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  • Writer's pictureBrett Simpson

Aptitude: The Intersection of Effort & Ability

I’ve heard people equate businesses to puzzles, where success is found by organizing a bunch of disparate pieces into a recognizable and / or useful finished product. While that comparison makes sense at a high-level, the truth for me in reality is something different.

I like jigsaw puzzles because there’s only one final solution and definitive end point, achieved when all pieces are put together to create the pre-determined picture. The boundaries of doing a puzzle give me a sense of comfort and have allowed me to develop my own puzzle completion process.

  1. Make sure all pieces are right-side-up

  2. Separate border pieces from the others

  3. Put together the border (and resist the urge to put together other pieces I randomly find that go together)

  4. Agonize when one or two border pieces are “missing” and I have to cull through the herd again until I find them before moving on

  5. Complete the border

  6. Survey the chaos of non-border pieces like it’s one of those 1990’s hidden 3-D image posters you’re supposed to stare at (or through) until the image jumps out at you, hoping that I can “see” puzzle pieces / sections that fit together

  7. Review the puzzle picture on the box for details or colors that help me identify contiguous areas that appeal to me (I do the areas I “like” before tackling unappealing areas)

  8. Group puzzle pieces by color / pattern and start assembling

  9. Look at the gaps in terms of shapes of the puzzle pieces, rather than colors / patterns, and continue with assembly

  10. Repeat steps 6-9 until puzzle completion

The above may sound straightforward, but there’s a complication. Any time I do a puzzle I’m joined by my wife…or maybe I’m the one joining her. Regardless, she doesn’t appreciate or follow my “Perfect Puzzle Process”. In fact, she finds it maddening, which ironically is how I find her seemingly complete disregard for any process for completing a puzzle once the border is done. The unspoken solution we’ve come to is to work on puzzles together, but at different times…meaning we can each do it our way while we’re the only one at the table working on it.

Businesses, unlike puzzles, don’t start off as a perfect solution that are then cut into little pieces that can be re-assembled with relative ease to re-create the original, complete picture. I like business for the opposite reason I like puzzles. Business intrigues me because there isn’t one final solution and the end point isn’t definitive. Success isn’t as clear-cut as it is with puzzles. If there was one solution to success in business, it would be boring and likely devoid of innovation. Not to mention the fact that whoever solved it first would “win” and then it would be over. Similar logic follows for a definitive end point. Business is compelling because of its dynamism and continuous evolution, or the possibility of demise.

As with puzzles we can put processes in place in business. And while effective, they don’t guarantee success, unlike my “Perfect Puzzle Process”. The beauty and challenge in business is its chaos and unpredictability, and how those two are navigated, successfully or unsuccessfully.

That navigation is powered by the aptitude of a business’ leaders and teams.

What is the Aptitude Intersection?

Aptitude is the intersection of effort and ability (see Intersection 22 image below). Effort without ability is unproductive wheel-spinning. Ability without effort is wasted talent. 

In my experience, aptitude is measured on a sliding scale from ‘none at all’ to ‘extremely high levels of’.  Unless there’s a specific test designed to measure aptitude objectively we’re stuck with subjective assessments of it. This is where the effort and ability inputs come into play.


Effort seems like a basic concept, which it certainly can be at times. Judgements of effort typically sound like, “You worked your tail off on that”, or “He / She tries hard”, or “Great effort!”  Objectively, we expect to be able to estimate and measure effort with metrics like the aptly named, LOE (Level-of-Effort).

“What’s the LOE for your project?” How many times has that phrase been uttered? Conceptually, it’s simple…just estimate the number of hours required to deliver the project, divide by number of hours in a day and magically you’ll have a timeframe. I applaud you if you can get away with doing LOE’s like that. Usually, you’ll have to factor in who has the skills and abilities to do the work, what their schedules look like, how that lines up with funding, holidays, vacations, readiness of tools, technologies or vendors and so on. 

Development of aptitude for a given task, project or role requires a certain level of effort. The vast majority of senior business leaders don’t ascend to their levels without having exerted a nearly inhuman amount of effort over the course their lives and careers to attain the positions they’re in. That said, title is merely one outcome of effort and not always one that matters to people. Developing expertise in your role, field or discipline requires tremendous levels of effort, usually over a sustained period of time. It takes effort to develop aptitude. 

Intersection 22: Aptitude = Effort + Ability


It’s possible to use ability interchangeably with aptitude. However, I think of abilities as discrete skills or talents that when combined together result in the aptitude for a more comprehensive competence. Additionally, ability can refer to the propensity to learn and develop an aptitude for something. 

Said differently, abilities can be viewed as things you’re good at. Aptitude can be viewed as how you apply those things you’re good at to your tasks and roles to derive an outcome. Like effort, ability is judged on a sliding scale. You can have no ability, some ability or tons of ability.

 It’s fairly easy to determine when there are discrete skills (i.e. abilities) we don’t have or want to further develop, which we do through training, practice, observation or on-the-job-experience. The development of these abilities can contribute to our overall aptitude in a number of areas.

What Can Leaders Do?

One of the biggest responsibilities leaders have is to put the right people in the right positions. Complexity arises when leaders have roles for which no person (that they know of) has the aptitude required at the present time to fulfill the role. In these situations, leaders must look for the aptitude people may have to grow into the role, which will likely require a judgement call.

It’s incumbent upon the leader to ensure their team members are continually developing or given the opportunities to develop aptitude in the ways and areas most beneficial to the team and organization.

Wrap Up & Up Next

Aptitude can stagnate over time if ignored. It requires continual effort building and improvement of ability. 

Next time we’ll examine the 23rd intersection of performance, which is the Insight Intersection.

In this series of articles, we explore The Intersections of Performance, of which there are 30. The Intersections of Performance framework is based on the experience and insights of Brett Simpson, Managing Director of Elevate Simply, over his 20+ years of leadership in large and small organizations, and as an entrepreneur, advisor and investor.

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