Do we suck at the basics?

The longer I’m alive the more often I realize the cause of problems is someone’s failure to get the basics of their job right. We all love to believe our problems are advanced: it’s rare that any of us admit, or even consider, that the reason for something going wrong could be something basic we overlooked.

For starters, it takes confidence for anyone to take responsibility and even say something like, “This project did not go well and it’s my fault.” It’s far more common to point fingers, use passive language like “the project went badly” or hide in false complexity such as “our innovation infrastructure needed to be redistributed to support the unexpected variable dynamics.” Even if, all the while, the simplest and best answer is “this went poorly because I overlooked <fundamental thing/concept/question>.”

We habitually hide the core problem under layers of noise and complexity because it makes us feel safer, and feel more competent than if we openly looked for, much less confessed to, the simple truth. It can also be less awkward for others too as there can be safety in emotional ambiguity. To cut to the core requires everyone to be able and honest. Yet we know many professions where there is nowhere to hide. The best baseball players hit the ball safely only 30% of their attempts and strike out hundreds of times a year. Yet they don’t explain it away or invent jargon for it in the way people in the professional world do for failures of a simple nature (although some do complain to the referees far too often).

Perhaps worse is how once we have been doing something for 5 or 10 years, we convince ourselves we must be experts. And to admit we got a basic wrong hurts our egos and, we fear, our reputations.  Yet in reality to call something what it is would likely enhance someone’s reputation more than hurt it, but many are not brave enough to find out. A true expert is valuable not only when they get it right, but in their speed, accuracy and remediation when they get it wrong.

Example #1: What percentage of people in every profession do you think are bad at what they do? 10%? 20%? 50%? There has to be a number. What do you think it is? I say, based on exactly zero data and pure conjecture, it must be at least 25%. People whose peers would never hire them to do what they are currently paid to do. To be fair they may be poorly treated or underpaid, but even if we limit this rant to the well treated and paid a sizable number remain.

Example #2: I’d guess half of all professional managers have not earned the trust of their team. Now if you don’t have the trust of your team, no budget, no brilliant plan, no clever organizational model, is going to save you. Your team will always under perform if they do no trust their leader. End of story.

So regarding the working world: want to fix 50% of the projects out there? Forget the advanced theories and complex explanations. Convince these managers to find the integrity to trust their own people, and then in reciprocation, the team will grow to trust the manager. And have leaders model the behavior of taking responsibility for basic things that go wrong without obscuring them away.

I seem to be in the minority, but perhaps many challenges managers believe are intractable, impenetrable, situations so complex they believe a PhD in 10 disciplines is required just to understand it, can be framed as one or two fundamental problems currently ignored that if called out could be solved and transform the situation.

What do you think? Do we need a reality check at the basics of our crafts? Or am I just being cranky?

[light edits: 4-1-2021]

30 Responses to “Do we suck at the basics?”

  1. Dean

    You are very close to the truth conceptually; I have no idea on the percentages, but would say they are in the ballpark.

    You are also probably being cranky; however, with some justification if that makes you feel better about it.

    Human nature for some reason seems to be constructed to operate as you have described. If one can operate on the upside of your stats, he/she can be remarkable.

  2. Scott

    Thx Dean – Perhaps here is a less cranky way of putting it. Why do we assume we have the fundamental skills done right when things go wrong? That’s the core of it. That when many (I won’t say most) professional people face a problem, then assume complex/advanced reasons for it, when simpler ones will do the job much better.

    It gets back to this rant on simplifiers vs. complexifiers from awhile ago.

  3. Jon Stahl

    Sometimes we have to be cranky in order feel comfortable enough to blurt out the truth ;-)

    There is a lot of mediocrity out there in the world. There are a lot of people whose working world doesn’t provide them with sufficient passion and inspiration — which have to be there in order for people to consistently perform with excellence.

    We can blame lame people. There is some truth to that. But a lot of the blame can also go to the soul-deadening nature of so many organizations, who fail utterly to provide context, meaning and inspiration for their employees.

  4. Scott

    Mediocrity doesn’t bother me that much – god knows I’m mediocre or worse at many things.

