John R. Brandt, author
Besting Nincompoopery
By Rick Bell
John R. Brandt is a rarity among leadership experts. Currently the CEO and founder of the MPI Group, Brandt also toiled in the journalistic trenches as the publisher and editor in chief of IndustryWeek. So not only can he speak authoritatively on leadership, he can also write with wit and vision. Brandt’s new book “Nincompoopery: Why Your Customers Hate You — and How to Fix It” blends corporate expertise with an acerbic yet insightful eye. Workforce Editorial Director Rick Bell caught up with Brandt via email.

Workforce: A nincompoop is defined as a foolish or stupid person. Define nincompoopery.

John R. Brandt: We’re all nincompoops at one time or another; just ask your spouse, or if you’re really brave, your kids. But nincompoopery is different: It’s the corporate stupidity that drives customers crazy, and keeps everyone — customers, employees, managers and business owners — from getting what they want. It’s what happens when you expect a service or product or process to work, but it doesn’t — and nobody can seem to fix it, even though everybody knows what’s wrong.

WF: Does nincompoopery begin with any one foolish person or department?

Brandt: It’s usually much broader than that. It typically starts when senior leaders create a culture in a department or across the organization in which legitimate concerns or complaints, whether from customers or employees, aren’t heard or tolerated. This can be due to suppression, when leaders stifle dissent or disagreement because they see them as challenges to authority; or it can be slower and more insidious, as leaders avoid the gemba where real work is done (the production line, a service call) and where real customers live and work (in homes or businesses).

WF: How might HR contribute to corporate nincompoopery?

Brandt: HR is incredibly well positioned to either fix or foster nincompoopery. When you see companies struggling, you often find an HR function relegated to focusing on forms and policies instead of being unleashed to identify, attract, hire, develop and retain the best talent. By contrast, at great companies doing great things, you typically find a team that’s included in visioning for the future; in creating goals, objectives and metrics for the organization beyond simple profit and productivity; and in making sure that a culture of respect, fairness and accountability is nourished.

WF: So we’ve defined it. Is there a remedy for nincompoopery?

Brandt: Leaders at great companies organize their cultures around three simple strategies: innovation, talent and process. Each strategy incorporates broad principles that successful organizations embrace, but those principles have to be implemented in customized ways that celebrate and reinforce an organization’s unique mission, culture, structure and market. Leaders often underestimate how smart their employees are; when management-by-desperate-adoption-of-a-new-system happens repeatedly, often on a two- or three-year cycle, employees learn that they can usually wait out either the system or the dimwit who invested in it.