Heroics versus Mastery

The following is another guest blog by Tom Molyneux.


Out and about in Newport Beach this weekend, my daughter yelled “Rocketman!” Easy to think it was her imagination, but sure enough, there was a man flying over the water on a jet pack  It was somehow both futuristic and like watching a news clip from decades past. Soon, everyone on the beach had their cellphones out and were snapping pictures. Working jetpacks are a brand new technology. There is no book to go by. This is the heroic, creative way to fly – making it up and learning as you go along.  Thrilling!


There is another way to fly – one we are all much more familiar with.  It’s known as the commercial airlines. When you step on board you’ve chosen the opposite of heroics – to fly with a pilot who has mastered the competencies of flying. How do they do this? By putting each pilot through simulations of conditions they will experience on the job so the pilots master the knowledge and skills to do their jobs before they are allowed to step into a cockpit. They do refresher training to make sure that skills stay sharp…even the ones used infrequently.

So, which type of approach to learning do you want from your pilots? Or the people working in your refinery? Or the people who are interacting with your customers every day? Do you want heros or masters? My guess is that most of us would opt for masters.  Paradoxically, when people are truly masters at what they do, it’s far easier and more natural for them to rise to heroics when called upon – because they’ve been through it before in simulators.

Miracle on the Hudson

The emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 provides a vivid example of this.  Chesley Burnett Sullenberger, his aircraft engines disabled by a flock of geese, successfully landed his Airbus 320 in the Hudson. He became an instant national hero.  Some called it a miracle. Yet when you hear him speak of the event, a very different story emerges. “Sullenberger said in an interview on CBS television that his training prompted him to choose a ditching location near operating boats so as to maximize the chance of rescue” (Wikipedia).  Indeed, in his retirement speech he said, “My message going forward is that I want to remind everyone in the aviation industry —especially those who manage aviation companies and those who regulate aviation that we owe it to our passengers to keep learning how to do it better (MSNBC)”.

Business Process and Mastery

Too often BPM initiatives do a brilliant job of documenting business processes but fail or forget to consider if the people who will be performing, measuring or managing the processes will have the support necessary to become masters. This is a shame because bringing competency into process capture at the time of mapping is relatively painless. Indeed, some of the most forward looking companies are doing it already.

For example, Chevron is already doing this when capturing processes in their refineries. When they map their business processes through organized workshops, they make sure to have a representative from Training who determines the competencies required to perform the processes.   Because the business process platform they use is a centralized, role-based database of process, they simply create reports for each role involved that demonstrates required competencies. The next step for HR is simply to ensure that people who perform these roles have access to the information necessary and a plan to demonstrate mastery of those competencies.  They use Storyboards generated from their ‘live’ database that allow processes to be communicated end-to-end (process based) or by contributor (role-based).  These Storyboards are tracked when communicated and a built-in acknowledgement allows tracking of their completion.

We are currently involved in a company-wide mastery program with an enterprise software company that is implementing the same type of demonstrated competencies across their organization. In the process, one of the implementation specialists talked about the relief he felt from seeing the fruit from this effort. He told a story about his last employer, a well known enterprise vendor–new consultants regularly ended up having to ask clients about the features and functions of their own company’s software. Embarrassing. He related how extremely stressful it felt to be continually in a situation where he was expected to be a hero.

A culture of heroes is stimulating for rocket packs and mountain climbing. It’s just not something that works well for long in business.


One other approach to matching demonstrated mastery to process bears mentioning.  For companies where supply chains are core to their operations, the Supply Chain Council’s SCOR model accelerates this process. For companies that have already mapped their processes, they can map those activities to pre-defined SCOR processes.  The SCOR model then provides the most common skills that must be mastered by those performing the activities. These skills requirements come from the distilled experience of hundreds of companies. In this way, it’s possible to translate a process map into a virtual picklist of skills that must be mastered for each role in the supply chain.

Do your business process depend on heroes…or masters?

Categories: Learning, Strategy

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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12 Comments on “Heroics versus Mastery”

  1. July 11, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    As an ex-Navy aviator, I can assure you that checklists are a critical part of flying safely and that I have strong relative expertise on that topic, but that’s truly another subject altogether and checklists are not the point of Tom’s blog.

