William B. Abernathy
Our behavior analysis community has been built by many people who have found B. F. Skinner’s ideas about human behavior compelling. Bill Abernathy, who died on March 4, 2015 after a long illness, was one such person. Bill’s strong commitment to our discipline, his general contributions to behavior analysis in the workplace, and more specifically his work on incentive pay management systems all have had significant impact in our community, but also in a much larger one. His behavior-analytically based consulting work and incentive programs continue to positively impact thousands of workers and their employees, as they have done over four decades. Bill’s impact is best articulated by those who knew him best. At the invitation of the Aubrey Daniels Institute, several of his many friends and colleagues offer herein their reflections on Bill and his importance in their lives and the life of our discipline.
— Andy Lattal, Aubrey Daniels Institute
Bill started working with ADI in 2005 when we acquired his innovative and longstanding scorecarding and incentive pay company, Abernathy and Associates. ADI continued the publication of two of his books, the performance pay classic, The Sin of Wages, and the implementation guidebook, Managing without Supervising. Bill regretted how the title, Managing without Supervising, was being misinterpreted and changed the title to Pay for Profit when he updated the book in 2011. While The Sin of Wages explains why organizations should shift to performance pay, Pay for Profit outlines exactly how to do that. Bill’s third book, Human Performance Diagnostics, is a detailed problem-solving guide and a practical complement to his first two books. Together, the three books showcase Bills’ unique expertise in the design of systems and strategies to direct and motivate organizational and individual performance. ADI was also fortunate to be able to publish Bill’s final book last year, The Liberated Workplace: Transitioning to Walden Three. This final book puts it all together and was a favorite of Bill’s. Despite Bill’s health issues, he kept working and pushing through those issues, continuing to teach at SLU, facilitating pay and scorecard design sessions with ADI, and penning his final book. If you never spent much time with Bill, you really missed out on something. His knowledge of pay systems and scorecarding was phenomenal. He must have remembered everything he ever did, because there wasn’t a question you could ask or a situation you could present to him that he couldn’t immediately answer with multiple examples of past success and failures related to your question. His measurement and incentive pay expertise was unmatched.
While there’s no denying what a bright man Bill was, what stands out even more to me was how hilarious he was. He had the funniest, most engaging stories. His dry delivery added to his story-telling as he casually reminisced about his boating or other travel misadventures. Whether the conversation was an intellectual debate and or a sidesplitting tale of a day in the life of Bill, he was always good fun to be around. Bill had both a passion for the science of behavior and a passion for life. He will be missed.
– Tom Spencer, Aubrey Daniels International
Bill Abernathy was my 2nd job interview out of college and now here we are 17 years later. I never expected my career to extend this long in a field that I jumped into straight out of college. I have had the opportunity to travel the country and work with some incredibly wonderful clients, all the while making mental notes of how engaging and hilarious he could be while talking about performance measurement for hours on end. I know that he has been a major influence on so many with his brilliant ideas on how to bring the science of behavior and the systematic approach of profit-indexed performance pay to the workplace – and from a first-hand prospective, I doubt there is anyone out there could ever match his passion and skill. Continuing my work in this field without his guidance and support seems entirely impossible – but I certainly couldn’t have asked for a better teacher, mentor, and friend. I will miss him dearly. –
– Lori Brody, Aubrey Daniels International
Bill Abernathy ’s death is a blow to his family, friends, ADI colleagues, ABAI colleagues and everyone who has read his books. Although many who worked with him thought his health was not good, even though he always downplayed health issues, his death came as a shock. We will miss his wit and intellectual acumen particularly about how business should be run. No one can match his ability to pinpoint compensation contingencies. ADI is fortunate to have Lori Brody, who worked closely with Bill for many years, implementing Performance-based pay systems. When ADI acquired Abernathy Performance Systems 10 years ago part of the deal was that Bill continue to be a part of the business and that Lori would continue. He taught her well. He was a pioneer in creating a behavioral compensation system that has no equal today, over 30 years later. Bill continued to work whenever asked even through periods of medical treatment. When I was last with him he was upbeat about his condition and was always willing to help with any customer or sales opportunity.
