The bottom of the bell curve

It’s dark down there at the bottom of the bell curve, probably due to a complete absence of stars. It’s where people go to underperform and make your life harder.

There’s nothing practical in this post. It’s about the performance bell curve and how we think about its beguiling shape.

It’s about the bottom. The end. The tale of the tail.

The lazy, the misfits, the person who punched someone at the Christmas party and, finally, Steve who doesn’t seem to do any work (but you know it would cause a fuss if you sacked him). They sit at the bottom of that bell curve. They are pretty much rotting there. It’s where they belong.

The chances of them working way out of the bottom are limited – as a certain amount of people need to be at the bottom and they are an easy target. They were there last year, so it’s a quick conversation and a nod around the room and we’ve met our goal to ‘effectively differentiate performance’ .
Nobody looks to the bottom of the bell curve for inspiration. Hardly anyone looks at the bottom and thinks ‘Is it our hiring? Training? Support? Leadership? What are are we getting wrong here?’

Because once you assume somebody has to be at the bottom – then you stop being accountable. It’s all about why they couldn’t do better, not about how you could do better. Your role is just dealing with that underperformance now it has happened.

And as you’ve read this you think ‘this is unfair, Susan was pretty poor in 2011 and now is a top performer’.

So it can be done, so go do it, because otherwise your talent management strategy needs to be described like this

High potentials – invest in their skills for the future
Potentially high potentials – let them find their own way out of it

And that isn’t a pretty strategy.

And you may say that it costs too much across the board, but then I bet underperformance is pretty costly too?

A ‘could do better’ for Britain’s managers

Managing people better is probably good for the economy. Better skills only benefit us when there is a requirement for those skills. Consider this report waving.

Flip Chart Fairy Tales

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) published its Growth Through People report recently. It’s a wide-ranging review of the UK labour market which brings together lot of useful information in one place and highlights the trends we have seen over the past few years.

The report notes that, despite the increasing skill level of the workforce, something I have commented on a few times, (here, here and here) productivity and pay are still in the doldrums.

The UK now has one of the largest graduate workforces in the EU, and one of the largest shares of high-skilled jobs in employment.


We can continue to improve the skills of the UK workforce, but unless we can be sure that workplaces are going to use them, the impact on productivity will be muted.

Where once we feared becoming a low skill, low productivity, low pay economy, instead we have become…

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The Three Failures of Performance Appraisal

Considered and interesting. Point 3 is a great point that doesn’t normally receive enough attention.

People Performance Potential

There’s something about performance appraisal that isn’t quite right. Even those teams & organisations that feel they do it well enough sense it may not be good enough…

We know there is both merit & value in setting, gauging and talking about performance.

We want to recognise and support performance – it’s a very good thing to do for humans and organisations.

We each want to grow and develop – if we can do that congruously with the organisations purpose and objectives then so much the better.

We want, need and deserve recognition for what we contribute and the efforts we make.

Yet beyond “doing it well” we struggle to put our finger on what it is that isn’t right… So what is wrong?

The Three Failures

I want to suggest that three interconnected failures are at the root of much of the dissatisfaction. These are:

1. A focus on outputs not…

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The Jeremy Clarkson Case: The Views.

Once every few hundred years there is a defining legal or employment milestone that sets the tone for the generations to come. Magna Carta, Roe vs Wade and Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men would be examples of variable relevance.

It is clear from current commentary that the Clarkson ‘incident’ is of similar import.

The Prime Minister is worried about his children’s wellbeing potentially being impacted as a result and expert commentary had made it clear that Top Gear itself is worth 7-8 times the worth of the entire remainder of the BBC.

Due to the importance of this case I have decided to aggregate for loyal readers some of the better quality commentary from The Daily Mail, a newspaper of genuinely incomparable quality. It is the modern equivalent of looking for the view of the man on the Clapham omnibus. Please find the timetable for buses through Clapham here to understand the traditional British sample more effectively.

