly. He and his colleagues had to go on a team-building day, which he found it intolerable and this may also have meant that it was not a bundle of laughs for the rest of the team.

His employers did bring in a work mentor and coach and through this Henry’s aptitude for Maths was identified. As it happened, the section where Henry was working were responsible for statistical information and people two grades higher than him had been struggling, putting significant time and effort into one aspect of their work to little avail. The mentor requested that Henry did some of this as-it was more geared to his skills.

It was difficult to persuade the employer that Henry could be responsible for work outside his job description and which was deemed to be “difficult” when he was failing to do what was “easy” and it took some time to arrange this. It was so counter-intuitive that Henry, who was so weak at clerical tasks, could have such extraordinary mathematical/statistical ability. There was also a great controversy over pay as Henry was doing work two grades above that for which he was employed and at that grade he should have managed others. There were also issues associated with pension.

Eventually, two jobs were carved apart to ensure Henry could work to skill. Henry is saving his employer (and as it’s in the Public Sector, us), money because of working to skill instead of losing money because of inappropriate placement.

That this was done is greatly to the credit of those in the management and HR roles involved. However a few changes of management and Henry may be in dire straits again. They could easily have got away with not letting him work to skill as it is unlikely that an Employment Tribunal would have considered failure to let Henry do bits of a job two grades higher than his own when he was under-performing in his own, a breach of the DDA. It is permissible to deny the Henries of this world equality of opportunity.

3     Examples of Ability Profiles and how the Model might Apply

The following figures are not real graphs. They are included to illustrate what some example profiles might look like. The skills in each category are in ascending Potential Ability Level order.

Figure 1 – Ability Profile of a Neuro-Typical – Non Disabled, is an illustration of what the ability profile of such a person, i.e. not (yet) disabled, including not having dyslexia, dyspraxia ADD, etc..

Figure 2 – Ability Profile of a Neuro-Typical – Disabled is an illustration of those with a disability that is not related to neuro-divergence. In this contrived example the Potential Skill Level is the same as in Figure 1, but there is a more marked disparity between Current and Potential Skill Levels in Figure 2. For many disabled people, their Easy Excellence may be unexplored territory. It may also be that their actual level of functioning, even in this category, may be very low. However, all they need is the right equipment and or the right change in the physical environment (including access to the building) and their excellence is released.

Figure 3 – Ability of a Neuro-Divergent is an illustration of an ability profile of someone with a condition such as Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, ADD etc. [but not with any other disability – of course, in reality, you do not get an exemption from all other disabilities if you have one). The difference in this and Figure 1 is that Uneasy Underpinning & Pointless Purgatory are much bigger and will also contain many of the basic skills, but to compensate Easy Excellence is bigger and both Easy Excellence and Comfortable Competence have higher levels of potential. Generally accepted ‘basic’ skills are often to be found in the Uneasy Underpinning & Pointless Purgatory of the neuro-divergent, whilst their Easy Excellence category is often made up of rarer skills.

 Figures 1 to 3 have been constructed to show how the profile may be different whilst having equivalent potential overall worth.

For neuro-divergents, a requirement for omni-competence makes it more likely that they are operating in their pointless purgatory most of the time and so have little effort left for releasing their excellence.

Figure 4 – Fido’s Ability Profile is a simplified version of Fido’s ability profile. (Fido is a neuro-typical dog and he is only disabled by the policy based on omni-competence.


4     Benefits of Harnessing the Skills of the widest Diversity of Ability Profiles as an Integral part of a Strengths–based Organisation

4.1   For all staff

  • everyone gets to play to their strengths.
  • everyone gets to work with, for and over other people working more effectively and efficiently


4.2   For disabled staff specifically

  • along with everyone else, their skills and potential are the key issues, disability could be made irrelevant
  • places them as a full part of the workforce
  • if it involves everyone, it is more likely to be sustained
    • disabled people are less likely to be the easy target of colleagues or bosses frustrated ambitions.
    • the system does not rely on a declaration of disability. Some disabled people do not trust the organisation with the information that they are disabled, some disabled do not realise that they have a recognised disability and some disabled people may have a condition where the territory has yet to be mapped out (or even reached) by the medical profession


4.3   For Investors/Taxpayers and Customers

  • Investors/taxpayers are not having their money wasted by paying people to do things that they have no potential to be good at and having to foot the bill for the associated training.
  • improved retention (and associated cost savings)
  • reduced sickness bill due to reduced stress
  • maximising the percentage of time that the workforce are playing to their strengths would be an important factor in ensuring that the effectiveness and efficiency of the service provided and for the Public Sector, ensuring that policing, health service provision, defence etc is not compromised.