    What bothers me more is someone who is proficient at something, but failing in a given situation, who is incapable of admitting there is something fundamentally broken that needs to be fixed.

    And I do agree Jon – I’d blame a manager faster than I’d blame the team. But on the other side, if you have a lame manager part of the responsibility is yours as well.

    Yup. I’m definitely cranky today. I just want to blame EVERYONE :) Is that wrong?

  5. Adrian Ionel

    Getting good at the basics takes a daily commitment to improve your behavior as a manager. Unless that attitude is part of the bedrock of a company’s culture you’re gonna get mediocre managers. And they set the same standards for their followers.

  6. Steven Levy

    A bad manager (in the employee’s estimation) is the #1 reason employees leave their jobs.

    There are lots of bad people managers. There are some who are innately fine managers; others receive training — or coaching or a wake-up call — and progress from poor to competent to good. Most don’t.

    The higher you go, the less likely you are to get how-to-be-a-good-manager training. And so a bad manager inflicts suckiness on an entire organization.

    I can’t sum up management in three words… but if I had to, I’d use the same three you use, Scott: Trust your employees. You can crunch the hell out of the numbers or superhumanly manage the micro, but if you don’t trust your team, you’re depending on luck and your ability to smooch the right rear ends for your success.

  7. Dorian Taylor

    I think leaders often assume that appearing fallible is a greater sin than tangible benefit shortfalls, cost overruns or outright failure. I also think that “experts” often trick themselves into thinking that the problems they face consistently test the limits of their expertise. These, if I’m not mistaken, are pretty well-documented logical fallacies/cognitive biases.

    I suspect that the unique nature of the knowledge (i.e. post-manufacturing) industry exacerbates these issues tremendously, specifically:

    You straight-up cannot manage knowledge workers like you manage military troops: the former need to know as much information as you can reasonably part with in order to do their jobs correctly, and they need to be facilitated rather than ordered about.

    You can neither estimate nor prescribe with any great accuracy any action that you haven’t sufficiently mastered, so before you can ascribe meaningful deadlines to any deliverables, you have to completely turn your project into a program of problems that you recognize.

    The lifetime value of a knowledge product is much more important than how quickly it gets to market, and the tolerance for “good enough” is remarkably low: the benefits of doing things properly are as intensely felt as the detriments of cutting corners.

    In my experience, the industry at large has no idea how to do any of these things. If I were to make a diagnosis, it would be that people are still using manufacturing-era strategies to manage knowledge workers, projects and products. I suppose that’s where you come in.

    As someone designs things for a living, I generate a lot of counterintuitive-looking product in the early stages, because the best time to have all the bad ideas is right at the beginning when very little has been invested. Moreover, a planned failure is in fact a success (look no further than Underwriters’ Laboratories ;). After exhausting everything I don’t want in the final product, I’m left with what I do want.

    From time to time over the course of my career, I found myself meeting significant resistance to my approach, because it didn’t immediately yield recognizable progress. After years of frustration, I finally realized that in fact I have to design what people see as well as the actual thing I’m designing. It was an epiphany. Or perhaps just job bias, I’m not sure.

    I am sure, however, that people in the knowledge industry could benefit from taking a good long look at its role in the world, and make some simple, yet deep changes with respect to how they run it and within it.

  8. Sam

    Cranky or not, the ideas here are right on.

    When you get that (un)perfect combination of lack of trust and lack of humility, it’s the perfect way to stall out a business. Can’t trust ICs to do their jobs, and are clueless even about how to micromanage.

    So how do we get that many managers to wake up? That’s the essay I’m waiting for.

  9. Jason Crawford

    Great post, Scott, I think you’re right on.

    In the comments you ask “Why do we assume we have the fundamental skills done right when things go wrong?” You’re assuming that people think in terms of fundamentals, and therefore know to ask the fundamental questions first. I think the problem is deeper than that–people don’t even understand what is basic and fundamental vs. not, and so they don’t even necessarily ask the right questions first.

    As for why some people never learn to think in essentials and fundamentals–offhand, I’d blame our educational system. There are some good points on this in Ayn Rand’s classic essay “The Comprachicos”, as I recall (it’s been a long time since I read it).

