The four stages of market management

Spoiler alert: The stages correspond exactly to the  four stages of competence learning model:

  • 1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  • 2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  • 3.Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  • 4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

I have been thinking about how we can organize the role of market manager to reduce the learning curve and to encourage managers to have a team around them, rather than to feel they must do everything on their own. If we do those two things, we may very well lessen the numbers who burn out and leave the job just as they reach unconscious competence phase.

My experience (from my corporate training in human resources, my own management of markets, supervising market managers and observing them for the last 15 years) is that the market job takes about 14 months to 30 months to move through these 4 stages. The length of time it takes has something to do with “the strength of the stimulus to learn” but since that is usually strong with new market managers, it usually has more to do with the organization’s structure for training and for providing feedback. Of course, the way managers learn is changing as Millennials move into those jobs which are matters that I’ll tackle in another post.

Unlike other entry-level jobs, market managers are asked to master the most difficult work right away: to confidently manage dynamic logistics for a group of small businesses working side-by-side with their direct competition. In far too many cases, there are no manuals, no detailed history recorded, or clear written process when dealing with risks or crisis.  Few managers are offered performance reviews or even clear, written deliverables or goals so they can correct as they learn. (I feel compelled to point out that I find it startling how few nonprofits understand that their success is based almost entirely on the skill and labor of its people and how rare it is to find supervisors spending any time becoming more adept at that part of their job. )

So those months can be quite stressful and without a clear training plan, a negative feedback loop can be created, especially among watchful vendors who are rightfully expecting high productivity.

Often, the most difficult phase is #2 when the community doesn’t view the manager as new any longer and becomes impatient with every mistake- and yet as you can see from this timeline, mistakes are to be expected in the “conscious incompetence” phase. Mistakes are often caused by someone bravely trying something new or testing a varied way to do a task that needs updating. It is a process of learning but one that does need positive correction from the supervisor to okay the adjustment and to acknowledge the validity of it as a learning process.

So markets can do a better job preparing the community for a new manager by allowing the manager to ease into some of the more difficult tasks, “permission” to make little mistakes and even better, time and space to formalize a system for dealing with risks so there won’t be guesswork:
A copy of every market map should be kept, filed and noted with weather, no-shows or risk issues written so new managers can review past years. These are also helpful in cases of slip and falls or property damage suits, as legal proceedings may come much later and the data from that day may very well help your team defend your market and at least remind you what happened and why. Sets of laminated pictures of the market set up, the storage area, the table layout for new managers to know what is desired during set up can also make it easy to have volunteers to take over those duties so the manager can then move on to new tasks.

On the subject of conflicts, is usually a good idea for markets to have an off-site process for any hot button issue, new manager or not:  Disagreement between vendors or about a rule should not be hashed out on market day. Instead,  a temporary solution for that day is all that should be offered.  Have the manager quietly ask those involved if the discussion can happen that next week by phone, in person or via a video conference call if possible. Not only does this allow everyone to simmer down (including the manager) but it also allows some time for the manager to get some input from senior vendors or board members. Most importantly, it sets a tone for future issues.

Other suggestions:

• The new manager should have an hour of weekly reading from the files and by scanning some of the most important articles and magazines on community food while on the clock.

• They should be introduced in ever widening circles to the members of the community – even if they are local – as the manager by board members, anchor vendors and volunteers.

• If a market hires a new seasonal manager annually, it might be helpful to have a market business card with a line for the manager to write in their name, and also allows board members to do the same.

• Asking new managers to keep a journal of the day also helps get them through these early stages. I used to ask my new managers to write me an email on their smart phone even if I had been onsite with them all day. Some of them drafted it all day when they had a minute, and then sent it to me as they got in their vehicle to go home or from their laptop first thing on the next work day from their scribbled notes. That email was broken down into logistics, vendors, shoppers, other and helped them analyze their day.

If systems are put in place and care is taken to help the new manager move through these stages, one can easily gain a market manager loyal to the organization and ready to move to the stage of unconscious competence soon enough.


Another idea for the evolution of the market organization to make it more sustainable is outlined in this post from Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC):

Worker self-directed nonprofits enable staff to organize their labor and compensation in a way that is sufficient and sustainable for them. At SELC, for example, our collective decision to each work only 30 hours per week and only be required to spend 15 of those hours at the office has opened up tremendous possibilities. By choosing when and where we work, we regain a tremendous amount of autonomy over our lives. This flexibility lets us attend community events or be responsive to the needs of our loved ones in ways that a rigid eight-hour day does not.

The reduced workweek shifts our financial calculus as well. Many of us who could use a bit more money accept consulting jobs or engage in entrepreneurship to supplement our incomes. Some staff can use their time to cut down on other expenditures that they would have been forced to incur otherwise, like childcare. And beyond the numbers of it all, many of us feel like the opportunities our flexibility provides are priceless.

This exact arrangement may not be best for all organizations. The essential point to notice is that we (with board oversight) get together as a staff and make decisions about how organize and compensate ourselves in order to make the best use of our organizational resources and provide ourselves with the lives we crave. Ultimately, this care for ourselves feeds back into the organization in the form of low turnover and high commitment. 








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