Moving Past Incompetence

The key is not to figure out what the best people are doing and try to emulate it – rather, figure out what causes people and companies to be successful.

Clayton Christensen

One of the greatest opportunities and greatest challenges of growing a business is finding and developing the right people. Getting the flywheel spinning requires great people at all levels of an organization. Yet, it is not easy to find or develop the right people and “great” is a term fraught with complexity. Who are the “right” people and what makes someone “great” for an organization?

The Right Fit

The simplest way to define “right fit” centers on effectiveness. Is the person able to be consistently effective in his or her role? Effectiveness comes from the person having the right technical and interpersonal skills for the job. Can they do the job and are they able to work well with others as they are doing it?

Moving beyond right fit, someone is “great” for an organization when they are not only effective but have a broader and deeper impact. They are really effective. Conversely, someone is not a great fit when they lack the skills to be effective. They are not “right” for the organization when they are unable to do their job well.

As leaders, it is usually easy to tell when someone is not a great fit. Missed deadlines. Miscommunication. Missed opportunities. More and more management cycles. Sometimes it is obvious when someone is struggling in their role and is simply not effective. More often, the struggle is more subtle and effectiveness becomes a relative term as it’s measured on the continuum: I’d like more from him but he is doing ok.

Level of Incompetence

In a growing organization, the effectiveness measurement cycle is faster and shorter as things change quickly. Team members are either able to “get it” and grow through the changes or we watch them struggle to evolve. Enter “The Peter Principle,” the tendency for those working in an organization to rise to their level of incompetence.

Competence is defined as the ability to do something effectively. Typically, effectiveness in task-oriented jobs is easy to measure and a bit more difficult to evaluate in leadership positions. Of course, “right fit” means technical and interpersonal competency – things that can be difficult to measure as an individual manages more complexity. Often, we know when we see it or when we feel it is missing.

What happens when the organization and/or job changes and the person moves into his or her level of incompetence? At this point, management often concludes that it’s time to hire someone with the requisite experience for the evolving job. The employee without the needed experience is moved along or passed over as we fill the experience gap with a new resource.

Having watched this cycle many times over a long career, I’ve often wondered about this process. Is this the right approach? How often does it work? I believe that we often move someone aside in the name of experience because it is easier to plug a gap with what looks like an obvious fit than it is to figure out how to get the existing employee past their incompetence.

The Experience Conundrum

What exactly is experience? The dictionary says it is “practical contact with and observation of facts or events.” It simply means a person has done it before. Of course, having practical contact with facts or events does not guarantee that someone will be competent but it does reduce the risk of them having no idea of what they’re doing. If the person was effective before, they may be effective again.

What is inexperience? It means that someone has walked into territory in which they are uncertain and, at least initially, incompetent. The biggest risk isn’t that they can’t learn, it’s the mistakes they might make while they are learning. Failure is a very real option. For the organization, the lower risk choice is someone who appears to have the knowledge and experience, the competence, to avoid potential landmines.

The experience cycle goes all the way to the top. Founders are often replaced with “professional CEO’s” as their startup gets bigger. The challenge to grow in real time and evolve with the organization is very real. At the CEO level, the risk of incompetence can be fatal to the organization. Experience is no guarantee, but it does appear to mitigate some risk.

Though there is no substitute for experience, experience is no guarantee of success. Ultimately, effectiveness comes down to the unique alchemy of that person, that organization, and that moment in time. Organizations can be intentional in developing an individual to plug competency gaps with opportunities for experience. Frequently, there is not enough time.

The Biggest Barrier

As I’ve watched this cycle, I’ve realized that the single biggest barrier to moving past one’s level of incompetence is the ability to anticipate. Simply put: competency is knowing what to expect and then what to do. For those who do not have specific experience, the answer is anticipation. Your ability to grow is determined by how well you anticipate.

Anticipation is the ability to look ahead a few moves and prepare adequately for what might happen. An inability to anticipate effectively may be the single biggest limiting factor in one’s professional growth. You can mitigate your gaps in knowledge by anticipating them and taking steps to fill them.

For fast growth companies, anticipation is critical. Perfect information is never available, complete knowledge or understanding is impossible, and things are general moving too quickly for deep research. Looking forward a few steps is critical for every role. To successfully navigate frequently stormy waters, the organization must make “What if?” a mantra of opportunity and risk management.

Mitigating Gaps

Smart organizations can mitigate gaps in experience with savvy anticipation. It’s not what you don’t know, it’s you realizing what you don’t know, anticipating what might happen next, and taking steps to proactively manage it. How do we effectively anticipate? The key is breaking it down:

  • What are your moves?
  • What are the moves available to others?
  • What would you do?
  • What might they do? 
  • What do you know?
  • What don’t you know?
  • Who might know?
  • What other questions should you be asking?

To be effective, we need to look at the complete chess board and make sure we see all of the pieces. Ask yourself, what am I missing? Often, we stop when we reach an answer. Don’t stop there. Always go one or two steps deeper. If you want to discover what you don’t know, you need to look for it aggressively.

From a development perspective, cultivating a culture of anticipation is a necessity. We need to call our team members to look beyond the task at hand and anticipate next moves. There are problems lurking in the shadows; don’t obsess, anticipate. There are opportunities hiding off the path, look for them. The best way to foster it is to ask the questions: what if? and what’s next? Push your team to anticipate by showing them how you are looking ahead.

One word of warning, don’t turn your culture of anticipation into one of backstopping. Empower your team to look ahead and course correct but don’t constantly stand behind them should you anticipate a dropped ball. Backstopping decreases accountability by providing a safety net. Empower your team to anticipate by calling them to it and allowing them to own their results. Sure, you need to verify occasionally but don’t allow it to become micromanagement.

Resist the Narrow View

Tremendous potential lies in every human being. We limit ourselves with a narrow view of our capabilities, our responsibility in developing them, and our capacity to grow. It is easy to accept status quo and simply press forward on the path in front of us. However, if we are progressing, we will eventually reach our level of incompetence – that place where we don’t have the skills or answers. Our ability to grow past it depends on how we anticipate that uncomfortable space and respond to its unanswered questions. Don’t allow yourself or your team to walk blindly on. Push higher by calling yourself, and your team, to anticipate. Then act to plug the gaps.

  • Daniel T Miller

    Thanks for posting. How did JL Chamberlain move past his incompetence? Thanks much.

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