“But habits can help and habits can kill,” I said.
“I don’t understand,” Muriel replied. “We just talked about how competence and habits go hand in hand.”
“Yes, they do and like many things, your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.” I could see Muriel’s face scrunch up, mixed in resistance and curiosity.
“Competence requires a set of habits. Habits help us, habits hurt us. Think about a new problem that must be solved, like that change in production last month.”
Muriel winced. “I know, I know. We practiced hard on producing that left element. We were really good at it, and it was difficult. Then we got the machine. Using the machine was even harder, so my team kept doing it manually. Someone even sabotaged the machine configuration that kept it out of the loop for two days. All in all, it took us three weeks to become competent on the machine, when it should have taken only five days.”
“Habits can sometimes be a powerful force in resisting change. Habits are grooves in the way we think. They can be helpful, but sometimes, we have to get out of the groove and it’s tough.” -Tom
“How are habits connected to competence?” I asked.
Muriel looked at me and remembered. It was a short trip down memory lane. “When I first became a manager,” she started, “I was awful. I thought I was such a hot shot, walking around telling everyone what to do. Within a couple of weeks, productivity in my department was at an all time low, and I couldn’t figure it out.
“So, I started asking questions. Instead of telling my team how to do the work more efficiently, I began asking them how they could do the work more efficiently. I didn’t do it very often, but when I did, remarkable things happened. Over time, I got better at asking questions. Practice. Practice makes permanent. Now, asking questions is a habit.”
“So, describe the competence connected to the habit?” I pressed.
“The competence is challenging my team. Challenging them to higher levels of performance, productivity, efficiency.”
“So, competence is about acquiring a new habit.”
“I understand,” Marietta replied. “I got it. The way you explained it, now I know what to do.”
“You understand, in one part of your brain, but in the heat of the day, another part of your brain will want to do what it has always done,” I observed.
“But, now, I know what to do differently,” she protested.
“And, when you walk into the situation, that other part of your brain will take over and you will fall back on your habits, your grooved behaviors, even if they were not successful.”
“I hope that won’t happen,” Marietta flatly said.
“The only way to act in your new understanding, is to practice, practice and practice, until your new understanding becomes a habit. Only then will you be able to execute in a new way. We think we choose our success, but we don’t. We only choose our habits and our habits will determine our success.”
“But, I am back to my original question,” Marsha wanted to know. “How many skills can a person be good at?”
“You can be good at as many skills as you have time to practice,” I said. “Right now, you are good at the technical stuff that flows through your department?”
“Yes,” Marsha replied. “Because I practice. We get problems every day that have to be solved. We get technical bulletins all the time that we have to pay attention to.”
“If you focus on this new department, it is a different skill set, with a learning curve. What will happen to your technical skills related to the work in your current department? You will stop reading the technical bulletins, you will stop solving those technical problems. As you practice new skills, your old skills will begin to go away. You can only be good at as many skills as you have time to practice.”
“How different is this new department?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s different. The department I run now is full of technicians. This new role is all about merchandising and promotion. I will have to learn a lot,” Marsha replied.
“But, it sounds interesting to you?”
Marsha nodded. “Yes, it sounds interesting. More than that, I have always had an interest in marketing. I mean, I know I am in charge of a technical department, so this would be a challenge for me.”
“What will have to change?”
“There will be a learning curve, to get up to speed. There are lots of things I don’t know,” she admitted.
“Here’s the thing about any skill. There is always technical knowledge you need to know. But technical knowledge is learn-able. And, to get good at it, you have to practice. You may have an interest in marketing. You may have read a couple of books about it, but you have not practiced it. If you want to get good at it, you have to commit to practice.”
“You look out of sorts,” I said.
“I am,” Marsha replied. “I have been at this job, as a manager, for almost 15 years. I have an opportunity to move into a brand new department. I would still be a manager, but I have no real experience in that area.”
“If you have no experience, why does the company think you can handle it? Why would you even be interested?”
“The manager of the department retired. My manager said I should give it shot. His boss said they would like someone on the inside to take it over, rather than recruit from the outside. It would definitely be a challenge, and it looks interesting. But, here is my question. How many skill sets can a person be really good at? In my current role, I have a handle on things. This would be new.”
“How many skill sets do you think you could be good at?” I prompted.
“That’s the big unknown,” Marsha nodded.
“I don’t know,” Denise continued. “If we are really going to be down another 20 percent in revenue, we are going to have to take some steps that I don’t want to take. This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do with my company. I can usually take things in stride, but I can tell this is affecting me. I am not a stressed out person, but I can feel this.”
“It is easy to get hung up in this market,” I replied. “You think your business is contracting because you did something wrong. This is no different than adding headcount and buying equipment when the market is growing, except we are having to reduce headcount and idle equipment when the market is contracting.”
“I know, but it feels bad.”
“Feeling bad is not going to help. I know it is difficult to imagine, but think about the worst thing that could possibly happen.”
Denise glanced sideways at me.
“Seriously,” I insisted. “What is the worst thing that could happen? Now, accept it.”
Denise’s stare became intense.
“The stress you feel is because you cannot imagine the worst. It puts you in a state of fear. When you can accept the worst, you can take positive steps to improve your position. Not from a state of fear, but from a state of acceptance.” -TF
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Brett was somewhat disturbed with my observations about his dilemma.
“I don’t think you are being fair,” he said. “You know the market is tight and you know we are out there doing our best to drum up sales.”
“Do you have a competitor that is already out of business?” I asked.
“Not one, we lost three competitors almost nine months ago. The market wasn’t even nearly as tight as it is now. They just couldn’t sustain it.”
“If you ran into one of them in the grocery store and asked them why they went out, what would they say?”
“Well, they would blame it on the market,” Brett replied.
“Yes. And everyone would believe them and feel some empathy for them. It is a perfectly plausible excuse. Your former competitors chose to live with the problem, and whine and complain about it, rather than make the changes necessary to get a different result.” -TF
“Things are getting tight,” Brett explained. “This market is a lot different from a year ago.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“The phone doesn’t ring anymore. We only prepare two or three bids a week, now instead of two or three a day. So, it’s no wonder that our sales are down, backlog dwindling.”
“It’s quite a problem. I am glad you are happy with it.”
Brett shifted in his chair. “Happy, I’m not happy about it.”
I smiled. “Sure you are. You know, it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Brett shifted again. “What do you mean? I just told you that our market has changed. Getting sales is tougher.”
“What would you have to do to maintain your sales volume, even if the phone doesn’t ring?” I asked.
Brett looked puzzled. “Well, we would have to get out of the office, go out and look for new customers, but we are already doing some of that. It’s just hard to do.”
“So, you are happy to have this problem. It’s a lot easier to live with the problem of lagging sales than it is to make the necessary changes that create sales in spite of the market.” -TF
“But, I want to improve,” Barbara stated, flatly. “If there is an area, where I need improvement, or where I make mistakes, I want to focus on that.”
“Indeed, if you are an ice skater,” I replied, “and your laces are untied, you are likely to take a nasty spill. So get your laces tied, tightly, so they don’t trip you up. But getting your laces tied, does not make you a champion ice skater.” -TF