Skill Development Phase 1: Skill-Based Theory

Skills_LOC_Painting_22Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building


Your skill development program is only as good as the theory behind it. And there is lots of bad theory out there. Skill-based theory is practical and useful, it tells you how and  what.

by Murray Johannsen, May 8, 2016.  Comments? Feel free to connect with the author via this website, Linkedin,  or by  email.

“Our greatest adversary is our own ignorance.  Our second greatest adversary is delusion — acting on false beliefs that we accept as true. The beginning of wisdom is to know what is true and what is false.”— Murray Johannsen

Page Overview For Additional Information
1. Test Your Understanding

2. The Scarcity of Skill Based Theory

3. Four Skill Development Guidelines

4. References and Resources

4 Skill Development Models 

Why Build Skills? A quick guide to machine intelligence

• What You Should Know About Skill-Based Practice

• Learning Skill Development

Test Your Understanding of Skill-Based Theory

1. Skills can be mastered by attending seminars and reading books.

a. True

b. False

 Answer: False. One can find the theory of a skill this way but you are still missing behavioral AND mental practice.

2. The classroom model is an efficient way of learning new skills. 

a. True

b. False

Answer: False. The class model uses grades for measuring knowledge and understanding. Sometimes skills are learned in labs but never by sitting in a lecture.

3. Many students graduate from college lacking tangible job skills. 

a. True

b. False

Answer: Mostly true. If you ask academics, they say false but if you ask business people, they say true. It’s somewhat dependent on major, however.

4. People know how to go about building skills. 

a. True

b. False

Answer: False. You can run your own experiment, just ask people how they would go about skill building. Few can give you a good answer.

Skill-Based Theory is Uncommon

You would think that skill-based theory would be abundant — like weeds found in a growing in a field. But actually, it is rare. More like a precious flower that you only see if you look for it.

You might say, “I have been learning all my life.” True. But most of us aren’t that good at it. This was a hard lesson found out early in life. 

When I was in high school, it seemed as though I never needed to study. Or at least, I did not have to study much to get grades good enough to get into college. But, once in college, it was like experiencing a slow motion train wreck.

I found out during my first semester in college that I didn’t know how to learn. My problem? A huge number of hours spent in the library resulting in lousy grades.

Spending endless hours of time in the library wasn’t paying off. Despite having the motivation, I was lacking the skills needed. 

Part of the problem was underestimating the competition. For my university lumped all the health sciences majors together for premed core classes. 

That Christmas break was miserable. Lots of soul search, bouts of anxiety, continuous self-doubt and thoughts about, “I’m a failure at 18.” Finally, after giving up the role of victim and deciding that I didn’t want to be the wimp in the family, and the process began in figuring out how to get better grades. 

So I spent time learning how to learn, tweaking:

• Test taking, 

• Reading comprehension, 

• Memorization and recall, 

• Studying habits, and 

• Time management.  

I got through it — my GPA went up. But it taught me a valuable lesson, I didn’t know how to learn nor build skills.

It was from applying these fundamental insights that led to completing two different graduate degrees and to teaching in some of the best universities in America and Asia. But it all started with a fundamental understanding that I didn’t have the skill of skill development. And neither do you. 

But you can learn it if you keep the following in mind.

4 Skill Development Guidelines


  1. Avoid Theory That is Too Abstract 
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building


Abstract theory can be relevant. In the example above, if you are an aerospace or electrical engineer, the above announcement is relevant for correcting for the diffraction of light encountered in environments containing dust and smoke. 

Still, the more abstract something is, the more difficult it is to understand and apply. If you have ever listened to an electrical engineer and a computer programmers talk shop, you know what I mean. 

Academics love their scholar English—an intellectual form of the abstract language only understood by other Ph.Ds. Here’s an example: Contingent Relativism and Libertarian and Collectivist Meta-Narratives. We see this communication mode especially in peer reviewed journals.

Abstract language has to be converted into the concrete to make it more understandable (Source: Dr. Marlene Caroselli).

A plethora of individuals with expertise in culinary techniques vitiates the potable concoction produced by steeping comestibles.

(To many cooks spoil the broth)

It is fruitless to engage in lacrimation over precipitately departed lacteal fluid. (Don’t cry over spilled milk)

It is futile to attempt to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovations. (Can’t teach an old dog new tricks) 

2. Use The Theory in Teaching Stories

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building


Teaching stories provide hints of what you can learn, of what we are all capable of. Plus they generate more motivation than hearing the same information as facts and statistics. A classic one concerns how to improve memory.

At a banquet given by a Nobleman of Tessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honor of his host including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux.  Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon…A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him.  He rose from the banquet hall and went out but could find no one.  During his absence, the roof of the banquet hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins. The corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them.  But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at he table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. . . And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor.  Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realized that an orderly arrangement is essential to good memory. Cicero (1976, pp.136-137)

What Simonides so long ago discovered was one of a number of visualization techniques useful in improving memorization and recall — what become known as mnemonics (Higbee, 2001). Specifically, the one known as the Method of Loci

Still it’s wise to keep in mind the words of Mark Twain who wrote, “A man with a poor memory should always tell the truth.” 