  10. Percy

    Terrific post Scott. Agree with the ballpark numbers.

    I think a part of the problem has to do with recruiting as well. I’ve known situations where candidates who weren’t up to the mark were taken because there was a “pressing need” and their peers were subsequently unhappy.

    Also, what Jason Crawford pointed out is important. The truly smart people, that I know at least, always ask questions that are of a fundamental nature, but these aren’t questions that everyone seems to ask. The other thing is that sometimes asking these sorts of questions may require a willingness to admit to “ignorance”, which I feel people aren’t willing to admit. The hardest three words for people to say in the corporate world are, “I don’t know.”

    Regarding managers, I like Semco’s (see Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick) approach of involving the team in the decision to hire the manager. It takes time but I think it’s time well-spent if you get a manager who’s in tune with his/her team. And it makes sense because the persons reporting to the manager will suffer the most if the manager is not able to handle his/her team.

  11. greg

    I’m more often astounded by how often people make it all the way into corner offices without even knowing what the basics are. My personal favorite is how many times I have to keep arguing against the fallacy of sunk costs.

  12. Eric

    Your question “Why do we assume we have the fundamental skills done right when things go wrong?” could be explained using attribution theory: people tend to attribute their successes to their own skills and expertise, and their failures to external reasons.

    So maybe the managers who don’t get the basics right are just those who don’t question their own cognitive biases.

  13. mpg

    Keep in mind that over all corporations today, fully one-half of all managers are below average — and indeed, 25% of them are in the bottom quartile! [ob. smiley omitted]

    A real question, in my mind, is what should be done about underperforming employees, be they managers or not. Some companies make a policy of whacking the bottom N% on a regular basis, to root out the weeds and encourage new growth. Making this be Policy has always struck me as a bit harsh, but I wonder how much of the notion is because, absent such a policy, we have a hard time getting rid of bad people.

    Someone above raised the sunk costs fallacy: does this apply to underwhelming employees? For example, have you ever heard (or yourself made) the claim that “yeah, John Doe isn’t very good at doing X, but at least he’s trained – it’d take months if we had to train a new guy to do it”?

  14. Michael J

    My rule is that 85% of the people in the world do their jobs badly. Of the 15%, 85% of them are assholes.

    That leaves you with 2.25%. Find those, and life is good.

  15. Stephen Key

    Great Math. I tend to agree. What’s happened with the quality of people managing teams with no common sense whatsoever to get the jobs done. How they could rise to that level is amazing to me. It’s no wonder this country is in trouble.
    Stephen Key

  16. Bradley Ward

    I agree with your numbers. But I think the field of software development has an even bigger problem than most other fields. This is because almost no one in the software field follows well established best practices that other professions have. Imagine what sort of end product you would get if you had a construction company start on a building and pour the foundation for the 1 story building that was planned, only to then be told the week after that the building is now going to be 4 stories or the bathrooms are going to be shifted 10 feet to the right! But this sort of thing happens all the time in the software business.


  17. Franke

    I have to agree with Greg that so many managers finagle their way to the top without knowing what the basics are.

    A huge part of complexity is ego-driven: that is the manager thinks, how can I make myself smart and avoid looking dumb when there’s egg on my face? Let me pile it on with a bunch of misused big words so that I can confuse people and dodge the real subject, my faceplant into the ground.

    The ego stuff stems from a general desire to completely avoid failure, which is essential to creating both good managers and good organizations. You have to know what doesn’t work before you can optimize what does work.

  18. tkoehl

    Scott, I agree with your post and enjoy reading your books and blogs even though I’m not in the computer science field. The information you and your fellow bloggers provide seems logical and useful most of the time across various disciplines and applicable in principle to mine in public safety.

    The humility you speak of must come from the top of the organization and that CEO needs to see that practice implemented downward through each layer of management and supervision. If that fails to happen, each manager tends to put on a protective shield because to admit mistakes usually lets your peers or subordinates have opportunities to take you down.

    To further complicate matters, many people at or near the top of some organizations are also incompetent as well, killing off innovation as a threat to thier status quo.