I like Clarkson, so only say this because its true, see a dentist and get those horrible teeth cleaned sorted and maybe even whitened a little to get rid of the stains.

He’s got the colour of a drinker
Jeremy Drunkard is being attacked for being too white and too British.

He’s had no more disasters than many of us who still carry on working and paying into a silly system that puts benefit mother’s first and pays our terminally lazy to enjoy themselves. He’s not lazy and woks hard, but he needs to grow up and act like a man and not a child who can’t get his way. As Jeremy Kyle would say, “He needs to grow a pair.”

He needs to take a page from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s playbook with handling the press which I saw in a documentary about him.

We used to be proud of the British eccentric and had learned not to lock up the non conformist…

How come when John Prescott punched someone, he was a national hero… JC is a clever man with an ‘on the money’ view on life… of course he’s going to offend the stupid PC brigade…!!!!

I watched The Voice last night instead of Top Gear. It was really good. Better than Top Gear.

Talent and madness go hand in hand and the BBC need get over it because without him you’ll have nothing.

What ever happened to shaking hands and moving on. Or is this not PC enough for the idiots at the BBC

People call Clarkson a bully but anyone can see he’s been bullied by the PC brigade for years for daring to be an outspoken individual.

We dont tune in to watch the producer. The producer is the coffee boy, making sure the boys are happy, its not hard, hot meal after a long day. Maybe hes not good at his job.

It must be terribly frustrating to have all that money and not be able to get what you want, when you want it. You’d feel like slapping someone. Anyone just to let off steam. Nothing personal of course.

Informality and culture – a true story

Even if you work in a relaxed environment.

Even if you work for an organisation that is all about inclusion and diversity.

Even if you hate first meeting people  armed with an agenda and key points to cover, seemingly never getting to know them as people.

Even if you are most relaxed when chatting and building trust through that informality.

You should never have to introduce yourself to someone by saying

“Oh gosh, sorry, are these… they aren’t unisex are they? This is just the ladies toilet isn’t it? I’m just in the wrong one. I’m so sorry. My name’s David – anyway, that’s probably not important right now, I’ll just close this door. Sorry. Looking forward to working with you. Sorry. Terribly sorry. Bye”

The Alternative Twitter #HR list – you are in there

A couple of years ago I published a list of ‘influencers’ that was hopefully going to be a bit different to other lists you find on Twitter, it would be chosen not by algorithm but by people.

I used Listly to create it and the idea is that you can add whoever you like, vote for whoever you like and the list is fluid rather than fixed. As I’d just started off on Twitter I think we got off to a great start, but it was then largely forgotten. I’m now followed by enough bots that it may have more impact

I’m resurrecting it now as people are still recommending it to people starting off on Twitter, so it probably needs a refresh to be as useful as it could be to them.

The rules of the list

  • If you aren’t on it and would like to be then add yourself
  • If you don’t spot someone great who should be on there then add them
  • If you don’t want to vote then don’t, if you do then do.

Somebody say 1,2,3, GO!


The Death of L&D: A Post Mortem

I remember 2015 like it was yesterday, it was such a hopeful time to be around Learning and Development professionals, we stood on the verge of a brave new world, full of change and opportunity. 10 years on and it seems bizarre that we hadn’t seen it coming, that the death of our profession had been so very close – and in some ways so obvious – but we didn’t see the signs. Maybe we just didn’t want to.

The death of HR was being mentioned everywhere, maybe that was the critical thing that distracted us and possibly we felt safe by comparison, it’s hard to tell. HR were trying to be all strategic and the one thing we knew for sure was that people needed to learn if companies were going to grow – and we would be the key to that.  We needed to ‘talk the language of business’ and be ‘better aligned’, but it was a given that there was a requirement for our skills to facilitate learning experiences for others, we were key to the productivity problem. We were adding technology to our expertise in order to make things more accessible and things could hardly look brighter.

