What To Do When You Forget What Got You Here

October 17, 2011

4:00 pm

When an entrepreneur founds a company, they typically go through the 4 stages of competence:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence –  don’t know what they don’t know
  2. Conscious Incompetence – knows what they don’t know and realizes they better find a way to know
  3. Conscious Competence – understands what needs to be done, the process to get it done and consciously deliberately follows the process
  4. Unconscious Competence – has become so proficient in the process that it is performed by instinct

And then there is stage 5, the problem stage that I call the Unconsciously Losing Competence stage.  This is the stage in which a person has become so proficient that they no longer concentrate on performing the process, and because they are not deliberate in their execution, important details start to drop out of their repertoire, thus resulting in sloppy performance and diminishing results.

This phenomenon is the reason why pilots who log millions of flight hours and doctors who have been practicing for 20 years adhere to check-lists.  When you’re landing tons of steel with 400 human lives at stake or performing brain surgery, you can’t afford to forget to lower your landing gear or remove a clamp. (Note that you should not lower your landing gear while performing brain surgery).

When an entrepreneur is in the zone, when they are running at peak performance, they recruit better, they close deals, and their employees follow them in lock step.  But when the little things that got them to that stage begin dropping out of routine performance, things start to unravel.

So what are the signs that you are unconsciously losing your competence?  Well, it’s all about decline:

  1. Your sales close rate is declining
  2. Your job offer acceptance rate is declining
  3. Morale is declining
  4. Employee turn-over is increasing
  5. Client retention is decreasing

What steps can you put in place to guard against the unconscious loss of competence?  Write down the most important goals and guiding principles and procedures of the company, including:

  1. Why you exist, your purpose and what it mean for customers, employees and partners.
  2. Your unique selling proposition – what makes you different from all other businesses.
  3. Your guiding principles regarding the expectations of and responsibilities to your team.
  4. Exorcise all the meaningless, non-differentiating, business-speak BS jargon from your purpose,  goals, principles and guidelines.

Make this the operational check-list for your business.  Breathe the list, live the list, be the list.  Prominently display it.  Make sure prospective and new employees understand it, and during regular company meetings, make sure you review and recite this as your mantra.  If you’ve created the right list and keep it in your company’s repertoire you can rest assured that the next time you’re performing brain surgery you won’t forget to lower your landing gear.

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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