When wrong is the best way to right.
In the name of hyper-innovation, growth, and ROI/C metrics the enterprise has a never-ending demand for competence from its manager and employee cultures. Could anything be missing in the constant push for topnotch expertise in execution, strategic prowess, product breakthroughs, marketing creativity and other dance moves that allow a company to keep nimbly ahead of its competition and satisfy the many judges of its performance?
Yes, it could. And because irony never sleeps, the path to competence lies in part in embracing incompetence.
I’m not talking about incompetence as an acceptable substitute for competence, or as a relaxation of standards, or as advocating carelessness in managing the business. I’m talking about supporting temporary incompetence in the effort to create something new or master it at a new level. About admiring the elegance of fumbling toward achievement as much as the achievement itself.
It’s not easy to do. The last thing anyone under pressure is going to chance is the counter-intuitive move. Companies and their cultures tend to go with what works even if they know it likely won’t work. There is a race from mistakes toward the next possible victory, skipping the deep post-mortems, and focusing on effect over cause. There’s enough time to place blame but not enough to savor the well intentioned attempt. We shiver when incompetence happens to us and shun others when it happens to them.
Incompetence is a pejorative term in most organizational environments, and a dangerous one at that. “Everyone rises to their level of incompetence,” Laurence J. Peter famously said in The Peter Principle. But before him, Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” After him, Zen guru Shunryo Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
FOUR THINGS YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW,
PLUS ONE PERSONAL EXAMPLE.
- FIND SOMETHING YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT AND ATTEMPT TO MASTER IT
Return to something that has defeated or intimidated you before. Do it yourself and if you manage a team, do it together.
- STUDY THE INCOMPETENCE OF THE ACCOMPLISHED
Ignore the successes of very accomplished people but study how they dealt with their incompetence getting there and what it taught them that led to enormous success.
- RAISE THE BAR ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE COMPETENT
Allow yourself and others to act incompetently about certain agreed upon things, like part of a project or goal strategy. Note that this is different than allowing them to be incompetent and that failure is not the same thing as incompetence.
- IF IT’S STILL TOO RISKY ON THE JOB, TRY IT AT HOME
I offer you this example of my own blazing incompetence, to which I am drawn like a moth:
I play the tenor saxophone. Well, I say I play; my wife Diane says I have a saxophone. I’m busy and constantly traveling so can’t practice the way I should. After all the years spent with this instrument I can now play any song ever written – just not intentionally and not twice. I begin to tune up, neighborhood dogs begin to howl and my own gentle Labrador retriever frantically scrambles under the bed, refusing to touch wet food for the next 24 hours.
I really like guitars, have a mighty fine personal collection, and keep a 1957 Les Paul and Marshall half-stack in the lobby of my company’s offices for anyone who is working or visiting and wants to play. Yet I’ve always been drawn to the saxophone. I revere all legends of jazz but this is mostly because of Charlie Parker. His remarkable natural prowess and dauntless vision earned him a reputation as the best alto saxophone player in jazz history, and one of the founding fathers of modern music. If you play music or like music, or maybe have just heard of music, I urge you to listen to him.
I love Parker’s deconstruction and reconstruction of the established mathematics of his field, his unrelenting passionate pursuit of the new, and the profound humanity that infuses his playing. It’s the same way I like to approach what I do in my own company, which is closed on Charlie Parker’s birthday every year as a paid employee holiday.
Where Parker could see entirely new patterns and possibilities in the mist, I see…the saxophone. It’s sitting on the couch in my office as I write this. Completely mocking me. Still, I continue to listen and learn and play whenever I can, recognizing that I’ll never, ever approach the intuitive genius or even basic dexterity of my idol.
And maybe that’s why I dig it. Like so many of you, I have accomplishment as a key personal value, and so badger myself constantly with a never-good-enough mantra. But really, that’s just your basic over achiever nuttiness. In reality, my company’s solutions have been carefully constructed, exhaustively tested and are constantly refined. I surround myself with a team that includes PhD’s and other experts in the disciplines we provide, and my books have been written with superb research teams.
Without being an arrogant snot, I am confident about our competence around here. While each client assignment is new and never taken for granted, what we are going to do for a company we’ve done successfully many times before. These days we are intent on repeating success, not on creating it for the first time. That’s what scaling a business is all about.
Confronting this stubborn brass instrument means attempting an entirely new competency and dealing with the impatience, the setbacks and victories, and the determination that goes along with it. It’s a new source of energy, which helps fuel the energy I bring to my business.
It reminds me of how competency happens in the first place. It reminds me that anything great began as something fearless. And it reminds me never to take the journey to real competency for granted, in anyone. Well, I say the saxophone is an instrument. Diane says in my hands it’s more of a weapon.
TALK TO ME: What are you incompetent in and what has that taught you? Does your company correctly value incompetence and what are examples of the payoff if it does?
