Sunday, April 12, 2009

Simple competence

Today marks the 4th anniversary of these posts. I see this activity as a mental health outlet. And it's clearly practice. I enjoy the subject of sustainable enterprise and sustainable work and want to write and talk more about it.

Remember, sustainable doesn't mean you save the whales first. Sustainable means keeping you and your enterprise going. You make real progress. You grow. You get more competent and independent. You keep excellent books. You capture data professionally. Your enterprise grows in value in every way. If you crash and burn, both you and the whales are toast. That is what I mean by sustainable.

To be sustainable, that is to grow and build value, requires competence. It does not require star quality entrepreneur mojo.

I read a great piece in the April 13 Business Week by Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford.

The article is titled, "In Praise of Simple Competence".

The basis of this is the Peter Principle, the idea that people are promoted until they run out of skills to accomplish the growing amount and complexity of tasks we ask of them. Then we all have to live with their incompetence.

As Mr. Sutton writes, "If Dr. Peter (The Peter Principle) were alive today, he'd find that a new lust for superhuman accomplishments has helped create an almost unprecedented level of incompetence. The message has been this: Perform extraordinary feats or consider yourself a loser. We are now struggling to stay afloat in a river of snake oil created by this way of thinking."

The thing I've learned to do that might be the most valuable contribution I can make to someone thinking about their own startup is to give them permission. You can do this. Surely you need competence, but that's all. You do not need to reach for the unattainable. You can build a successful, growing, sustainable enterprise. If you are realistic, your enterprise can be one that matches your needs and your timeline.

With small businesses and startups, remember to fail early and often. That's not permission. That's an order. I've said this forever, and I continue to prove it myself every day. You will fail. Do so cheaply, non-catastrophically, and learn from every one.

This is my bedrock foundation for approaching enterprise. You can do it. You will make mistakes and not get it right. It will likely take longer than you think. Go forward and scramble.

In support of this two great quotes: the first from my favorite business sage, Tom Peters, the second from Arthur Lefler, current CEO of Proctor and Gamble.

"Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast." - Tom Peters

"You learn more from failure than you do from success but the key is to fail early, fail cheaply, and don't make the same mistake twice." - Proctor and Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley (story link below).

It's fun when really smart people back up what you know to be as true as anything that exists in the world of enterprise.

This is the solution. Simple competence. It is not the ability to avoid mistakes but to live with them, to keep their damage manageable and their lessons valuable.

I'd wanted to start writing about this stuff long ago but was always afraid I wouldn't be good enough or that it wouldn't instantly get to the New York Times' best seller list.

Then it hit me one night, sitting in a hotel room in Dubuque, Iowa. I couldn't do one more thing that day. I was dead tired and covered in oil and fatigue from the startup of one of our industrial fluid recyclers at the local John Deere plant.

I decided to write down a couple of ideas that I'd learned that day about what I wanted to do with my life. It didn't have to be on the best seller list. It needed to be a competent presentation of what I know to be true about doing enterprise. Good enough. An action step.

That was four years ago today. Still practicing. Still touting the joys of simple competence and inviting you into the world of sustainable work.

C'mon along for the next four years. I see a LOT of interesting work on the horizon.

In Praise of Simple Competence. Business week article by Bob Sutton. April 13, 2009. Online version titled "the Peter Principle Still Lives.

How P&G Plans to Clean Up
Business Week April 13, 2009.

Tom Peters

First post and mission statement April 12, 2005

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