When the reports first came out regarding automation of jobs they were something of a curio. It was a good thing to talk about at conferences to show that we were keeping up with external change. The studies were suggesting that almost 25% of jobs could be automated by 2025 – the figure seemed ridiculous and the time frame far too short. If anything this showed the relentless march of technology – and we knew that being tech savvy was an opportunity for us. Google Glass hadn’t quite done what we thought, but gamification was kicking off nicely and we had even started the backlash against it. And nothing says progress like a backlash. Still, even if the working population did decrease we would all be fine in ‘portfolio careers’, moving seamlessly from project to project whilst charging a premium for our expertise.  That’s how things still felt in 2017 when the first automated hotels and restaurants started becoming more common. Initially odd tourist traps in Asia, but then becoming more and more mainstream as they moved from novelty through competitive advantage and then into becoming the only sustainable model.

The reduction in learning teams in the hospitality and leisure sectors meant a surfeit of learning professionals, the first signal that something wasn’t right. After years of talking about skills mismatches we now had an excess of skilled individuals within our profession. Sure, some of them switched to consultancy, but with so many individuals hitting the market in a short period they were working for less than they had been in permanent roles and rates came down across the market. Even then we still hadn’t realised what was coming. We thought at the every least we’d be left with curation.

Google Now’s ability to predict the information people required next (before they even knew) via analysing their search history and contents of their calendar began to be applied within IT systems at work. It was a system that people were comfortable with as their daily hub and that drew on their experience and preferences outside of work as well. As people worked online these complex systems were instantly and automatically pushing people towards sources of learning – websites, articles and knowledge within the organisation. If you had a meeting coming up with the Marketing Team for the first time you could expect a glossary of marketing terms and the opportunity for a premeeting chat with a marketing team member all to be offered seamlessly. All of it automated, none of it requiring a human intervention. We had been curious when Google said that it’s own system had been able to learn, we hadn’t appreciated this would mean it could help others learn better than we could. We had been searching for ways to prove ROI for years, now every performance uplift fed back into the system to refine the information provided to learners. We weren’t even involved.

Matching individuals to mentors, assessing talent and capability, highlighting career opportunities – none of these involved a human intervention. Induction was all system and app based, the learning and development teams were – at best – an adjunct to IT. The first company that invented a system for effectively assessing competency of coaching interventions via webcams and providing instant feedback via an avatar made a lot of money. Then by the early 2020’s it was standard and nobody was making money from that either. Out of 70:20:10 we were rapidly being left with only the 0’s. The new era wasn’t self directed learning, it was code guided learning.

Executive coaching was replaced by peer to peer coaching (with tight confidentially requirements) as the mindset of a new generation of CEO’s focused on sharing learning and comfortable with networks continued to rise and rise. The historic income stream of exec coaching was now largely denied to consultants, meaning that the market was now far too squeezed to sustain the number of individuals seeking work. To work in L&D was now to obviously be the last of near extinct breed, the only respite for individuals still hoping to make money was that people had stopped entering the profession.

The last remaining few of us were relics, meeting online to discuss how we could become more relevant – only without the cushion of 10 years ago and largely without the hope. It wasn’t about speaking the language of business after all – it didn’t matter what we said, the profession was dead and buried.


  • This post was originally written for #Ozlearn, to help provoke a conversation about the future of the L&D profession.
  • The author has already written several pieces complaining about the high number of articles proclaiming things to be ‘dead’, this piece is therefore fundamentally lazy hypocrisy
  • The author has no desire for colleagues to be replaced by robots. Well, at least he has no desire for most of them to be replaced by robots, but thinking about it there are probably 3-4 people that I wouldn’t miss. You know who you are. 
  • Feel free to follow on twitter or connect on Linkedin – apparently the profession won’t exist in a decade so we should probably chat now
  • Apparently the term ‘code guided learning’ doesn’t exist yet. So I’m hoping it takes off and then I can claim to be the person who invented it. On such things our small careers hang.