Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Assumptions of competence

with 2 comments

In a recent post, I wrote: “…most folks don’t really need to be managed because they’re competent at what they do, and go about doing their jobs in a generally diligent manner.”

On reading this an old friend wrote to me saying, “I am sincerely of the opinion that most people are not competent at their jobs…”  And a bit later in the same message, “If you are looking for quality and excellence, don’t expect to find it in business and corporate culture.”

Incidentally, he is an independent consultant with over fifteen years experience, much of it gained in  large corporations . His observations regarding the general lack of competence and quality in the business world must, therefore,  be taken seriously.  Nevertheless, I reckon he’s at least partly off the mark: I believe it behooves managers to  begin with the assumption that people are competent, and that they want to do high-quality work.

Let me start my case with three stories which may sound familiar:

Jim is a developer at the regional office of a large multinational. He is overloaded with work, typically working on at least two (often three) major projects concurrently. As a consequence he cannot do justice to any of them.  It is clear that Jim will not meet the deadlines on any of the projects. Though it is clear that his situation has been caused by poor management, he’ll be the one carrying the can.

Tracy is an experienced database programmer working on a large project. She has worked on similar projects before, and is arguably the best person to provide technical input regarding the design and implementation of database program modules for the product. Yet, her manager insists that every suggestion she makes be approved by him prior to presentation to the team, often adding his two-cents to her designs.  Of late the team has noticed that Tracy has been unusually quiet during project meetings.

Sanjay has been working as an ERP adminstrator for a while.  He has the job well under control, and is looking to pick up some new skills. The company he works for has just purchased a large number of licenses for a major business intelligence platform, so there’s going to be plenty of work building new reports.   Sanjay knows this area is under-resourced: there’s only one person working on the new platform, right from metadata design to creating reports. Clearly, this person could use some help, and it’s a perfect opportunity for Sanjay to pick up new skills.  Sanjay approaches his manager for permission to get involved,  but the manager refuses outright.

Sooner or later…

Jim’s blamed for the failure of his project(s).

Tracy has lost interest in her job.

Sanjay’s administering his ERP system competently enough, but spends his (considerable) free time surfing the Net. He’s bored, and makes no effort to hide it.

To a casual onlooker it may appear that Jim, Tracy and Sanjay “are not competent at their jobs”, but that is a superficial observation. The real problem is that they are no longer motivated by their work. The basic reason for their demotivation is bad management. More specifically:

Jim’s expected to achieve the unreasonable or impossible.

Tracy isn’t empowered to make decisions that affect her work.

Sanjay isn’t given the opportunity to learn new skills.

Fact of the matter is, these folks want to succeed at their jobs and even go beyond  their job description, but they aren’t given the support, opportunity and / or the means to do so.

I did say my friend’s partially right, and he is: with a demotivated team, quality and excellence and all those wonderful things we’re supposed to strive for in the workplace aren’t going to happen.  The question is, who is responsible?  As Deming mentions in his management / quality classic, Out of The Crisis, the fault lies largely with management.  I agree, but many don’t.  I’d be  interested in hearing what you think. Do let me know through your comments.

Written by K

October 28, 2008 at 11:03 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I really think that you are right on.
    I worked once in a company with ahigh level of instability. Lay offs after lay offs, the company tried to regain flexibility and efficiency (and also reducing cost). I always though that was a very bad strategy but thatśanother debate.
    The point his, I know a lot of people that get fired from this company with almost everybody tagging them as incompetent.
    Few months later they all found very good positions in other companeis where they are now very good performers.
    Hence, I think that incompetence is more a problem of the structure than a problem of the person. The employee is easily tagged as incompetent, but he is maybe in the wrong position, or maybe he is lost due to the lack of roles and responsibilities definitions, or lack of leadership…
    I think it’s pretty rare when the problem is only with the employee, most of the time the problem is the management (or the lack of…)


    November 16, 2008 at 1:55 am

  2. Cyril,

    Thanks for the real-life example. The three anecdotes I’ve mentioned in the post are based on incidents that occurred at companies where I worked as a consultant (often one can see things more clearly as an outsider!).

    Having observed and analysed many such situations, I too am convinced that the problem is most often a consequence of poor management.




    November 16, 2008 at 4:28 pm

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