John R. Brandt is a rarity among leadership experts. Currently the CEO and founder of the MPI Group, Brandt also toiled in the journalistic trenches as the publisher and editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek. So not only can he speak authoritatively on leadership, he can also write with wit and vision. Brandt’s new book “Nincompoopery: Why Your Customers Hate You — And How to Fix It” blends corporate expertise with an acerbic yet insightful eye. Workforce Editorial Director Rick Bell caught up with Brandt via email.
Workforce: A nincompoop is defined as a foolish or stupid person. Define Nincompoopery.
John R. Brandt: We’re all nincompoops at one time or another; just ask your spouse, or if you’re really brave, your kids. But Nincompoopery is different: 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 when you expect a 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.
And: Nincompoopery happens all the time in our lives and our businesses. For example, maybe you’ve taken your car to a dealer to get fixed, waited several hours, and then find on the way home that the repair was done badly — or not at all. Now you have an irritating choice: Return to the dealer and wait all over again while the car is fixed a second time, or else drive an unsafe vehicle. You’re angry, the dealer 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 bothered to train and trust the mechanic on more than just technical skills—e.g., 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.
Workforce: Does Nincompoopery begin with any one foolish person or department?
Brandt: Unfortunately, it’s usually much broader than that. It typically starts when senior leaders create a culture in a department or across the organization in which legitimate concerns or complaints, whether from customers or employees, aren’t heard or tolerated. This can be due to suppression, when 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 gemba where real work is done (the production line, a service call) and where real customers live and work (in homes or businesses). Before you know it, leaders and workers alike start joking that their jobs would be terrific — if it weren’t for all their cranky, stupid customers. Here’s the problem: The customers aren’t stupid, but they are cranky, because not only are those leaders and workers screwing up, they’re ignoring their customers even as the customers try to help them. A customer complaint is the greatest gift you can receive, 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’re being given a chance to deepen your relationship with that customer. Why wouldn’t you respond positively to that?
Workforce: Is Nincompoopery exclusive to large organizations or is it prevalent in small companies, too?
Brandt: It’s somewhat more common in large organizations, because they generally have more momentum or inertia — whether via market share, incumbency, or capital advantages — than smaller companies, which means that bad behavior, idiotic decisions or zombie strategic plans can survive for longer in poorly run big corporations before profits dry up and owners demand change. But small organizations fall into the same trap, too, because this is such a human problem, i.e., 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. That’s why it’s so important for us to focus on listening, empathy, and exploring experiences and perceptions other than our own. The best way to do that is to have some sort of program in which every employee—from CEO to frontline worker—spends at least some time with a customer at least once a year. And: This time can’t be spent selling or attending the big game together. You have to figure out how to work directly alongside your 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 undermining the customer value you hope to create. Small companies, which are typically closer to their customers than large companies, should have a huge advantage here, but they often squander it.
Workforce: Can you offer an example of how HR may contribute to corporate nincompoopery?
Brandt: That’s a great question, because HR is incredibly well positioned to either fix or foster Nincompoopery. When you see companies struggling, you often find an HR function relegated to focusing on forms and policies instead of being unleashed to identify, attract, hire, develop and retain the best talent. By contrast, at great companies doing great things, you typically find an HR function with a mission that is more strategic than administrative — a team that’s included in visioning for the future; in creating goals, objectives and metrics for the organization beyond simple profit and productivity; and in making sure that a culture of respect, fairness and accountability is nourished.
Great HR teams do all this in many ways, but two stand out: First, they teach their organizations to hire differently. Managers tend to be resume-focused, looking for technical skills without thinking more broadly about what the organization needs beyond mere competence. Yes, if you’re running an airline, you have to have somebody who can actually fix a plane. But you have to look beyond that. You see companies like Southwest Airlines, which insists on competence as a minimum standard but actually hires for smarts, diligence and enthusiasm. There’s a reason that company has done so well.
