Beating the curse of incompetence

Incompetence is the inability to deliver on pre-agreed terms. Repeated suboptimal performance is the hallmark of incompetence. Incompetence is not always occasioned by inadequate capacity, more often than not, it is the consequence of inadequate utilization of capacity. Those who are ailed by incompetence are enamoured with excuses. Rather than be motivated by a reason to get the job done, they seek justification for their failure. Hence, once a person or organization is bitten by the bug of incompetence, wriggling out of it becomes herculean.

Incompetence is not cheap; it comes at a huge cost to any organization or nation that entertains it. Once an organization gets into the rut of incompetence, its operation cost jumps up while profitability declines. When a country permits incompetence, its cost of doing business hits the roof, its value creation declines, productivity heads south, pains and hardship increase, and poverty escalates. An incompetent person is sentenced to a substandard existence. If he is in employment, he will get stuck in his career progression, if he is in business, he will have minimal patronage because everybody who can afford it wants top of the range service, not substandard performance. Pain and anguish are the companions of the incompetent.


INEC’s postponed elections

Just about five hours to the commencement of the presidential and national assembly elections penultimate Saturday, the nation’s election management body, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), announced the postponement of the elections by one week, thus throwing Nigerians into confusion.

The electoral umpire hinged the postponement on ‘logistics and operational challenges.’ But that excuse was a very tough sell because INEC itself had announced its timetable for the election since January 2018, one year ahead. So, why would a body give ‘logistics and operational challenges’ as excuse for postponing an election that it had four years to prepare for if not as a result of crass incompetence? But since incompetence is never without a cost, the postponement cost Nigeria and Nigerians a lot. During elections, the nation is put on hold, nothing gets done; businesses are shut down, movements are curtailed, flights are rescheduled, and social engagements are cancelled. The cost of all of these was put at $1billion by experts. In preparation for the botched elections, INEC officials had been mobilized to various centers, security operatives had been deployed to various duty posts, political parties had mobilized agents to all the polling booths, journalists, local and international observers as well as monitors had travelled to different parts of the country, those who registered outside of their base had to travel to be able to cast their votes, and schools were forced to go on an extended mid-term break. All of these, which cost the different agencies and individuals a lot, amounted to nothing because INEC could not get its acts together and had to reschedule the elections it had four years to prepare for.

Causes of incompetence

Incompetence does not just happen; it is a consequence of some factors.


Inadequate planning

Nothing works until it is worked. Good intentions do not always result in the desired end unless proper planning is put in place. A great vision will fall flat if it is not accompanied by a good planning. It is when a plan is in place that a project has a chance of being realized. A plan is a breakdown of steps and actions to be taken to arrive at an end. With proper planning, resources are better managed because there is a synchronization of activities meant to achieve a goal. Planning enables an organization or nation to take its destiny in its hand. Planning gives a sense of direction and prevents an organization from heading in the wrong direction. While most organizations plan, it is not every organization that plans properly. Planning does not end with an outline of steps to be taken to deliver a project. After listing out the steps, there must be a test-running of the idea to guard against last minute disappointment. Even despite the positive outcome of the test-running, there must also be a Plan B or a back-up plan, just in case the primary plan fails to produce the desired result. The only reason an airplane has two engines is to ensure that the failure of an engine midair does not result in the death of those on board the plane. Setting out on a project with just the main plan without a back-up plan is akin to flying an aeroplane with just an engine. It is inadequate planning.



One of the major causes of incompetence is complacency. When an organization gets to a point where it does not see the accomplishment of a goal as the motivation to aim higher but a reason for chest-thumping and back-slapping or a time to take it easy, incompetence is likely to rear its head. Incompetence is not necessarily the absence of capacity; it is often a resolve to do less than the utmost.

INEC, had between 2015 and penultimate Saturday, conducted over 100 off season elections and had recorded a measure of success. That could have given the commission a false sense of accomplishment that might have resulted in complacency. But the tragedy is that when organizations become complacent, they begin to slide. When an organization is not consistently making progress, it begins to retrogress. However, this may not be immediately noticeable and the issue is not given the quick attention it deserves until it gets too late. Rather than surrendering to complacency, great organizations keep setting higher goals each time they achieve a set goal. That way, they stay motivated, inspired and challenged. When a great company records a feat, it does not revel in excessive celebration or chest-thumping, it sets its eyes on something higher and better.



Ineptitude is the outcome of stopping to learn on the job. The world changes at a dizzying speed that knowledge becomes obsolete almost as soon as it is acquired. So, failing to acquire new knowledge on the basis of knowing enough to earn the current position is a recipe for incompetence. As observed by Goldsmith Marshall in his book, What Got You Here Can’t Get You There, different skills and competences are required for different levels. So, the skill or knowledge that commended one for the current position is inadequate to get one to the next level. Therefore, to remain relevant and to guard against becoming incompetent, self development must be seen as an unending journey. Incompetence is a pointer to knowledge gap. The remedy to the knowledge gap is continuous knowledge acquisition. Those who keep updating their knowledge can never become incompetent. Knowledge updating can be done either formally by enrolling for an academic programme, attending seminars and workshops or informally by reading books, journals or surfing the internet to get relevant information. Knowledge is so commonplace these days that it is only those who do not want to learn that will not learn.

Just as birds cannot fly without flapping their wings so can men not enhance or increase their competence without an unflagging commitment to self development.