Stan Slap is the CEO of SLAP, the international consulting company renowned for achieving maximum commitment in manager, employee and customer cultures – the three groups that decide the success of your company. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Bury My Heart at Conference Room B and Under the Hood. slapcompany.com
“Some people live and learn. Never was lucky that way,” once sang Boz Scaggs.
If you tremble at the thought of starting another year repeating ineffective business strategies –– or that your management career has somehow turned into a Boz Scaggs song –– here are five critical things that you can do to ensure success.
1. UNDERSTAND HOW A CULTURE WORKS AND HOW TO WORK IT
Way back in 2014, “culture” was Miriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, making it the most searched for word in the English language according the most popular dictionary in the English language. If the Word of the Year had been “banana,” by now companies would understand what a banana really is, how to get the most out of it and that it’s not likely to peel itself to feed you.
An employee culture isn’t a bunch of employees. When your employees formed a relationship with your company they became a culture, and became far more intelligent, far more self-protective and far more resistant to standard methods of corporate influence. This isn’t soft stuff; it is the stuff of hardcore business results.
Your culture will give you anything you want but you have to give it what it wants first. It’s not the responsibility of your employee culture to understand the business logic; it’s the responsibility of your business to understand the culture’s logic. Any company – and manager – that gets this will be unbeatable in any market they choose to own.
2. BECOME BRANDED FOR HOW YOU SELL
There is more mythology, misdirection, superstition and generalized academic babble about branding than most business subjects. Let’s cut to the bottom line: Becoming a brand means transferring sustainability of your company to your customers. Customers will advertise and sell for you, and protect you when you stumble or get attacked. This makes it the most important transformation for any company.
Being a brand isn’t about being big, or Siberia would be a brand. It’s about being best, which turns into big. So it’s not just about what you sell; it’s about how you sell it and why. Whatever claims you make about your product have to be overtly represented in the process someone goes through to buy and use the product, or you have fractured trust with customers and caused suspicion about your product claims. Your customer experience has to be spectacular, signature and sustained to be brandable.
And it has to be driven by real passion – a sure sense of what is right with the world that must be protected and wrong with the world that must be corrected. Regardless of your value proposition the business has to be operated at least in part as a delivery vehicle to build a better world. If your only passion is to make money the cost of that money will prove more expensive and difficult than it needs to be. Your customers aren’t infatuated with your revenue concerns. But stand for something deep and you’ll not only rule the world, people will want you to.
3. BRING YOUR OWN VALUES TO WORK
Your personal values are your very own source of safety, hope and renewal. Why should you live your personal values at work? This is an excellent question to ask – if your attorneys are planning an insanity defense. You spend over half your waking hours at work. Work-life balance isn’t a matter of escaping from work; it’s a matter of living the way you want to, whether or not you’re at work. The source of your emotional commitment to your company – worth more than your financial, intellectual and physical commitment combined – is based on your ability to actually live your own values on the job.
You can live your deepest personal values at work. A company will buy any reasonable manager action that produces business results. Those companies that are most intense about performance become the most maternal and squishy about those who deliver it. The key to getting enterprise sanction for living your own values is to be able to tell a new story of results because you did.
4. STAY ON THE SOLUTION SIDE
“Whining is not a strategy.” “Victim” is not a job description. “Everybody else is in trouble too” is not management information.
The best organizations hold themselves as accountable for their problems as they do for their successes. Their victories are built upon learning from both and growing ever stronger. Once your culture is allowed to blame external conditions for internal performance, all hope of aggressive and creative responses departs and helplessness and cynicism take their place.
There are two things to know about any tough time your business may be experiencing: First, it probably won’t last forever. Second, the story of how you stood up to it will. You’re going to be living with that story for a long time: write it so it ends the way you want it to. Want to know more? Write me at email@example.com and ask for the free white paper Tough Times: Tougher Teams.
5. LOOK FORWARD BY LOOKING BACKWARDS
What do you want from your management career? Do you want to build a company, sell products, make money? These are very good things. Do you want to have a legacy impact on the lives of those who helped you do it? This is a great thing.
You don’t have to trade off the good things for a great thing. But you have to want to do a great thing.
Knowing how your employee culture works and how to work it can be the pivotal difference between your career success and failure, or between your success and extreme success. But this isn’t simply about your company or your career.
Culture is where the humans gather in business. It is up to you if you treat what is most important to these humans with disinterest and depress their sense of who they are and what they deserve. Or if you treat them with the honor that humans have earned regardless of most criteria, certainly regardless of their position in the hierarchy of an enterprise, and lift their sense of who they are and what they deserve.
An employee culture’s profound search for safety and meaning is a reminder that we all inhabit the same world; we all have these same concerns. Treating your employee culture with empathy, concern, and respect is not a performance tactic or a job responsibility. It is a mirror that reflects your own true humanity.