    We must improve our people through good leadership and skills training on a number of issues. Open organizational communication has to be an active policy from the top.

  19. phlogiston

    I don’t think your crankiness should detract from the truthfulness.

    And you’re right.

    The biggest problem with the majority of workplaces is that they are based on frameworks that are rusty: Rigid but with cracks. Too many people who should have moved on, changed careers, retired but don’t (for whatever reason) live and breed in those cracks. We all know one, have to ‘relationship manage’ one, and if you’re unluky – have to report to one.

    So how does it change? With a revolution. If enough professionals have the guts to influence any one of the chain of events in a work cycle – starting with humility – then a shift in work culture is natural (thank you Thomas Kuhn).

  20. Bobbyf

    Hasn’t alwasy been said that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people?
    I meet folks every day that are underqualified to do what their job-title implies they are capable of.
    The thing I hate most is the complancy and apathy that others have. Time and time again, I’ve seen people turn a blind eye to bad work – even work that goes live to our customers. It’s pathetic.
    The best you can do is find like-minded individuals and get them to rally around making change and no longer accepting work that is less than our very best.
    Sometimes, that requires restaffing with people who are actually talented and capable.

  21. Mary

    Great post Scott, isn’t it a basic truth that doers are promoted to management regardless of skills and abilities? Of course most suck as a result.

    Here are a few random thoughts:

    The question I ask is why don’t more people know themselves – and honestly assess their strengths/weaknesses and how they’re perceived?

    I agree with you that trust is the key to great results…but communication is key too.

    I think this all comes back to what motivates people – CEOs, managers of any kind, and those that report to them. If we understand this, we can find a common language to work with.

    Back to your point – I think we all need a refresher on the basics..afterall we’re human.

    And yes, some people suck. Mary

  22. pthalacker

    “Convince these managers to find the guts to trust their own people, and then in reciprocation, the team will grow to trust the manager.”

    I think this is the most under-emphasized quality of a good manager. If one person truly trusts another, their behavior is soooo…. different on so many levels.

  23. Lynn

    I’m cranky too – because I didn’t get to go to Trinidad.

    I think most people don’t know what their job is – and so they can’t possibly succeed at it (except perhaps by accident) or be fairly evaluated for doing it. So blaming managers for not being managers is kind of pointless. Blame their managers, or the company culture, instead. Most managers are managers only secondarily or tertiarilly (?); they are signalled by their bosses all day long that they are supposed to be doing other things: setting strategic direction, creating reports, buying companies, helping evaluate outside vendors, participating at board meetings, etc… not actual “management.” Some don’t even have one-on-ones, or know what their own staff are doing. Empowering, or out of touch? It could go either way, depending on how independent their people are, and what the culture suggests they should be doing to be successful in the company.

    Designers are told to be arranging meetings, creating specs to deadline, visiting customers, scheduling testing, etc etc – but are hardly ever “doing design,” and hardly ever evaluated for doing that well. Bringing teams to consensus or closure on time is usually MUCH more important for job success for a designer.

    The job description most people are interviewed for is rarely what they really end up doing in that job, and almost never what they are actually evaluated for.

    So what are these basic skills people are supposedly lacking?

  24. rajiv

    > feel more competent than

    Looks like you have an incomplete sentence there.
    Btw, good post.

  25. Scott

    Rajiv: aaah. Can you say irony? Apparently I can’t.. I can’t even finish a sentence.

    It’s fixed now, with what I believe i meant to say the first time.

  26. Dave

    The world sucks because people suck — clean your own house (yourself) and be better than you were yesterday. That’s what i am striving for — good luck to us all.

  27. Sean Crawford

    If there’s any team that should be competent, from having measurable results and big bucks, it’s professional sports teams. And what happens?

    Every year they have to swallow their egos and, at the start of the season, get back to fundamentals. (Also if they have a losing streak or a slump) I daresay the manager/head coach makes his assistant coaches go over the fundamentals of coaching every year too.

    So as you say, Scott, in our society there’s a lot of sucking at the fundamentals.

    For managing “underperforming” executives, in companies where the executive culture uses a lot of sports talk, a “fundamentals analogy” may help a person to face change.



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