Presume competence

Sun, 03/31/2002 - 7:00pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

Walter Ciciora
By Walter S Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues
Recently, my daughter had her first child. When she called to say she was going into the hospital, we packed the car and drove to be there a few hours after the baby was born. Because of a complication, the baby was in the intensive care unit for several days. Fortunately, there really was no problem. But this became another occasion to spend some time with my son-in-law. He is an electrical engineer (my daughter is a mechanical engineer), so we naturally have common interests. We discussed a number of things. One of the most memorable topics he brought up was a story of a former boss who had an important message pertaining to interpersonal relationships in the work place.

The message was simple but profound: "presume competence." In thinking about this, it became clear that most of the time we do the opposite. We assume that we are given faulty information, that the other person doesn't really understand what is going on, or that we can quickly come up with a better solution. The consequence of this attitude is wasted time, wasted money, delays, and damaged relationships.

Technologists are infamous for NIH– "Not Invented Here." This is a personality defect that stems from a number of character deficiencies including arrogance, laziness, envy of another's creativity, impatience and lack of manners. NIH is most often very wasteful, destructive of interpersonal relationships, and a major cause for failure to meet schedules and budgets.

Nearly all of us have seen it. It often appears in the unwillingness to allow someone to finish a sentence before interrupting with another thought. If an idea is short enough to be fully presented before an interruption, NIH immediately brings forth a "better" idea, that upon careful examination, is really just an alternate idea.

Because of NIH, it is almost impossible to get another technologist to implement your ideas, no matter how good they are. The other technologist would much rather work on his or her own ideas. This is especially the case if the "other technologist" is a peer or a superior. But the problem persists even with subordinates. It is very likely that a subordinate will either ignore the request to pursue another concept, delay getting to it, or implement it in a half-hearted way that ensures failure. It takes management skill and diligence to get a new idea tried that was not originated by the individual asked to build it.

In these troubled financial times, a large number of promising technology start-up companies have run out of money and have been acquired as an alternative to bankruptcy. In these situations, NIH is a serious threat to survival of the acquired innovation and even the new company. That is because the technologists from the acquiring firm are likely to view the ideas from the acquired firm as threatening. They worry that management will see them as not having been sufficiently innovative, requiring the acquisition to provide a better way. There may be a desire to prove management wrong by demonstrating that the new innovation from the acquired company doesn't work. They would rather start with a "clean sheet of paper" and invent a new approach. In their haste, they may even duplicate what has already been done. Hard feelings and conflict are likely to result. Management must be careful to prevent such waste.

A similar situation happens when one high-tech company is sold to another high-tech company because the first company lacks the resources–usually money or personnel–to carry the innovation to market, and the second company believes it can make a business based on the acquired technology. The technologists in the acquiring company will view with disdain any implication that they should simply finish the job. They will usually begin by implying that what was acquired really won't work and they have to innovate to "save" the project. Had they been given the resources spent in making the acquisition, they will insist, they could have done it far cheaper and much sooner.

So they launch on an approach they believe to be new, but which actually is based on their previous experiences. A year or two later, they are in trouble. The task was not as simple as they assumed. It becomes clear that the original inventors were not so dumb after all. In fact, the original approach is eventually implemented, but disguised as much as possible to minimize embarrassment. A lot of time and money are wasted, ill feelings are created between the two groups of technologists, and the acquiring company faces collapse.

How do we combat this corrosive tendency in technologists? The answer is simpler than it might seem. My son-in-law provided the answer: make a habit of applying the simple rule "presume competence."

Until there is clear evidence to the contrary, assume you are dealing with competent people. Don't jump to the conclusion that they must be dumber than you are. Frequently, there is a mismatch between their ability to present their ideas and your level of patience. Learn to make them comfortable and bring out a full description of their approach. Be humble enough to complete their concept, and don't insist on going your own way.

In your organization, with your peers and your subordinates, "presume competence." Avoid talking negatively of others because that builds a contrary attitude. Nearly all of our colleagues are highly competent. Make that presumption!

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