Listen, there’s only so much I can tell you in a blog. But my company really does all of this work for many of the world’s most successful, demanding organizations and I’ve written several books about it. If you want to know more, formally or just informally, just reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org Happy to help.
Let’s assume for a minute that the folks running Starbucks are real people who are provoked enough by a social issue to use their large stage to talk about it. Can a company ever do so in a way that is considered credible and appropriate by its customers? This is a concern needing resolution by any company that believes its obligation to give back extends beyond shareholders to the world.
Starbucks can be pounced on for some cringe worthy clumsiness in introducing its Race Together campaign, but not for the motive behind it. This is a company with a retail presence in all 50 states of a country that is polarized and stoked about racial bias – people are divided, angry and frightened. In the face of this, Starbucks has offered the exact opposite: The company has presented a united front to promote healing, which is a fearless move considering the blowback it knew it was inviting.
We can be cynical as consumers but we can’t have it both ways. Do we want companies to operate with a greater social conscience or not? To think that this was some smarmily conceived publicity stunt is just absurd (iPad giveaway? Nah, been done. Wait a minute – let’s use Ferguson!) There are far easier ways for Starbucks to get its name in the press than wading into the issue of racism in America.
The company has a track record of some laudable practices in the treatment of its supply chain, its employee culture and in its respect for humans of all kinds. When a shareholder group announced a boycott in protest of the company’s support for Washington State’s gay marriage referendum, CEO Shultz blasted back, “Not every decision is an economic decision. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year…you can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company.”
This is the organization people want to get all worked up against? Man, try the decaf. The company’s senior most passion around this seems real and even if it really should do better in improving the percentage of minorities that make up its own executive team, Starbucks deserves credit and support for being willing to take a stand on something beyond new products and pricing.
Will that stand noticeably impact the state of racial equality in the United States? Hardly, but it’s tough to know what will at this point. It’s unfair to lay the accountability on them – they’re a coffee company, not the DOJ, and their legislative authority is limited to what kind of muffins you get to choose from. True, it may only be dialogue that Starbucks is inciting when it’s so clearly the time for action. But saying something is better than saying nothing. Let’s listen now to all of the other companies who have used their position of influence to speak about this urgent issue affecting us all:
A lesson here for other companies is not to use your employee culture as involuntary brand evangelists or apologists. A brand says “you will know us by our intention” and it is up to the culture whether it wants to represent that intention with its own good name, not up to the company to decide for the culture or to assume that it comes with the job description.
The forced involvement of the Starbucks employee culture was equally uncomfortable for customers. Those customers are employees somewhere too and so part of the overall employee culture. They’ll decide to protect or reject a company depending on how they perceive it treats people like them. The company should have relied solely on in-store collateral designed to instigate natural conversation across the counter if both parties are so inclined.
But is the lesson that Starbucks has provided solely a cautionary tale for other companies? We had better hope not because we will be reinforcing the hesitancy of organizational power and wealth to advocate for social change. Maybe most of that advocacy will be patently false and self-serving but if we don’t endorse fumbling first attempts the real ones will never step up. Let’s make these the lessons instead:
1. Be relevant to be valuable.
Old business thinking says that the better your value proposition the more successful you’ll be. In our time of massive customer buying choices and forums for customer–to–customer communication, going to market on value alone risks commoditizing your product. The companies that will be the most successful will provide both value and relevance.
Most companies only choose to be relevant to their customers when they’re trying to sell them something. There’s a lot going on in your customer’s world and that means you’re choosing to be irrelevant to them for most of the time.
2. Drive your business from passion to get to profit.
The companies that become brands conceive of their business in part as a delivery vehicle to build a better world and this gives them a purpose that is credible, consistent and charismatic. If your company’s only passion is to make money the cost of that money will always prove more expensive and difficult than it needs to be. Your customer isn’t infatuated with your revenue concerns.
3. Don’t talk like a company to human beings.
A lot of the negative response to Starbucks comes from the gimmicky aspects of this campaign. To be credible enterprise passion has to be unadulterated – raw and unapologetic, without pulling any punches or putting an obvious marketing or self-serving enterprise spin on it.
If it exists at all most companies take their true human passion and put it through a transmorgifier that sucks it out, flattens the resulting indistinguishable blob into something palatable to every demographic and psychographic profile, bakes it under high commercial pressure until the original soulful intent is completely faded, puts a professional agency glaze on it and then attempts to force feed the result to a skeptical customer culture. Yum.
Ironically this doesn’t make a company’s position safer. It makes it riskier because it isn’t believable. People don’t trust companies; they trust people. If you want your message to be listened to, trusted and shared then you have to talk to those people like they really talk to themselves. This means you have to have enough respect for your customer culture to believe it will find comfort in your authenticity and transparency even if it doesn’t always agree with your point of view.
Whether you agree or disagree with their approach or even their position, it is inarguable that Starbucks is attempting here to bring humanity into its business. If we lose humanity in business, we’re all doomed. If we save it, we will have saved ourselves.