Strategic Incompetence

Billy Hollis uses a recent WSJ piece to argue that many lawyers and senior managers “pretend incompetence so that others will be forced to pick up their slack. That way, they can keep on doing what they’re best at, such as schmoozing clients on the golf course.” An interesting discussion ensues in the comments section about balancing workplace efficiency, comparative advantage, and playing well with others.

While I’ve never pretended to be too stupid to operate a fax machine in order to get others to do it for me, I do think the general trend toward doing away with staff support and thereby making highly paid employees waste time doing clerical tasks is counterproductive.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    and thereby making highly paid employees waste time doing clerical tasks

    Like putting a brief together for mailing, which I like to call the “arts & crafts” aspect of legal practice.

    I have finally learned to delegate this rather than do it myself at my hourly rate.

  2. Curt Doolittle says:

    I have feigned incompetence with a fax machine, and at times, claimed to be incompetent at everything from selling a deal, contracts, negotiations, spreadsheets, and computer programs, none of which is true.

    Aside from freeing up your time by taking mundane tasks off your plate, it’s a very useful technique for testing upcoming management, and seeing if they have the ability and inclination to take on a new role or responsibilities. When you run a company and are not primarily a financial manager (which tends to be historical), but a manager of talent (which tends to be forward looking), your primary goal is to understand a problem well enough that you can hire, promote or educate the talent necessary to do it.

    It’s the primary task of an executive in building great organizations – doing it one person at a time. Schmoozing clients, biding the staff, encouraging morale, and acquiring capital for growth are the most value able use of the most scarce resource: executive time.

    One of the most common recommendations I give to executives whether in the entertainment, manufacturing, technology or financial sectors, is to get them to hire an old fashioned “secretary” or assistant. One large west coast construction executive in his sixth decade, literally cried when, after encouraging him to hire and pay a six figure assistant out of an MBA program, and having her help him for six months, realized that he’d wasted half of his career and taken ten years off his life, by not having understood this earlier. Myself, I have two, and they jealously guard my time. I deal with the executive team, acquire talent, companies, and customers. Anything else is work that is better done by someone else.

    I blame the opposite trend on a misguided egalitarianism. Some people’s time is simply more valuale than others.


  3. markm says:

    Ooph!…I’m dumb as a stone about the operation of the fax machine. I don’t know why but I just detest me running that “thing”. I now have the secretary trained 🙂