How to Spot and Eliminate Nincompoopery at Your Business

John Brandt, CEO and founder of The MPI Group and author of Nincompoopery: Why Your Customers Hate You—and How to Fix It, recently answered questions on customer satisfaction, hiring, innovation and leading change. 

What is Nincompoopery?

It’s the corporate stupidity that drives customers crazy, and keeps everyone—customers, employees, managers and business owners—from getting what they want. It’s what happens every time you expect a company’s service or product or process to work, but it doesn’t—and nobody can seem to fix it, even though everybody knows what’s wrong.

For example: Have you ever taken your car to get fixed, been inconvenienced for several hours as you waited, only to discover that the repair was done badly or not at all? Not only do you have to take the car back; you also have to wait again as the car is fixed a second time, or else drive an unsafe vehicle. You’re irritated, the shop loses money, the mechanic’s boss is frustrated, and the mechanic is told that he or she is a nincompoop, or at least feels like one.

But it’s never the nincompoop, it’s always the Nincompoopery. Because if the repair shop had trained and trusted the mechanic on more than just technical skills—for example, process improvement methodologies or the revenue and profit implications of his or her work—then he or she might have created an innovative way to review his or her work (a checklist, maybe?) to prevent sloppy errors and wasted time. Satisfied customers would feel more confident in their repairs, the shop would make more money, and the mechanic wouldn’t look or feel like a nincompoop.

Why is Nincompoopery more rampant now than ever?

Mostly because it’s more difficult to lead an organization than ever before, due to a confluence of leadership trends and external factors. Think about the amount and speed of change we’re wrestling with: The number of internet users reached 3.9 billion in 2018, roughly half the world’s population.

“Employees and managers feel overwhelmed, which leads to decision fatigue and paralysis—and Nincompoopery.”

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, work 24/7, checking our phones up to 150 times a day. We think we’re all more productive, thanks to all this connectivity and multitasking, but research says we’re not. In fact, we lose up to 40 percent 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 feel overwhelmed, which leads to decision fatigue and paralysis—and Nincompoopery.

You state that innovation is one of the keys to creating an Anti-Nincompoopery plan. What advice would you offer to small business owners trying to be more innovative?

I can’t stress this enough: if your organization doesn’t have a program in which every employee—from CEO or owner to frontline worker—spends at least some time with a customer at least once per year, you can’t innovate.

And this time can’t be spent pitching or selling or attending the big game together. 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.

“Too many leaders rely solely on satisfaction surveys or net promoter scores to judge how well their organizations are doing with customers.”

This is the only way to identify nagging problems and new challenges that you can solve via innovation. Too many leaders rely solely on satisfaction surveys or net promoter scores to judge how well their organizations are doing with customers. I mean: It’s nice to get a good grade from your customers on what you did yesterday, but how does that tell you what they might buy tomorrow—whether from you or a competitor?

Small companies, which are typically closer to their customers than large companies, should have a huge advantage here. Use it.

Forty-one percent of U.S. firms lost more than US$25,000 from a bad hire in the last year, and predictions are being made that there will be a shortfall of some five million skilled workers by 2020. How can companies find and retain the best talent?

It’s hard to find the right people because they only become the right people after they’ve been hired the right way, trained the right way and gained the right experience at your company. Great employees and leaders are made, not born. But this doesn’t mean that you can hire just anyone and then magically transform them into model employees.

So, who should you hire? Skills and experience matter, but character matters more. This may seem old-fashioned, but when that moment of truth with a customer arrives and you’re nowhere to be found, who do you want making decisions? Someone with a good-looking resume but no empathy or spine? Or someone less experienced but who cares desperately about doing the right thing?

Leading companies recruit for smarts, diligence and caring. For more than forty 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 less than 7,000 employees (roughly two percent of all applicants). Here’s what Julie Weber, their VP of people, wrote: “We talk about hiring not for skills but three attributes. A warrior spirit (that is, a desire to excel, act with courage, persevere and innovate); a servant’s heart (the ability to put others first, treat everyone with respect and proactively serve customers); and a fun-loving attitude (passion, joy and an aversion to taking oneself too seriously).”

You describe three requirements for change in the book. What are they, and how can leaders manage them?

Whenever you lead change, you have to expect—maybe even embrace—resistance. Why? Because it’s a warning sign that you need to pay attention to something deeper than the change itself.

Resistance isn’t usually about you or the change itself, but about the anxiety that change inspires among your bosses, colleagues and employees.

This anxiety usually correlates closely with three primal needs:

  • security
  • relationships
  • meaning
  • For security, people need to feel safe. They need to know that their incomes and their persons are secure, and that change won’t increase their level of worry or insecurity in the long run. It’s helpful if you can truthfully outline how, in a best-case scenario, change could increase their security and comfort. Unfortunately, during change, you may not be able to guarantee security.

    For relationships, people need to know that their feelings, relationships and social status will be considered during change, even if they can’t be preserved or protected in their current states. Given a chance, people are generally reasonable and understand that during change, roles and relative statuses may evolve; this is uncomfortable, but can be accepted if they know that they’ll be respected.

    For meaning, ten thousand years of history teaches us that once we know that we’ll survive, and that our relationships are secure, we turn our attention to meaning: What is my life about? In asking this question, most of us seek to find how our existences connect to something larger. For most people, primary meaning can be found in a combination of faith, values, family and community.

    But a secondary longing for meaning relates to our schedules; given that most of us will spend 90,000 hours at work, we hope that it will serve a purpose deeper than just money.

    Any time you lead change, you need to pay at least as much attention—maybe more—to these three needs as you do to the change itself.

    John R. Brandt, CEO and founder of The MPI Group, has devoted more than two decades to studying leadership in effective, purpose-driven organizations. Brandt is an accomplished management innovator and an internationally recognized expert on manufacturing, technology and performance measurement.

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