Second, these great HR teams lead their organizations in emphasizing and implementing innovative strategies for employee development. They encourage training not just on technical skills, but also on communications, financial literacy, collaboration and improvement methodologies such as Lean or Six Sigma. This is critical because the nature of management has changed drastically; over the last 30 to 40 years, almost every successful business organization has adopted a decentralized model. To succeed, we have to put decision-making close to the customer, which means you really don’t see a command-and-control, hierarchical structure these days, except in organizations that deploy force. But if you’re going to put decision-making close to the customer, you need people who are trained well and can operate independently. It’s no accident that the single most important metric in predicting whether a company will perform well in the long run is how many hours of training it provides each employee annually.
Workforce: So we’ve defined it. Is there a remedy for Nincompoopery, no matter how entrenched it may be?
Brandt: Leaders at great companies organize their cultures around three deceptively simple strategies — innovation, talent and process. I say deceptively simple because obvious 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 Mad Libs-style workbooks is thrown at employees who already feel overwhelmed or checked out, with 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 dimwit who invested in it.
Contrast that idiocy, for example, with an example of real change. Plumbers Supply Co., a 250-employee distributor in Louisville, Kentucky, had an order fill rate of 95 percent, 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 percent 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 percent jump in productivity
Workforce: You say in the book that it’s ridiculously hard to be a leader these days. How does that complex job contribute to nincompoopery? And is that an excuse, given that so many jobs are incredibly challenging and hard?
Brandt: 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. Yet even as we connect people and the world’s population rises 7 percent between 2010 and 2020, the number of working-age employees will actually decline in many industrialized nations. No wonder we have skills shortages! And even when we’re connected, we’re often dazed and confused: with more than 6 billion smartphones projected worldwide by 2020, we’ve succeeded in creating an environment in which we and our employees can, if we want, work 24/7, checking our phones as many as 150 times per day. We think we should be more productive, thanks to all this connectivity, but research says we’re not, and that the biggest lie we’ve sold ourselves is the myth of increased productivity via multitasking. 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 only scratching the surface of everything we’re trying to manage in this brave new world. I don’t think it’s surprising at all that employees and managers feel overwhelmed, which often leads to paralysis — and Nincompoopery.
But just because we’re tired doesn’t mean that Nincompoopery can’t be fixed. In fact, the fix to a Nincompoopery problem is almost always not unknowable or impossible, but is instead easy to spot and simple to implement. Yet most of the time nobody—not employees, managers, or senior leaders — seems capable of overcoming tradition, inertia, and apathy to make simple changes that would save money and improve customer experience (and, ultimately, increase revenues and profits). Instead, most companies (and most employees and leaders) continue to do the same irritating things, in the same irritating ways, day after day, despite knowing better. Everybody in the company is to blame—and everybody is responsible for fixing it.
It’s interesting, too, because fixing Nincompoopery it is also in our own personal interest. Why? Because companies die from Nincompoopery all the time, slowly and painfully, and the jobs at those companies die, too. Which means you could spend years creating miserable customer experiences, and being miserable yourself, only to find yourself unemployed and with a terrible 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 90,000 hours that you’ll invest in work over your lifetime? Clocking in every day just to hate your company, resent your coworkers and customers, and despise yourself? That’s not a path to happiness, for either the organization or the individual. Do something hopeful and meaningful. Start trying to fix the Nincompoopery — or leave.
Workforce: One last question: Do you recall when and how the term nincompoopery crystallized for you? Were you in the middle of an interview, or reviewing your notes, or just out for a walk and it was like, nincompoopery!
Brandt: Three reasons for the title: 1. I’ve always love old-fashioned words: tomfoolery, bamboozle, numbskull, nitwit, nincompoop, etc. 2. I’ve always been a smart aleck, to the point where I was advised early in my career to watch myself, because, as one Big Boss told me, “I’ve seen humor kill more careers than anything else.” Oops. 3. I had a greeting card company based on terrible puns, and was considering a second line of cards called “Nincompoopery.” Fortunately, my daughter intervened: “Dad, I know you want to launch this new card line, but given what the book is about, and your personality, and the way it’s written, I really think you should use Nincompoopery as its title.” She was right, of course; everyone understands what Nincompoopery is, and hates it. Now let’s fix it.