Fast Company

Change Agent - Issue 31

In My Humble Opinion: "In the face of change, the competent are helpless."

Horror stories used to start with "It was a dark and stormy night." No longer. Now they start with "My wife and I decided to add a couple of rooms onto our house."

My wife and I recently decided to enter the house of horrors. But we were determined to avoid disaster. So we took our time and found a competent architect. That was our first mistake.

Then we searched until we found a competent contractor. Great references, solid reputation. That was our second mistake.

Our criteria for the project were, in order, "fast," "good," and "cheap." We were clear about our goals. We set specific dates, and we delivered our objectives in writing.

Unfortunately, our contractor and our architect had both built their reputation, the center of their competency, around "good." "Fast" was not a concept that they really understood. Try as we might, argue as we did, nothing would change their focus. Order windows before the building permit comes through? Too radical. Have two teams working on the project at the same time -- one upstairs, the other in the basement? "Well, I guess some might do it that way, but you hired us for our reputation. So you've got to trust that our way is the best way."

Hey, if these guys were building a skyscraper, it would take them 40 years to complete it.

Every situation has a silver lining, and mine was that I got a big insight into what competence is. Competent people have a predictable, reliable process for solving a particular set of problems. They solve a problem the same way, every time. That's what makes them reliable. That's what makes them competent.

Competent people are quite proud of the status and success that they get out of being competent. They like being competent. They guard their competence, and they work hard to maintain it.

Bob Dylan, on the other hand, is an incompetent musician. From year to year, from concert to concert, there's just no way to be sure that he'll deliver exactly what you're expecting. Sometimes, he blows the world away with his insight, his energy, and his performance. Other times, he's just so-so. And, unlike a truly competent musician, Dylan never delivers a song the same way twice. Remember Dylan's Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind" album? About the only thing you can be sure of is that when he plays a song from that album in concert, it won't sound anything like the studio version. No, Dylan isn't competent. But he is brilliant.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, we've witnessed an amazing shift in U.S.-based businesses. Not so long ago, companies were filled with incompetent workers. If you bought a Pacer from American Motors, it wasn't all that surprising to find a tool hidden in a door panel of your new car. Or, when you were trying to put together that shiny red bicycle late on Christmas Eve, it wasn't out of the ordinary to discover that not all of the parts were inside the box. Back then, it wasn't uncommon for shipped products to be dead on arrival. Everyone from lawyers to senior executives to receptionists was dropping the ball on a regular basis.

Then we got sideswiped by global competition, discovered a whole new approach to working, and found religion. We bought into not one but a whole series of revolutions. We reengineered. We bought computers. We adopted Six Sigma quality-management systems that ensured that every process would be robust enough to turn whoever was involved in it into a competent automaton.

Now the receptionist can't lose your messages, because they go straight into voice mail. The assembly-line worker can't drop a tool, because it's attached to a numerically controlled machine. The telemarketer who interrupts your dinner is unlikely to overpromise, because the pitch is carefully outlined on paper in script form.

Today, it's much harder to make a bad car, because robots are measuring everything. It's much harder to be an incompetent directory-assistance operator, because computers are handling so much of the work.

Oh, there's one other thing: As we've turned human beings into competent components of the giant network known as American business, we've also erected huge barriers to change.

In fact, competence is the enemy of change!

Competent people resist change. Why? Because change threatens to make them less competent. And competent people like being competent. That's who they are, and sometimes that's all they've got. No wonder they're not in a hurry to rock the boat.

Just think of the risks that come with embracing anything other than competence. What would that mean to my contractor? A fresh approach to project management -- one that could prevent me from standing in my house as snow blows in through that hole in the wall where the window should be -- would expose his team to all sorts of risks. It would mean that his reputation as a competent builder would be threatened. Of course, it might also mean a fresh perspective on building, a chance to invent a new, time-sensitive approach to construction, even the possibility of revolutionizing an industry with a reputation for making customers unhappy. But the risks of jeopardizing that Good Housekeeping label of competence are just too high.

Do you work for a competent company? A company in which people are hired because they've done a certain job before, in which the upward path is slow and the sideways path is nonexistent? Such companies are especially frustrating to the internal (or the external) change agent. Sadly, Wall Street has traditionally rewarded companies for being competent.

Charlie Trotter's, in Chicago -- one of my favorite restaurants -- has an incompetent chef. Every night, he offers a different menu of innovative dishes. And sometimes those dishes fail: The beet-kumquat-chocolate soufflé is not worth the calories, or the blood oranges really don't add anything to the poblano mousse -- you get the idea. But I'd much rather let this gifted, incompetent chef cook for me than go back to the restaurant that I ate at yesterday in Boston. Staff members at this restaurant will happily make you a banana-orange juice, and they'll gladly offer you a carrot-spinach juice. But they'll refuse, with total amazement at the request, to make you a banana-carrot juice. For just one moment yesterday, I had a flashback to that scene in "Five Easy Pieces" when Jack Nicholson tries to get the maddeningly competent waitress at the frustratingly competent restaurant to bring him some wheat toast.