3. Do Your Due Diligence On Your Pet Theory of Skill Development

Wisdom, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Second Floor, North Corridor. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Caption underneath reads "KNOWLEDGE COMES BVT WISDOM LINGERS
Wisdom, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Second Floor, North Corridor. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Caption underneath reads “KNOWLEDGE COMES BVT WISDOM LINGERS


“There is no theory too absurd, too patently ridiculous, or too impractical that an economist somewhere will not propose it.” — Anonymous

Due diligence is a business term referring to the homework a new owner does prior to putting money into a business. Smart investors, whether they are angels or venture capitalists, have elaborate checklists, use outside experts and construct different types of benchmarks useful in separating the worthy from those less so. And so must you do your own up-front due diligence to determine if the theory works. 

Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad theory out there. There are an enormous number of opinions masquerading as science, facts that are false, and truths that aren’t. But skill checking a theory is not as easy as it sounds.

I remember one popular book suggesting we should all develop a small number of habits. But the author never provided the details on how to  get these useful principles to habituate. It didn’t pass the skill checker test. Nice to know if you are a theory wonk — worthless if you want to install new behaviors.

6 Evaluation Criteria For Sound Skill-Based Theory

To skill check a theory, run it by the following criteria:

Valid. Clearly this is a most important one. Theory is valid if does what it’s supposed to. For example, does that diet really cause you to lose weight? If the theory gives you five steps to become a better listener, do you really listen better? Sometimes you can’t be sure until after you tried it.

Practical. Theory wonks love complex models containing lots of rectangles with lines going in and out. And maybe that’s needed for an accurate view of reality. Unfortunately, few box models can be practiced. 

Sequential. Most skills run like a computer program. Things occur in a defined order. Think about the sequential motions you make to hit the ball in the game of golf. There are also decision points and subroutines kicking in at certain points.

Visual. If you can’t see something in the mind’s eye, if it doesn’t run like a movie, then something is surely missing. Behavioral skills run like a movie script, except that you are both director and the actor.

Contextual. You will see sound theory applied to the wrong situation all the time. Trying to apply the MBA theory base to the entrepreneurial start-up is a classic example. If you think about it, an MBA is all about how to manage large, bureaucratic businesses such as multinational corporations. It’s like using the theory of running an ocean liner to a rowboat that’s building its sails while trying to find fish.

Ideally, the theory says where it works and where it doesn’t. We assume leadership traits work in many situations, but you choose a leadership style based on the situation. Bad theory is typically grandiose — it creator assumes it works everywhere.

Concrete. This is the opposite of abstract. One wants easily understood ideas to minimize multiple meanings and semantic confusion.

2 Application Criteria

This type of theory is Convertible into:

Behavior. This is the classic view of what skill building is all about. These are the sports you learn, the car you drive, typing a message, etc.

Mental Process. Some really cool mental skills can’t be observed behaviorally, but can be practiced mentally. Examples include: problem solving, decision making, persuasion and reflection.  

4. Know a Theory’s Primary Context 

“The only truth in the newspaper is to be found in the ads.” — Thomas Jefferson 

 Detail from Government. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building,
Detail from Government. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building,


Fundamentally, skill building theory must be practiced and applied in a particular context. For example, with the exception of the smile, nonverbal communication patterns very tremendously depending on the culture (Tubbs, 2012). Even so, smiling frequently has situational exceptions such as sitting in church, listening to a professor’s lecture, or attending a funeral.

We see this lack of context in much of the management theory in the B-schools. It’s assumed that management theory works in all cultures. Of course, this can’t be true.

A few years back, Hofstede (1993) wrote a very interesting article titled Cultural Constraints in Management Theories. In the article, he pointed out that in certain European contexts, American managerial theories didn’t work. 

Of course, the way you run an entrepreneurial company with ten people is a completely different set of heuristics than one with 500 employees. And the first year of the enterprise is a completely different set of challenges than the10th year. 

While my friends in human resources would no doubt have heart failure for my saying so, most of HRM theory doesn’t apply to sole proprietors or to early stage start-ups. Job descriptions, performance appraisals, pay and benefits are important later, but don’t make sense early on.


All of use should spend time checking the theory we are using to make sure the theory works. This is harder than it seems. For using the wrong theory is a major factor in not getting desired results.

Resources and References

Anderson, J. R. (1985). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications. New York: Freeman, page 240-241.

Cicero (1976) De ortore, Translated by MacDonald. Harvard University Press, pp. 136-137

Franzoi (2014). Essentials of Psychology, 5th Edition, CengageBrain.

Fitts, P. M. and Posner, M. I. (1967) Human performance. Oxford, England: Brooks and Cole

Leadership Skill Development