Former United States of America, Ronald Reagan told a story of how he came to understand the need to be decisive early in life. An aunt had taken him to a cobbler to have a pair of shoes made for him. When they got to the cobbler, he asked Reagan whether he wanted round or square toe shoes. The young man vacillated, and to help him, the cobbler asked him to come back with a decision a day or two later.

A few days later, the cobbler ran into Reagan on the street and asked him what he wanted but he still was not sure what type of shoes he wanted.

Three weeks later when the shoes were delivered, Reagan was shocked to see that one shoe had a square toe and the other a round toe. He had a pair of shoes but it was useless to him.

Reagan said many years later that, “Looking at those shoes every day taught me a lesson. If you don’t make your own decisions, somebody else will make them for you!”

Decisions shape destinies. The quality of life a person enjoys is a function of the quality of his decisions. How strong, stable and successful an organization gets is determined by how sound and profound its decisions are. The prosperity or otherwise of a nation is an indication of the kind of decisions leaders of the nation make. Individuals, organizations and nations are at the mercy of the decisions made by them. They first make their decisions then the decisions make them who or what they eventually become. Rich or poor, energized or enfeebled, progressive or retrogressive, respected or reproached, decisions make people and organizations so.

If INEC had taken a decision to postpone the election after three of its offices were burnt, the decision would have made sense to Nigerians, and the unfruitful expenses that were incurred for the botched election would have been averted. But by vacillating and waiting till the last minute before taking a decision, the commission made itself a subject of vilification.


The Peter Principle

Another cause of incompetence is what is known as the Peter Principle. The principle, which was espoused by Dr Laurence J. Peter, states that everyone tends to rise to his level of incompetence. The thrust of the principle is that individual and organizations, no matter how good, gets to a point where they cannot replicate their earlier sterling performance. Once that height is reached, incompetence sets in.

While most people and organizations succumb to the Peter Principle, a few have beaten it. The secret to beating the principle is an unwavering commitment to knowledge acquisition and application. Those who consistently increase their capacity will unfailingly improve their productivity.


Consequences of incompetence

Incompetence comes at a huge cost to an organization and those connected to it. Here are some of the consequences of incompetence.


Stunted growth

It has been said that Africa’s greatest challenge is not corruption, as bad as that is, but incompetence. It is incompetence that has been responsible for the high level of poverty on the continent. Nigeria has a humongous deposit of petrol, yet the country imports refined petroleum products. Nigeria has a huge gas deposit, yet this is flared while Nigerians have to depend on generators for electricity. Nigeria has the second largest bitumen deposit in the world, yet Nigerian roads remain among the worst in the world. Some of the world’s longest rivers are in Africa, some of the world’s largest lakes are in Africa, the continent is also home to some of the most fertile soils in the world, yet Africa is the global poster boy for hunger. Africa is rich in gold, diamond, copper, bauxite, uranium, oil and gas, yet it never fails to win the prize as the continent with the world’s poorest people. Contrasted with Singapore, a country so deprived of natural endowments that it has to import water from one of its neighbours, Africa is a proof that incompetence is a disaster.

Wherever incompetence is allowed, maximum potential utilization cannot be achieved.



The trademark of incompetence is ineffectiveness. Incompetent people are not excellence-driven, neither are they result oriented. They discharge their duties halfheartedly and go about their business haphazardly. So, the outcome is predictable; the system is not effective, precision is lacking, morale is low and products are sub-standard.


High cost of production

One of the major functions of organizations is ensuring cost reduction. This is achieved principally through the reduction of production cost. But many organizations are unable to do this because of incompetence. In Nigeria for instance, imported items are cheaper than locally produced ones because of the high cost of production. Companies spend a fortune on power generation, since the state has failed to make constant power supply available. Companies also spend a lot on transportation because the roads are bad and the state does not have a dependable railway system. As a result of the high cost of production, made in Nigeria goods are not competitively priced. Since they are not competitive, they are not the preference of Nigerians. This affects companies’ revenue generation and capacity utilization. As a result, they cannot employ as many people as they ought to, neither do they pay as much tax as they would have paid, had they been able to maximize their capacity.



Frustration is a major consequence of incompetence. Incompetence makes the desired result impossible and this leads to frustration for those affected. The frustrated are often unable to engage in rational reasoning and as a result take unreasonable decisions. Many young Nigerians who were frustrated by their country’s legendary incompetence and attempted to travel to Europe either through the desert or the Mediterranean Sea met their untimely death on their voyage. Were the system in the country working well, they would not have been pushed to the wall and would not have needed to embark on the perilous adventure.


Avoiding the incompetence curse

According to Murphy’s Law, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The import of the law is that there is no situation so good that cannot go bad, and there is no system so strong that cannot become weakened, if allowed. While the law alludes to the inevitability of decline, it also implies its preventability. Preventing a descent, however, requires taking deliberate steps.

The first step is proper planning. Proper planning prevents poor performance. Starting early is part of proper planning.

The second step is avoiding over-confidence. That something worked in the past is not a guarantee that it will work again. Give your best to every task and avoid a feeling of déjà vu that can birth complacency.

The third step is having a firm decision. While those who vacillate prepare themselves for opprobrium, the decisive position themselves for great performance because they do not waste time on non-essentials.

Finally, commit to lifelong personal development to avoid being bitten by the bug of Peter Principle. The Coca-Cola Company is over 130 years old, yet it keeps going strong. Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan Hotel in Japan has run for over 1,310 years, yet it keeps getting better. The longevity and performance of the two companies are linked to their commitment to continuous improvement as a result of unending learning.


Last line

Where incompetence reigns, everyone groans.

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