(Personally speaking, as a taxpayer,  I have no wish to pay Fido to meow, pay for his meowing courses, pay his managers to give him a hard time over his meowing performance, to pay him while he is off sick with stress or pay to replace him when he has had enough.)

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9 thoughts on “Releasing Excellence

  1. very well thought out presentation. Was this implemented and what was it’s success to fail ration if it was.

    I’ve come across some really great plans improve productivity in the work place, what I have also found is a ton of resistance on the behalf of upper management to allow it to actually play fully out, or be fully implemented.

    Even with the hot craze the past decade to streamline production tasks with “Six Sigma” they would pay to get someone trained in it, or hired that was already trained. Then when presented with a good plan like this one, cherry pick and only implement parts of it.

    Then they would claim Nice effort but it didn’t work.

  2. Shame the colouring on the grids didn’t come out, it doesn’t make much sense without them. Also missing the Ability Profile graphs (including Fidos). The PDF is usually available on the DANDA website but it is under reconstruction at the moment.

    Good managers instinctively implement it but generally in spite of their company’s employment model.

    It was an Appendix in the last report that the Disability Rights Commission produced but the Equality Commission don’t seem that interested. I got Danny Kennedy and Mark Harper, respectively LibDem and Tory Disability Spokesmen at different times interested in it. In fact Mark Harper tried to get a visit to GCHQ because it was making use of the extra skills of NeuroDivergent people but there was a bit of a mix up and it got too near to the election so GCHQ wouldn’t let him come. Of course after the election he changed jobs.

    After I wrote it I discovered that Positive Psychology was working with organisations using the similar thinking. They were going through the front door of general business excellence, whereas I went in the side window of disability. We ended up in the same house. They have worked with organisations successfully to change their focus to strengths. Unfortunately too many mediocre people have a vested interest in the cult of mediocrity.

  3. I feel like I’ve just been contacted by Personnel, or HR, or whatever they call themselves this year.

    “This idea also takes us away from the notion that everyone has to be good at lots of things.”

    I hope no-one has this notion. Individually and collectively, we get far more done, and done better, when we specialise. It’s called the division of labour.

  4. Pete

    HR are more invested in mediocrity (that’s my prejudice speaking 😉 )

    Unfortunately lots of people have this notion. I think that there is a role for the generalist, who can turn their hand to many things and can provide resilience to an organisation.

    Not sure if it is clear in this version but this was written from Public Sector experience, specifically in the police. I think private sector, especially smaller companies might be better at this. Even there I think that too much development is on weakness.

    Paradoxically though I also think that in recessions when we need to get more out of people we start to judge people by weaknesses.

  5. Aileen,

    ‘After I wrote it I discovered that Positive Psychology was working with organisations using the similar thinking.’

    Such a pity it wasn’t considered in the case of Remploy – you remember a while back? where government felt it wasn’t worhwhile expending a relatively trivial amount on keeping some three thousand disabled folk in employment. Some who had been full time for decades in an environment that was most certainly of a very positive nature for them.

    ‘smaller companies might be better at this’ – they most certainly are, it has been part of the creed of the smaller enterprise since ‘day one’. Indeed I would suggest that resilience, adaptability, and astute thinking have been at the root of GB’s centuries long success. I find it very sad that such qualities are not thought of as being essential in this post 60’s era.

  6. I meant smaller companies are better at letting people focus on their strengths. The public sector IMO is too interested in resilience (which is obviously important) and not interested enough in brilliance. Organisations can be good at saying that they value creativity etc but set up their HR working practices in such a way as to stifle it.

    I only know a little about Remploy but was sad to hear about people having their access to dignity and self worth taken from them. It seemed such a valuable option.

  7. Thanks for trying David. I just never thought. It was just so unfortunate that the DANDA site is being overhauled as it was available there as a PDF. Given the trouble with the charity the site might not get sorted.

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