Are We Really That Incompetent?

Mark Herrmann's recent article, Overcoming the Presumption of Incompetence, is definitely food for thought, and worth a very close read. Although written primarily for and about lawyers, the article will benefit anyone who has ever been asked to complete a task or who has ever relied on someone else to complete a task for them. Mark's basic assumption is that everyone he meets is incompetent and he holds to that assumption until proven otherwise. More important, he argues, accepting this assumption as a given will lead to a more successful career.

Mark's takes this position as a defense mechanism and as a means to produce better quality work for his clients and customers. Assuming incompetence, Mark argues, makes you a better lawyer because you leave yourself more time to review, rewrite, redraft and recreate all of the incompetent work product you are given by others as a "final" product. Such an approach will also make you a better project manager, marketer, software engineer and media designer.

Having been on both sides of the incompetency equation (though more times as the recipient of incompetence, I would hope), I agree with Mark's basic premise. You would think that we would all learn this lesson early in our careers and, once learned, we would take it to heart. Unfortunately, that is not the case. I learned this lesson the hard way as a young lawyer when I attached a very complicated pricing calculation as an exhibit to a major supply contract and sent it to my General Counsel for final review. Even though I did not understand the calculation, the "business guys" who provided it assured me that "it worked." The problem, however, was not "the business guys." The problem was that I had attached a pricing mechanism to my supply contract that was basically incomprehensible. I did not understand it and I couldn't explain what it meant. For a commercial lawyer, that is the definition of incompetence. If I could not understand it, how could a judge or jury understand it if there was ever a dispute between the parties? After a very painful discussion of "my incompetence" with the General Counsel, I can honestly say that is one mistake I never made again. While I can't claim that all of my contracts are perfectly drafted, to this day, I can claim that I understand every attachment and every provision in my contracts, and I can explain exactly what they mean, as well.

As a deal lawyer, I have worked with a number of different types of lawyers who are needed to complete a complex commercial transaction. Regrettably, I have also spent countless hours late at night rewriting documents crafted by incompetent "professionals," including partners at major law firms, who I naturally assumed were competent. Why did I have to rewrite the trademark license at 11 at night in New York when the trademark lawyer left at 6 p.m.? Because it had to be done properly, by 9 a.m. London time. Unfortunately, I had assumed competence, only to be faced with incompetence, and then had to spend hours making things right. But Mark Herrmann takes a different approach. Because he assumes everyone is incompetent, he does not wait for the trademark attorney to leave for the day before he looks at that person's work product because he does not rely on it being right the first time.

There are certain professions where I hope the level of incompetence is lower than it is in the legal profession, if my experience and Mark's is a representative sample; air bag manufacturers and heart surgeons immediately come to mind. However, regardless of your profession, or your place within that profession, the article holds a valuable lesson.

Read Mark's article (the link is below) and, more important, take it to heart, particularly when you produce a work product for someone else. Those you serve (and as the old saying goes, we all serve somebody) will be thankful you did.

I want to thank my son Joseph, a third year law student at Northwestern, for sharing Mark's article with me.