Understanding the science of people

One of the most widely accepted ways to develop an understanding of the unique design of an individual is through historical observation. The authenticity of historical observation is substantiated in the convergence of natural ability data in the autobiographical histories of individual achievements that are consistently displayed over time.

The process of historical observation for understanding human behavior is more widely used than any other singular assessment strategy and has been in practice for over five decades.

During the second half of the 20th century, the career development industry began to recognize that the key to charting an effective career strategy was through an understanding of individual uniqueness and the natural abilities people possess. People began to become defined with unique strengths and the secret to long-term career satisfaction and effectiveness was found to be in aligning people with work that matched up to their natural strengths. What has developed over time are various methods of analyzing an autobiography of personal life achievements, i.e. historical observation, as a primary perspective for developing an understanding of the individual, as well as the foundation for charting career strategies. The idea of understanding an individual through historical observation has not only become familiar, but it is commonplace today.

Historical observation as a reliable tool is always substantiated through the convergence of the achievement data itself. Historical observation always begins with a set of personal historical facts. This data contains descriptions of a series of achievements, also called ‘enjoyable achievements,’ which may be found throughout the entire course of an individual’s life. These achievements, being both autobiographical and necessarily voluntary, provide data specific to the individual about what they do best. At this point, the authenticity of the process is substantiated in the pattern that emerges from the historical data; additionally, the pattern is not only unique to the individual, but also consistent over time. This has been demonstrated with thousands upon thousands of different individuals over the last half century, and provides the basis for many best-selling books, like What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles which has sold over 10 million copies since 1972.

We offer the position historical observation may hold within the field of assessment tools. It is not possible here to itemize the plethora of tools available. Instead, we suggest that all assessment tools follow one of three approaches:

1. The comparison of the individual to a created model by which the individual is screened.

2. The reduction of human behavior to a set of categories into which each individual is fit.

3. The examination of an individual’s historical data from which consistent performance is identified (historical observation).

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Below some principles that may be helpful in understanding when to use a particular assessment.


We are going to make an apple pie. We only want the ‘best’ apples for our pie so we construct a model of the ideal apple. We will use this model to evaluate the color, taste, texture, size, etc. of all the apples in the basket. We are quick to discover that none of the apples are perfect replicas of our model apple; each is inferior (or maybe just different) in one way or another. If our selection criterion is extremely rigid we may not find enough apples for our pie. If our criterion is extremely lax our pie may turn out less than adequate. By formulating a model (assuming we are conversant with ‘apple pie’ apples) we are able to screen out the apples that do not match our criteria.

Such is the approach of most assessment tools. They are built around a preconceived model. Aptitude tests fit into this category. Suppose that we wanted to identify individuals who possess an aptitude for organizing. Using the modeling approach we would have to think through what an organizing person ‘looks like.’ Having done that we then construct a test document that identifies for us in which way and to what degree the individual conforms to the model. As in selecting apples we would find that no individual matches the model perfectly. We would have to use a graded scale or continuum for our selection process. Though all of this is theoretically possible to construct, there is a problem. The one who creates the model and who writes the test document is limited in scope by his own experience and his own perception of organizing. In addition, any test document that would identify even a small variety of organizing expressions would be cumbersome and unwieldy to use.

The advantage of the modeling approach to assessment is that it allows us to narrow our focus to a very specific criterion.

The disadvantages of the modeling approach are two-fold.

1. The criteria by which the model is constructed is by definition limited and does not allow for a variety of expression.

2. The results of such a test tell us very little about the individual, other than the degree to which he resembles the model.

Information derived from historical data is timeless. If the information is true at six years of age and twenty-six, we will find it to be true at forty-six.


It is reported by those who raise and train pigeons that when returning to the coop, each bird will go immediately to a particular nesting box. These nesting boxes are often designed with one entry hole. It is where the expression ‘pigeon-holing’ is derived: meaning to place in categories (or boxes). The advantage of this system to the pigeon farmer is that the pigeons ‘categorize’ themselves, allowing the farmer to quickly see if each bird is where it belongs.

Personality profiles and temperament analysis are examples of categorical assessment. These are usually very quick and easy to administer, and often can be tabulated by the client himself. Instruments such as these readily identify the broad differences that distinguish one class of people from another. Such are the advantages. The disadvantages as we see them, are as follows:

1. For these instruments to have any meaningful application they must be highly specific. But if they are designed to be highly specific they are no longer quick and easy. Suppose, for example, that we wanted to hire an administrative assistant who was project-completion oriented rather than process oriented (two broad categories). If these were the only descriptors within the assessment, we still would not know such things as: what kind of direction or support does the individual need in order to initiate tasks? How will the individual learn new tasks – by instruction? by reading? by experimenting? What kinds of tasks does this individual intend to complete? and so on.

2. Category based assessments which rely on the client to make choices based upon feelings usually fail to provide timeless information. For example, when faced with the question “pick the one item of the four which sounds most like you,” the answer given today could be influenced by any number of factors in the person’s life and could be vastly different next month.

3. Category based assessments are easily manipulated. We heard recently from one of our corporate clients that an individual re-took a test three times in order to obtain the desired results. This is certainly an exaggerated example, but the fact remains that the individual is influenced by the answers he perceives the tester desires.


With historical observation, there is integrity to historical data that is undeniable. It either happened or it did not. It allows the individual to tell his own story by focusing only on the behavior that was self directed by the natural strengths of the person.

Information derived from historical data is timeless. If the information is true at six years of age and twenty-six, we will find it to be true at forty-six. Individual historical observation celebrates individuality without the shading of preconceived models and limiting categories. Historical observation describes the person in terms of what he does and how he does it.

Historical observation allows for the creation of a unique assessment language that is particular for each client that describes the individual through natural strengths. It allows for the separation of skills that are acquired from abilities that are natural.

• KEY PRINCIPLE: Performance Terms

Most human resource problems relate directly or indirectly to the issue of job-fit, matching the innate capabilities of the individual to the critical requirements of the job. The rationale for assessment, then, is a need to increase understanding of the individual being assessed along with the job he or she is being expected to do. An effective assessment tool should describe elements of the person’s nature in performance terms. In other words, it must tell us not only that he is a ‘leader,’ for example, but also, how and when he intends to lead.

• KEY PRINCIPLE: Timeless Information

The assessment process can be costly, not only financially, but also in terms of time and energy. Assessment results should provide long-term value to the consultant, the client, and to the organization who paid the bill. The results should present more than a snapshot of present time. Assessment results should accurately reflect the individual today, tomorrow and in years to come.

• KEY PRINCIPLE: People Operate Consistently

The two year old who is constantly wandering off to discover some new thing is very likely the third-grader who is easily distracted by activity outside the window, and ultimately the twenty-eight year old who loses interest in a job when he has learned all there is to learn.