His collapse, when analyzed, can usually be traced to the fact that his previous experience contained nothing on which he could directly base a decision. His prior efficiency was based on empirical knowledge rather than on judgment or ability to analyze problems.
The office manager of an important mercantile house is a case in point. Though young, he had served several companies in the same capacity, making a distinct advance at each change. He was a trained accountant,
a clever employment man, and a successful handler of men and women. His association with the various organizations from which he had graduated gave him an unusual fund of practical knowledge and tried-out methods to draw upon.
His first six months were starred with brilliant detail reorganizations. The shipping department, first; the correspondence division next; the accounting department third, and he literally swept through the office like the proverbial new broom, caught up all the loose ends, and established a routine like clockwork. So successful was his work that the directors hastened to add supervision of sales and collections.
Forthwith the new manager struck his plateau. His previous experience offered little he could readily use in shaping a sales policy or laying out a collection program. He plunged into the details of both, effected some important minor economies, but failed altogether --as subsequent events showed--to grasp the constructive needs and opportunities
of management. He puzzled and irritated his district managers by overemphasizing details when they wanted decisions or policies or help in handling sales emergencies. In the same way, he neglected collections,--chiefly because he could not distinguish between detail and questions of policy,--but escaped blame for more than six months because the season was conceded to be a poor one.
Not till he resigned and the general manager investigated the sales and collection departments did the real cause of the failure become evident. Important and numerous as had been the economics instituted, they all fell under the head of the ``easy improvements '' based on previous experience and observation. When problems outside this experience presented themselves, the manager encountered his plateau.
In the acquisition of skill, days of progress are followed by stationary periods. ``Time must be taken out'' to allow the formation of a habit or the organization of this new knowledge or skill.
All trees and plants have periods of growth followed by periods of little or no growth. In May and June the leaves and branches shoot forth very rapidly, but the new growth is pulpy and tender. During succeeding days or months, these tender shots are filled in and developed. In learning and in habit formation a similar sequence is lived through. We have days of swift advancement followed by days in which the new stage or method of thinking and acting takes time to become organized and solidified. The nervous system has to adjust itself to the new demands, and such adjusting requires time.
Although periods of incubation are essential for every specific habit, practically every act of skill is dependent upon a number of simpler habits. At any one time progress may be made in utilizing some of these habits, even though others could not be advantageously hastened. Thus the period of incubation should not necessarily cause any profound slump in the advance. Almost invariably, however, it produces a plateau which persists until the worker
has mastered the expert way. The golf player, for example, usually finds he is able to drive longer and straighter balls at the beginning of the season than a little later. The reason is that in golf the perfect stroke is the product of almost automatic muscular action. In the first round the swing of the driver or iron is not consciously governed, and the muscular habit of the previous year controls. Later, as the player concentrates on his task of correcting little faults or learning more effective methods, his stroke loses its automatic quality, his game falls off, and it is not until he masters his new form that he attains high efficiency.