Bill is gone but he still lives for us in the compensation practice and his writings that he left behind. I can still see him sauntering down the hall, not saying much and never talking loud but we all knew to listen to what he said when we had the opportunity. We are thankful for the opportunity we had to know him and his wife.
– Aubrey Daniels, Aubrey Daniels International
Bill and me.
Our years of work and fun spanned decades. Bill astounded me with his amazing insights into making world a better place through applied behavioral systems. Though, like the rest of us, only mortal, he had to settle on achievable goals. But in doing so Bill blazed a trail of new models of human performance. His humor and humanity made failure a terrific learning experience - readying Bill and us for the never ending next round of innovation. I continue to draw energy from our discussions of new possibilities in human performance generated while navigating the Tennessee River or listening to blues on Beale Street. Or, when in the midst of playing a spectacular riff on guitar or keyboard, he'd surprise me by coming to an abrupt stop and asking, "Have you thought about . . .?" Bill was the thinker and musician I hoped I might be. But down deep, a voice reminded me that Bill was a rare original - to be appreciated, never duplicated. Bill's passing reminds me that we all have a second chance. For a while. If I said that to Bill, he would laugh and suggest we go for it.
– Dwight Harshbarger, West Virginia University
Bill Abernathy's perspective on our field was original and unique. There are many ways to incorporate a behavioral approach into organizational management and visionaries such as Aubrey Daniels, Tom Gilbert, Dale Brethower, and Bill Abernathy proposed different models. Bill's vision was to change the basic relationship between pay and performance for all employees so that what people accomplished in their jobs was tied more closely to the pay they received. Variable compensation still is a radical idea in business, typically reserved only for upper executives and salesforces. But Bill saw that employees in medium to large-sized companies are often disconnected from what the company is trying to achieve and this is enforced with wage and salary structures that basically pay people for showing up. So he tackled this very challenging area and incorporated multi-dimensional scorecards into his approach as a vehicle for goals, feedback, and the link to performance pay. It remains today as an important tool for connecting employees to company goals and improving performance. On the personal side, Bill was also known for his dry sense of humor. He could work in hilarious one-liners with a completely straight face, and he was a master storyteller of tales from his past that were so funny that he made your face hurt from extended laughing. I will miss him greatly and it is a shame that students of OBM will only know him through his written works.
– Cloyd Hyten, Aubrey Daniels International
Bill Abernathy was not only a friend and colleague, but a mentor. His elegant articulation of Behavioral Systems Analysis extended Skinner’s legacy beyond the boundaries of the Skinner Box and demonstrated its parsimonious application in the analysis of complex social phenomena. We are forever grateful for his brilliance, generosity and kindness throughout the years. Behavior Analysis is enriched by Bill’s lasting contributions which shine as an exemplary model of rigorous and socially important behavior science.
– Ramona Houmanfar, University of Nevada, Reno
– Mark Alavosius, Praxis2LLC & University of Nevada, Reno
Unless accompanied by someone as delightful upon our first encounter, Bill’s wife Conie, Bill and I virtually always turned our attentions to what we had been “up to” in terms of work. I think work was something we both loved, second only to our family members (Betty, in my case).
When appropriate, Bill was ever so happy to share work-related stories from the “front lines” of our “field,” in my case, or consulting practice, in Bill’s. So, under appropriate circumstances, our attention naturally turned to our favorite work-related experiences, whether as a dyad or among a group of colleagues. I’ll never forget an occasion when Bill’s attention turned to with whom he had worked before founding his own consulting business. As founder, he would be permitted to pay virtually full time attention to validating his belief and trust in the virtue and effectiveness of pay-for-performance systems in formal organizations. For my part, there is nothing quite so reinforcing as listening to work-related stories from the lips of a dyed in the wool applied psychologist, behavior analyst, and/or applied behavior analyst (formally trained or de facto). I discovered, on one occasion, that you “could learn a lot” by simply accepting an invitation to go out to dinner with a “gang” of relatively “like-minded” formal, or de facto, behavioral consultants. That was likely the occasion upon which I first met Bill, about twenty-some years ago.