In the face of change, the competent are helpless. Change means a temporary or permanent threat to their competence. But among the competent, the smart ones realize that change is inevitable, that shift happens -- and thus that they are doomed. Hence the tremendous discomfort among our happily competent population.

In the face of change, some of us are becoming competent at zooming: Our tool set includes the ability to move from opportunity to opportunity -- doing the same thing, only differently. It's this new breed of competents, of people who in another age might be labeled "incompetent," who are going to lead us through the changes that we encounter. Whom should we hire to become zoomers? Who are the people, and what are the companies that can take on new challenges, new opportunities?

Here's the weird thing: I think that the incompetent among us are stars in the making. Not the folks who are incompetent because they can't do any better. No, I mean the folks who had the option to become competent but chose to try something new.

The next time you review résumés, try ignoring all of the "perfectly qualified" applicants. In fact, disqualify everyone who is clearly competent to do the job at hand. Do what Southwest Airlines does: Don't hire people with experience at another airline unless you're sure that they can unlearn what they've learned at that other airline. "Competence" is too often another word for "bad attitude." Instead, find the serial incompetents -- the folks who are quick enough to master a task and restless enough to try something new. The zoomers.

It's sort of surprising that so many of the new companies that are creating wealth today are run and staffed by very young people. Because they have very little work history, these people haven't fallen prey to becoming competent. They don't have to unlearn bad habits. They're not interested in maintaining their competencies -- because, frankly, they don't have any.

But this reliance on the young is dangerous. Why? Because as these new companies get locked into a successful business model, they create a layer of very successful, very young, and in some cases very arrogant managers. And these managers are the most dangerous competents of all: the ones who will do everything in their power to fight the next round of necessary changes, because they're in love with their newfound competence.

Some of the companies that have radically redefined their industries are already seeing rough times. Netscape lost its way and blew its huge lead, not because of Microsoft but because Netscape's own rapid success caused the company to stop innovating. Netscape did a totally competent job of working to leverage its lead -- but competence was exactly what the company didn't need.

The newly competent in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are guilty of another common mistake: They confuse speed with velocity. The culture of these revolutionary companies is to sprint as fast as possible -- all the time. Cars fill the parking lots at these companies on weekends. Want to reach someone in an office cube? Call at 10 PM. One woman I met last week lists on her business card seven different ways to contact her!

But this embrace of hard work and fast-for-fast's-sake misses the point. It doesn't take a lot of time to change your business plan radically, to reinvent your marketing proposition totally, or to redesign the way you deal with consumers completely. No, it doesn't take time; it takes will. The will to change. The will to take a risk. The will to become incompetent -- at least for a while.

Velocity is a company's ability to zig and zag and zoom -- to make significant changes when significant changes are necessary. And you can have velocity without speed: Driving around in circles may make your speedometer look impressive, but it won't get you across the country very fast.

Give me five serially incompetent 9-to-5 executives with a focus on velocity, and I can change the world -- over and over again. I may even get this addition on my house finished.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is permission-marketing yahoo! at Yahoo!

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4 Comments

  • Susan M. Davis

    Absolutely! As 'Change Agents' we all need to 'think  outside the box', 'push the envelope' and ZOOM!

    Absolutely! As 'Change Agents' (of any age) we all need to 'think outside the box', 'push the envelope' and ZOOM! Build on our 'competencies', for sure. Seth Godin
    is a wise-guy in most things. I do think he made a boo-boo though with his
    choices in regards to his remodeling experience: "fast, good, and
    cheap" are incongruent criteria for a satisfying experience, and doesn't
    have anything to do with 'competency'. I wonder if Seth would use the same
    criteria for choosing a plastic surgeon, a wedding planner, or, heck, a WRITER
    or MARKETING CONSULTANT? Even 'Zooming' takes time, experience &
    creativity, and investment!
    Seth . . . we need to talk! 

  • John Wikaniko

    Haha - Funny article. I share your pain. To get "fast," "good," and "cheap" is rare but I always seem to fall for the trap everytime!

    --
    John - Eco Products

  • Greg S

    I think the ability to react quickly and adapt is becoming more and more important. It is no longer true that 'knowledge is power' as information is so easy to get hold of. It's the ability to make use of the information and stay up to date that is important. Greg

  • Martin T

    That's a definition of competence that I hadn't heard before but I like! Sadly I work with a lot of 'competent' people and change certainly is something they are afraid of. MartinT