Nincompoopery: Has It Crept Into Your Workplace?

“People are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.”

That may sound like a line from a comedian. But it’s actually from Bertrand Russell. You know—the British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, essayist, social critic and Nobel laureate. Not known for comedy.

Intentionally or not, Russell provided a fair description of what often occurs in organizational cultures: Rules masquerade as reason. Sketchy thinking becomes strategy. Hair-brained ideas become products destined for the discount warehouse. Unchallenged nonsense evolves into the status quo. People go along to get along. 

Such unproductive environments are rarely the work of a single person. This kind of imprudence is nearly always a group activity, a collusion of silent partners.

The result is what management innovator John Brandt calls Nincompoopery.

Yes, it’s a made-up word. But of course all words are made up. And this one aptly describes behaviors that can frustrate managers, demoralize employees, and run customers to the competition.

Brandt offers some excellent antidotes in Nincompoopery: Why Your Customers Hate You—And How to Fix It.

Rodger Dean Duncan: You say individual nincompoops are not the big problem, it’s the nincompoopery—i.e., the meta-foolishness—of the companies and systems in which people are forced to work. Give us a couple of high-profile examples of nincompoopery in the workplace.

John Brandt

John R. Brandt: When the Segway was introduced, the company predicted sales of 10,000 per week—at $5,000 each. Unfortunately, as cool as a stand-up, self-balancing, motorized scooter may be, most people couldn’t imagine why they needed one. Segway ended up lowering its prices and focusing mainly on police, industrial, and tourism markets—and sold 24,000 over the first five years (or roughly 2,576,000 fewer units—and about $13 billion less in revenue—than expected), at lower margins.

This is innovation nincompoopery on a grand scale. Too many leaders believe that innovation is only or mostly about technological wizardry. It’s not. In fact, if your technological innovation is too early—before customers see a clear need and payoff in adopting a new technology, which experience has taught them is likely to be painful, prolonged, and often unrewarding—you’re in big trouble. There’s no lonelier feeling than trying to convince customers to buy something they’ve never heard of and don’t understand, while commanding a premium price. Evangelism has its rewards, but they’re usually redeemed far in the future, or after you’re dead. Neither time frame is helpful in delivering profits today.

Another great example of how important (and lucrative) it can be for companies to manage and minimize their own nincompoopery is what McKinsey & Company calls the “moment of truth.” This is when there’s an opportunity for something to go dramatically right with a customer, or, perhaps more often, immediately after something goes drastically wrong. How we respond—with empathy or apathy— will shape our relationship with that customer forever.

A study in Europe found that 87%of bank customers who had positive experiences during moments of truth (a check put on hold, a bank error, receiving financial advice) increased their share of wallet with the bank. Just as telling: 72% of customers who had negative experiences downsized their relationships with the bank. Banks—and other companies—win or lose based on how well they minimize nincompoopery.

Duncan: Why—and how—do smart, well-intentioned people fall into a pattern of nincompoopery? What are the early warning signs?

Brandt: Part of it is human nature. We get comfortable, we fall into routines, and we find ways to slip past our own unease at the fact that things don’t work as well as they should. Or, even worse, we start ignoring or ridiculing the frustration of our customers.

How many times have you heard someone say, in jest or not, that their job or business would be terrific—if it weren’t for their cranky, stupid customers? Newsflash: Those customers aren’t stupid, but they are cranky because not only are you screwing up, you’re not listening to them even as they try to help you. A customer complaint is a gift, because the customer is saying that he or she cares enough about you, and what you do, that he or she wants you to do it better. You’ve been given a chance to deepen your relationship with that customer.

So the clearest warning sign of impending nincompoopery is when senior leaders create a culture in which legitimate concerns or complaints, whether from customers or employees, aren’t heard or tolerated. This can be due to active suppression, as leaders stifle dissent or disagreement because they see them as challenges to authority. Or it can be slower and more insidious, as leaders avoid the place where real work is done (the production line, a service call) and where real customers live and work (in homes or businesses).

Net promoter scores and customer satisfaction surveys are no substitute for listening to real people who buy things from you, and the employees who help them. 

Duncan: What do you see as some of the trends that make it challenging for leaders to avoid nincompoopery?

Brandt: Think about the amount and speed of change we’re wrestling with: The original telephone needed 50 years to move from 5% to 50% reach into US households. Smartphones went from 5% to 40% in four years—duringthe worst economic downturn in 70 years.

Globally, the number of Internet users reached 3.9 billion in 2018, roughly half the world’s population. Yet even as we connect to others, we’re individually dazed and confused. With more than six billion smartphones projected worldwide by 2020, we’ve created an environment in which we and our employees can, if we want to, work 24/7, checking our phones up to 150 times a day. We think we’re all more productive, thanks to connectivity and multitasking, but research says we’re not. In fact, we lose up to 40% of our productivity by switching between tasks. The more we switch, the worse our performance.

And that’s just scratching the surface of what we’re trying to manage. Employees and managers are overwhelmed, which can lead to decision fatigue and paralysis—and nincompoopery.

Procedure manuals often contain unintended nincompoopery.

Duncan: What sort of “audit” can be done to identify and begin the eradication of corporate nincompoopery?

