In 2007 I wrote about forming the Competence Party. I’d have loved to do it, and would have if only I was competent to form a political party.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the first election since then in which competence is an actual issue — something voters are paying attention to when deciding who to vote for.

So without commenting on either candidate’s competence track record, and in case you haven’t yet cast your ballot, let me encourage you to skip character as an issue no matter how tempting it might be as a differentiator. Character does and should matter, but there are in fact times when we care less if someone is a sphincter than we care if that someone is a sphincter who’s on our side.

The “He might be a sphincter but he’s my sphincter” philosophy has its limits though, namely, that sphincters exhibit neither consistency nor loyalty.

Let me also encourage you to skip the “Who would you rather have a beer with?” criterion, not only because the question finishes with a preposition, but also on the grounds that it’s profoundly stupid.

Competence shouldn’t be a deciding factor either, but only because we should be able to assume it. It should be the ante that lets a candidate play the game, not the hand that wins it.

But here we are. And so, in case you’re still undecided, or if you’d like the list of Competence Party principles to support something more prosaic, like, for example, hiring a manager or making sure your own management style is predicated on competence, here’s the list for whatever use you’d care to put it to:

  • We will know what we want to accomplish, be clear in how we describe it, and know why it’s a good idea.
  • We will concentrate our efforts on a small number of important goals, recognizing that if we try to accomplish everything we’ll end up accomplishing nothing.
  • We will be realistic. We will choose courses of action only from among those possibilities predicated on all physical objects obeying the laws of physics, human nature not somehow changing for the better, and what has gone wrong in the past having something useful to teach us.
  • Our decisions will always begin by examining the evidence. And we will recognize that when our cherished principles collide with the evidence, the evidence wins. Every time.
  • With new evidence we will reconsider old decisions. Without it, we won’t.
  • We will never mistake our personal experience for hard evidence. Personal experience is the evidence we know best. It’s also a biased sample.
  • We will think first, plan next, and only then act. The only exception is a true emergency, where making any decision in the next two minutes is better than making the right decision sometime in the next several days.
  • We will never mistake hope for a plan. A plan describes what everyone has to do, in what order, to achieve a goal. Vague intentions and platitudes don’t.
  • We will sweat the details. Vague intentions and platitudes don’t have any, which is why those who stop with them always fail.
  • We will put the most qualified person we can find in every position. We’ll find some other way to reward high-dollar campaign contributors. Also, if we find someone is not able to succeed at what we’ve asked them to do, we’ll replace them with someone who is.
  • We will never blame anything on the law of unintended consequences. Our job is to foresee consequences, which we can usually do if we think things through.

You might think I crafted these based on current events to sway your vote to a specific candidate. Well, I did base these principles on events, only they were current in 2007, not 2020.

Also: If you’re applying these principles to hiring a new manager, this isn’t exactly the same as deciding who to vote for in a presidential election. In particular, when hiring a manager, or any other position for that matter, you don’t have to settle, and shouldn’t.

When hiring, good enough is rarely good enough. When voting, in contrast, the slate of candidates is it. Pick the best from the list of those who might possibly win.

Exclude those who can’t possibly win because otherwise your vote will count as a half vote for a candidate you’d otherwise vote against.

One more thing: Whether you agree with the Competence Party’s list of principles as a way to decide who to vote for, or you have other criteria you like better, vote.

Unless you disagree with me. Then, please abstain. Your non-vote will only make my own vote count for more.

Is your organization performing as well as it should? As it could?

Do you know? Can you know?

Random notions on the subject:

Notion #1: If you’re confident your organization is performing as well as it could, you’re right by definition. Neither you nor anyone reporting to you will try to improve it because why would you?

If, on the other hand, you’re confident it could be better and you’re wrong, you might do some damage, because if your organization is already doing as well as possible, the best any change can achieve is neutrality. That’s the best outcome. The rest must leave you worse off than where you started.

Notion #2: Benchmarks were popular because an executive could use them to “prove” a recalcitrant manager wasn’t performing as well as possible. They were flawed because they rarely avoided the sin of apples-to-basket-of-randomly-assembled-fruit comparisons.

“Best practices” have replaced them as the flogging tool of choice for those whose closest level of descent is 50,000 feet (15,240 meters if you’ve adopted altitude-measurement best practices).

Best practices are popular because what they prescribe rarely matches how we do things around here. Which means the manager responsible for following less-than-best practices surely deserves a whuppin’.

True story: I once saw a consultant’s PowerPoint slide that promised to “… institute best practices followed by a program of continuous improvement.”

Ahem. If the practices are best they can’t be improved. If they can be improved, continuously or otherwise, they aren’t best yet.

As the KJR Manifesto pointed out there are no best practices, only practices that fit best. Most so-called best practices are one-size-fits-no-one off-the-rack pants. They’re too small for your waist and too short for your inseam, but your boss insists you wear them anyway.

Notion #3: Fixing the root cause isn’t always the best way to deal with a problem.

Imagine, for example, that you, like me, suffer from cluster headaches. Your research determines the root cause is spontaneous activation of nociceptive pathways.

So what. We can’t do anything about the root cause. I don’t even know what the root cause means.

What we can do is take Sumatriptan as soon as a headache starts and wait 15 minutes or so for it to take effect.

Sometimes, suppressing symptoms is the best alternative. Not a good alternative, mind you, but the best one available.

Notion #4: A common and pernicious barrier to organizational change is the Assumption of the Present. It’s the Assumption of the Present when employees are sure a proposed change will fail because otherwise it would have already happened.

The Assumption of the Present is a close cousin of “We tried that and it didn’t work,” only you can suggest the reason it didn’t work is that, “Maybe we did it wrong.”

The Assumption of the Present, in contrast, is circular. And being circular there’s no entry point you can use to rebut it.

Notion #5: Agile isn’t a methodology. It isn’t a family of methodologies. Well, it is, but more importantly it’s a way of thinking about how to accomplish things.

It’s the practical application of Gall’s Law: A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”

What it means to you: If you want to try to improve how your organization functions and don’t want to risk doing more harm than good, figure out ways to improve it one small increment at a time. As you do, consider that each increment should be:

  • Easy to explain: If it’s complicated it isn’t incremental.
  • Easy to integrate: The increment shouldn’t disrupt how the rest of the work gets done, or at least it shouldn’t disrupt it badly.
  • Contained: Its scope should be limited to your organization. Processes have inputs, outputs, and methods. Incremental changes should focus on methods, unless a source of your inputs or consumer of your outputs wants to collaborate.
  • Non-limiting: To the extent you can tell, implementing the increment shouldn’t close off potentially desirable future changes.
  • Reversible: If it doesn’t work out, you should be able to stop doing it without difficulty.

Last Notion: Some managers are good at operations — at keeping the joint running. Others are good at making change happen — at making tomorrow look different from yesterday.

Neither skill is good enough by itself.

Managers who excel at operations but can’t make change happen will lead a long, slow slide into obsolescence. But those who excel at change without being competent at operations have the opposite problem.

They won’t survive until the future gets here.