Competence vs Courage

Competence is not the same thing as imagination. – Seth Godin
We had to let go off a colleague at work a few months back. She was extremely competent at her work but, she was totally resistant to change. She wasn’t willing to unlearn things that she had acquired from her previous firm to make way for things in the new context. As a result, it turned into an attitude problem.
As a recruiter and an HR professional, this was a lesson for me. Competence is simply not enough. More often that not, it’s a hindrance to accepting possibilities. Competence is useless if you aren’t willing to embrace change according to the context. The below excerpt from an article at Fast Company might resonate with you if you have ever hired any candidate in your team.
Competent people have a predictable, reliable process for solving a particular set of problems. They solve a problem the same way, every time. That’s what makes them reliable. That’s what makes them competent.
Competent people are quite proud of the status and success that they get out of being competent. They like being competent. They guard their competence, and they work hard to maintain it.
Bob Dylan, on the other hand, is an incompetent musician. From year to year, from concert to concert, there’s just no way to be sure that he’ll deliver exactly what you’re expecting. Sometimes, he blows the world away with his insight, his energy, and his performance. Other times, he’s just so-so. And, unlike a truly competent musician, Dylan never delivers a song the same way twice. Remember Dylan’s Grammy-winning “Time Out of Mind” album? About the only thing you can be sure of is that when he plays a song from that album in concert, it won’t sound anything like the studio version. No, Dylan isn’t competent. But he is brilliant.
Today, it’s much harder to make a bad car, because robots are measuring everything. It’s much harder to be an incompetent directory-assistance operator because computers are handling so much of the work.
Oh, there’s one other thing: As we’ve turned human beings into competent components of the giant network known as American business, we’ve also erected huge barriers to change.
In fact, competence is the enemy of change!
Competent people resist change. Why? Because change threatens to make them less competent. And competent people like being competent. That’s who they are, and sometimes that’s all they’ve got. No wonder they’re not in a hurry to rock the boat.
Do you work for a competent company? A company in which people are hired because they’ve done a certain job before, in which the upward path is slow and the sideways path is nonexistent? Such companies are especially frustrating to the internal (or the external) change agent.
In the face of change, the competent are helpless. Change means a temporary or permanent threat to their competence. But among the competent, the smart ones realize that change is inevitable, that shift happens — and thus that they are doomed. Hence the tremendous discomfort among our happily competent population.
In the face of change, some of us are becoming competent at zooming: Our tool set includes the ability to move from opportunity to opportunity — doing the same thing, only differently. It’s this new breed of competents, of people who in another age might be labeled “incompetent,” who are going to lead us through the changes that we encounter.
Here’s the weird thing: I think that the incompetent among us are stars in the making. Not the folks who are incompetent because they can’t do any better. No, I mean the folks who had the option to become competent but chose to try something new.
The next time you review résumés, try ignoring all of the “perfectly qualified” applicants. In fact, disqualify everyone who is clearly competent to do the job at hand. Do what Southwest Airlines does: Don’t hire people with experience at another airline unless you’re sure that they can unlearn what they’ve learned at that other airline. “Competence” is too often another word for “bad attitude.” Instead, find the serial incompetents — the folks who are quick enough to master a task and restless enough to try something new. The zoomers.
Competence can be self-limiting and as a result, we tend to develop a sour mindset.
All of us like being competent, respected and successful. When something shows up to undo all of those things, then it’s really easy to avoid it. What goes hand in hand with that is the sour mindset. That we are not getting what we deserve, the world is not fair, why should I even bother – it’s probably not going to work.
Even though more experienced people naturally tend to be more competent, it doesn’t necessarily imply recruiting lesser experienced people is a good solution.
As we get more experienced, we get better, more competent, more able to do our thing.
We often stop surprising ourselves (and the market) not because we’re no good anymore, but because we are good. So good that we avoid opportunities that bring possibility.
And it’s easy to fall in love with that competence, to appreciate it and protect it. The pitfall? We close ourselves off from possibility.
Possibility, innovation, art–these are endeavors that not only bring the whiff of failure, they also require us to do something we’re not proven to be good at. After all, if we were so good at it that the outcome was assured, there’d be no sense of possibility.
It’s surprising that so many of the new companies that are creating wealth today are run and staffed by very young people. Because they have very little work history, these people haven’t fallen prey to becoming competent. They don’t have to unlearn bad habits. They’re not interested in maintaining their competencies — because, frankly, they don’t have any.
But this reliance on the young is dangerous. Why? Because as these new companies get locked into a successful business model, they create a layer of very successful, very young, and in some cases very arrogant managers. And these managers are the most dangerous competents of all: the ones who will do everything in their power to fight the next round of necessary changes because they’re in love with their newfound competence.
The newly competent in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are guilty of another common mistake: They confuse speed with velocity.
Velocity is a company’s ability to zig and zag and zoom — to make significant changes when significant changes are necessary. And you can have velocity without speed: Driving around in circles may make your speedometer look impressive, but it won’t get you across the country very fast.
Give me five serially incompetent 9-to-5 executives with a focus on velocity, and I can change the world — over and over again.
Instead of being more competent, we must redefine ourselves as people who can make an impact on the world. In order to do that, we must change our narrative.
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