Brandt: It comes back to listening. If your organization doesn’t have a program in which every employee—from CEO or owner to frontline workers—spends at least some time with a customer at least once per year, you can’t expect to outperform competitors, or maybe survive. And this time can’t be spent selling or attending the big game. You have to figure out how to work directly alongside the customer, in his or her workplace or home, observing how he or she operates in his or her own environment. This is the only way to identify nagging problems and new challenges that you can solve, as well as finding out how badly you’re currently goofing up on your responsibilities.

Small companies, which are often closer to their customers than large companies, should have a huge advantage here, though they often squander it.

Duncan: What can an individual worker do to avoid falling victim to corporate nincompoopery? 

Brandt: There are lots of people stuck in their current jobs, regardless of how nincompoopish their company is, because they need healthcare or have other reasons that make change impossible. I feel for them. Yet most everybody else has a choice: Start looking for and fixing the nincompoopery around you—or quit. Both are scary. There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get others to work with you in eliminating the nincompoopery that’s making your lives—and those of your customers—miserable. But the bigger risk, economically and emotionally, is staying.

Companies die from nincompoopery all the time. The jobs at those companies die, too.  Which means you could spend years being miserable, then find yourself unemployed, and have the name of an awful company at the top of your resume. And even if the company or your job doesn’t die, how do you want to spend the next 10, 20, or 50 years of your life? Showing up every morning just to hate your company, boss, coworkers, customers, and yourself? No, thank you. Do something hopeful. Be a pragmatic optimist. Fix the nincompoopery—or leave.

Duncan: Leaders of top-performing companies, you say, organize their cultures around what you describe as three deceptively simple strategies—Innovation, Talent, and Process. Because those strategies are available to almost every organization, why don’t more companies thrive?

Brandt: Mostly because as simple as they seem, they’re really hard to do well.

Each strategy incorporates broad principles that successful organizations embrace, but those principles have to be implemented in customized ways that celebrate and reinforce an organization’s unique mission, culture, structure, and market. That’s one reason so many consulting engagements fail: a cookie-cutter system with a clever name and fill-in-the-blank workbooks is dropped onto employees who already feel overwhelmed or disaffected, with utterly predictable results (i.e., none). Leaders often underestimate how smart their employees are. When management-by-desperate-adoption-of-a-new-system happens repeatedly, often on a two- or three-year cycle, employees learn that they can usually wait out either the system or the nitwit who invested in it.

Contrast that idiocy, for example, with an example of real change. Plumbers Supply Company, a 250-employee distributor in Louisville, Kentucky, had an order fill rate of 95%, which seems impressive until you realize that missing even one item (much less five) out of a one-hundred-part-order can bring an entire construction project to a dead stop. Plumbers Supply responded by adopting a lean improvement methodology focused on a new measurement:100% complete order fill rate. Did we ship everything the customer wanted, on time? The new metric uncovered a host of process problems throughout the organization. With outside help, the company invested in three years of intense analysis and workflow changes. The result? A renewed customer focus and higher margins, driven by a 20% jump in productivity. 

Duncan: Finding—and retaining—the best talent is critically important in any company. What’s your advice on identifying and hiring top talent? 

Brandt: Great employees and leaders are made, not born. But you can’t hire just anyone and magically transform them into model colleagues. Skills and experience matter, but character matters even more. That might seem old-fashioned, but when a moment of truth arises with a customer—a shipment is late, an invoice is wrong—and you’re not around, who do you want making decisions? Someone with a good-looking resume but no empathy or spine? Or someone less experienced who cares deeply about doing the right thing?

It’s no accident that leading companies recruit for smarts, diligence, and caring. For more than 40 years, Southwest Airlines’ success has been built on finding people with the right priorities. It’s not easy. In 2015, the company received nearly 300,000 applications, interviewed more than 100,000 candidates, and hired fewer than 7,000 employees (roughly 2% of all applicants).

Here’s what Julie Weber, Southwest’s VP of people, wrote—“We talk about hiring not for skills but three attributes: (1) A warrior spirit (that is, a desire to excel, act with courage, persevere and innovate); (2) a servant’s heart (the ability to put others first, treat everyone with respect and proactively serve customers); and (3) a fun-loving attitude (passion, joy, and an aversion to taking oneself too seriously).”

Duncan: If you were starting a new organization, what are the first things you would do to ensure that the culture would not devolve into nincompoopery? 

Brandt: I’d start with a mission statement for the organization, and an idea for whom we would serve, and how. But I would absolutely not have a long-term strategic plan until we’d been in business for at least a year. Why? Because if you have a general idea of whom you’re going to serve, and how, the first and most important question you need to answer is—Who do I want with me in this foxhole? And then—What kind of a culture do I want to live in, that will also be successful?

You can screw up everything else, but if you pick the right people, and set up the right listening culture, everything will be okay, or even better than okay.

After that, I’d develop the longer-term strategic plan by working with my target customers and asking what they need, in their facilities or homes, and what they would pay for it. Then I’d analyze—and set up a process to continually analyze—how we’re delivering the value that customers want, and how we can improve it (while maintaining excellent margins for ourselves, because we need to succeed, too).

Finally, I’d give myself a five-year deadline to reevaluate every single thing I thought I knew about the business, because things change that fast.

That may sound crazy—no strategic plan?—but it works. Start with mission, find the right people, work on culture, ask customers what they want, keep fixing processes, and then start over.

Rinse, repeat. It’s not easy. But it’s not rocket science, either.





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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
Rodger Dean Duncan

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