    There are many, many processes that are performed by millions of people every day that need to be communicated, understood and mastered. Changes to those processes likewise need to be communicated, understood and become part of re-mastery. Perhaps we work with different types of clients, but our customers who deploy to tens of thousands of (and in the case of Nestle and others, 100’s of thousands of customers) need to have a systematic way to establish the work to be done and changes to it. Compliance forms one business case, risk is another, and sometimes it is just to have customer support on the same page as the sales floor. Regardless of the reason, the ultimate value of centralizing, governing and deploying business process to the enterprise is very high.

  2. July 12, 2011 at 12:22 am #

    The discussion is too black and white for my taste. There are moments for mastery and and time for heroics. When people spend inordinate amounts of time reinventing the wheel, it gets much harder to find the time and energy for the heroic. Your points convince me that we’re talking about two different kinds of work and our conversations are for different organizations. No either or…no dangerous people who can only follow procedure. There are millions of people out there that need to know the best way to do many straight-forward things (like diagnose a technical issue a customer is having) that a culture of heroics will lose every time to a culture of mastery of the basics plus opportunity to be heroic in the less standard ways of doing things.

  3. July 12, 2011 at 3:17 am #

    I’m just not sure how the comments change or supplement the blog post. I think there’s a need for people to have mastery of what they do and that heroics can’t be the way people discover their work. Heroics are what happen once people have mastered. I suggest we let other people comment going forward before this becomes a one-on-one conversation instead of an open forum.

  4. July 12, 2011 at 3:25 am #

    Agreed, Chris. Let me close by saying that if process is supposed to be a synonym for mastery, then heroics is an even better synonym for skill, determination and initiative! What makes or breaks a business? Thanks for the discussion!

  5. July 12, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    An interesting exchange! If I may add my two ha’penceworth…

    Heroes generally tend to keep their skills to themselves (though I’ll admit there are exceptions), so although they may get a good job done, they can represent a single point of failure, and that’s a high risk option. Heroes can also be very egotistical: to quote one such “I’m the greatest”.

    Masters generally like to share knowledge, both because it helps spread the load and because they can continue to learn themselves. Masters are also often very humble and will say they have more to learn.

    Personally I’d rather work with masters than with heroes.

  6. Andrew Crowe
    July 15, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Apologies, I too, am coming to this discussion late…However, a couple of interesting points were raised and although I won’t go into them all, I feel the need to respond on the comment of; “If one is not careful, they are no longer allowed to think for themselves and because they are disowned they also don’t care”.

    Personally, I think that process can empower. If an end user is not required to remember the small, inconsequential tasks then it leaves more time for free-thinking and for users to develop.

    • July 16, 2011 at 2:52 am #

      Andrew, agreed. But the free-thinking time is utterly pointless if the user has to stick to the process as regulated. Yes, he can now ask for process changes and that kicks off a substantial process bureaucracy which typcially leads to a rejection as it is expensive to change things. Organization departments have the NIH syndrome. And just documenting the process is not even half the story. The actual benefits are purely hypothetical

      Why not let people do things they way the want as long as it achieves the well defined goals and outcomes. Process owners and other stakeholders can immediately see the consequences of that execution and discuss it with the performer.

      • July 17, 2011 at 4:38 am #

        @Max, your comment is relevant only IF process changes are expensive. In an ungoverned, decentralized world (think: Visio and Outlook), change is expensive. In systems that contain process content in centralized databases, with ownership and a proper change management cycle, change is not only not expensive, it is an important part of the life of process. I say this comfortably because I see systems every day that work this way. LACK of change is expensive as it means the process isn’t adaptive and is very likely quickly irrelevant and ignored.

        Social media will make change more frequent and higher value, so if change isn’t an inexpensive part of the system, that system will be obsolete very quickly.

        We’re at the end of the age of BPM applications that are used by and only understood by specialists. There are a great number of perceptions that are about to be stood on their heads…

      • September 21, 2011 at 10:11 am #

        This was so helpful and easy! Do you have any articels on rehab?

      • September 21, 2011 at 10:44 am #

        I might. What do you mean by rehab?

  7. Tom
    July 15, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    To lighten up the conversation with a little humor. Here is a clip entitled “Jetpack EPIC Fail”. I’d say it supports the original post. By the way, I think this jetpack is really really cool. I just used it as an example of two different approaches inside businesses. Indeed, you have to be something of a hero for this type of thing – it’s the only way to do it.


  1. A picture (of a process) is worth a thousand words #bpm | BPM For Real - July 27, 2011

    […] Because experts are often in a hero role, and as someone commented on my recent post about heroics versus mastery, “Heroes generally tend to keep their skills to themselves.” Masters, on the other hand, share […]

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