I don’t recall how the conversation came under Bill’s control, but it was remarkable, to me, because it was about his pre-pay for performance targeting as a means of performance improvement. He was once charged with improving performance among folks working in a (high end I think) restaurant. During that assignment he discovered high variability among carvers of huge a roast beef on a spit. And this, by his calculations, resulted in higher costs than necessary and fair (my assumption) distribution of portion sizes among diners. I don’t recall why, but I do recall the fact that members of our party got a “real kick” out of learning how he “created” or “redesigned” the “food portioning management system” for the restaurant owner/client.
But, Bill’s real professional passion, as best I could tell, was design creation and implementation of effective and equitable pay-for-performance systems. And for an example of that class of system’s possibilities of an equitable “labor-management” culture, Bill took note of the “Lincoln Electric System.” At the same time, his “systems” differed from it in unmistakable ways (including the passage of a bit more than 50 years of successful competition in its industry. Its connection with his work appears in his text, Managing Without Supervising.
While I was never able to get Bill to do something for the Journal of Organizational Management, Ramona and Mark, it appears, were. Finally, he had me on the edge of my seat at last year’s ABAI meetings were we shared the podium and he, as usual, made a stellar innovative presentation entitled “Walden Three: The Liberated Organization.” At that time he appeared to me to be in excellent health.
His passing is enough to make a grown man cry; and when Betty asked why, I did!
– Tom Mawhinney, University of Detroit
Bill Abernathy was my friend, erstwhile mentor and business associate for almost 30 years. I was first attracted to Bill’s work because it seemed to show that there were companies out there who were letting him play with pay in crafting behavioral contingencies in the workplace. These were not just discretionary bonus schemes or profit-sharing retirement plans, or short-terms sales promotions, but real-time, short-cycle performance-contingent MONEY, based on objective, business-common metrics, that were part of the general pay plan. What a novel idea!
Anyhow, it was clear Bill had something on his mind, and he was hard at it until the bitter end. Not unlike Psych classrooms at WMU during my time there, his company became his lab, his employees his subjects…all of us there knew that, and he and we were all just as curious to see how different tweaks to the pay system actually worked…prime effects, side effects, durability. Bill and I shared the understanding that short-term programs can work well to improve performance….for the short-term…once the program expired, all those SD’s disappeared and with them, their control. For more durable changes to behavior, you had to change the essence of the systems in which it operated and would continue to operate. Bill was out to change those systems. You see, like most of us Behavior Analysts, Bill wanted to change the world. I hope and believe he did. He will be missed.
– Joe Savage, Mandoki Realty
I have known Bill Abernathy for more than 20 years in various settings. With each interaction from the side-by-side client-facing moments to negotiating the specifics of our two companies merging, or at Dantes Down Under listening to jazz. I have never failed to learn from and laugh with him. He never let form interfere with function. He was always in the moment, whatever that moment was. There was no pretense. He demonstrated in a most unselfconscious way his brilliance, even as he would ponder the questions asked, noodle on financial, calculations, talk out loud his thoughts about the question of the moment while rubbing his head open palmed—conveying that in that moment he was engaged in a brand new and most delightful discovery. I came to see that most questions he received with such focused attention were surely ones he had heard many time before. Patience and true delight in engaging with any of us wanting to learn were his trademarks. You knew with Bill he would never play a false note just to get the work or please his client. In the end he pleased us all. If the client had problems with form, they were won over with function. He was what we call a contextualist, arranging the conditions in which the opportunity for reinforcement are built into the systems and processes of work itself. Read his work. He has much yet to teach and you too will rub your head with delight as those light bulbs of learning go off. One of his favorite Skinner quotes speaks to his world view:
Behavior is a difficult subject matter, not because it is inaccessible, but because it is extremely complex. Since it is a process, rather than a thing, it cannot be held still for observation. It is changing, fluid, evanescent…But there is nothing insolvable about the problems that arise from this fact (1953, p 15).
So glad I have had the honor of watching him respectfully work to solve a problem of behavior by addressing the sources of what maintained it. He also provided outrageous laughing moments, creating such deep affection. What a good thing to have had in this life! Thanks, Bill.
– Darnell Lattal, Aubrey Daniels Institute
Bill was a jazz man.
Not only did he compose and play as the sample demonstrates, often along with his jazz man son, Sloan, he followed the greats. Sloan said, “In addition to keyboard, my dad also played sax. His favorite musician is Cannonball Adderley.”
Cannonball Adderley, heard here on YouTube, playing Arriving Soon.