IN DEFENSE OF INCOMPETENCE

IN DEFENSE OF INCOMPETENCE

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.

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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?

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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.wpengine.com

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