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Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should

2018 was a year full of changes in the Spencer Family. Kim and I moved from the city to the suburbs, the kids changed schools, Kim took a new job with her hospital system, and I left the school where I’d served for eleven years.

Kim and I are capable, competent people. Both of us have the ability to shoulder some pretty heavy loads. I can think of few situations when Kim and I wouldn’t be able to handle x, y, or z.

The trouble is that we don’t always consider whether we can do x, y, and z (while also doing a, b, c, d…). Our ability is conditioned, even limited, by our capacity. While we maneuvered the changes noted above (and others), we were getting close to the limits of our capacity despite the help of friends and family.

Therein lies the danger of the “I can do it” attitude. Competence says, “I have the ability to do x” (“I can do it”). Capacity says, “Whether or not I can actually do x depends a lot on whether I’m going to be doing ‘a’ through ‘w’ as well.”

Competence, as I’m using the term here, is a measure of ability (do you have the skillset to do a given task), whereas capacity speaks to volume and prioritization in context. At what point does exercising competence in too many areas diminish the competence I can exercise in any given area? At what point does capacity encroach on competence?

Think of it like texting and driving. You can text. You can drive. But, you can’t text and drive at the same time without diminishing your competence in both areas.

Over the years, I’ve definitely had problems accounting for my personal capacity or the capacity of my team. In my experience, competence seldom takes a backseat to capacity and when it does, competence tends to be a backseat driver!

I don’t like thinking of myself as having limits, particularly at work, so I tend to reframe the way I think about my own role and responsibilities within an organization. Instead of considering what I am capable of doing, I consider what I am capable of doing given my position and my particular set of circumstances.

Perhaps even harder than reframing this issue for myself is doing so for my team. I’ve had the pleasure of leading and being part of some really great teams…teams willing to own a problem and drive toward a solution.

But, team members aren’t just team members…they are spouses, parents, friends…individuals with needs beyond the workplace. Learning to recognize my team’s capacity wasn’t easy. I had the confidence that they could hit just about any project out of the park. I had to remember, though, my team was not responsible to solve every organizational problem…nor did they have the capacity to do so.

We want to get things done. We want to see our families, our businesses, and our ministries thrive. We want to be involved and contribute using our giftedness whenever possible. That’s all good.

We simply need to realize that we have limits. As we forget those limits and take on more work/responsibility than we have the capacity to do well, we will begin to see cracks. Those cracks are often the beginning signs that our teams, ourselves, or our organizations are moving beyond what is actually sustainable unless capacity is added.

Don’t default to the “I can do it” attitude just because you know you have the competence to accomplish some task. Don’t sign yourself or your team up so that your organization doesn’t have to make hard choices about resourcing for appropriate capacity. Instead, ask yourself what impact completing task “x” will have on your ability to exercise competence in areas “y and z”. Don’t assume that you will be able to extend your competence to an infinite number of tasks at the same time…be realistic about your own limits. Remember, not even Atlas lifted more than one world at a time.

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