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One of the reoccurring themes of the engagement with ThoughtWorks  that I’ve found interesting  is the concept of  the four stages of competence:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence – The individual neither understands or knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit or has a desire to address it.
  2. Conscious Incompetence  – Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.
  3. Conscious Competence – The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration.
  4. Unconscious Competence – The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.


I’ve begun categorizing things I’ve done at this job and previous under the first two classifications. I’m seeing a lot of items that are stage 4, and perhaps I’ll talk about those in a later blog.  That blog will be mostly bragging 😉

The unconscious incompetence items are pretty easy to identify after you’ve been told you’re doing it wrong.   However,  I’m constantly mulling conscious incompetence items over in my head and trying to identify solutions, trying to get to the third stage.  I just don’t see a clear path to correcting those actions. I find the things I’m doing that are conscience are done because I don’t think the situation permits fixing those. A lot of the excuses are along the lines of “Yes,  I’m doing this wrong, but the way the project/organization/team/internal political climate  is set up,  I can’t fix it”  Is that a valid excuse?

Prime example:

A coworker and I have made a valiant attempt  to ease our organization into a more Agile project structure, at least within the development team on a project we run.  We’ve done what we can with having a big upfront design. I’ve found it very hard to estimate, and done my best to break them down into INVEST (“Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small, Testable”) abiding  stories. However, the way the application specification is defined, along with the release expectation of the application being as close to spec as possible (read: not negotiable), really prevents me from doing what I consider a good job. Consequently, I consciously make the decision to “cheat” with the stories, and cheat with the point estimation, all with the intent of just trying to get it done (fortunately because of the amazing team,  it is getting done).

I also know that cross-team interaction is fairly limited by resources and engagement, so I consciously allow (read:  allow, not encourage) infrequent communication. Best attempts are made at doing a retrospective as well as a showcases, but I know that it’s almost impossible to do one properly with the current state of adoption and the  amount of resources made available.

One could venture that I know how to run an agile team, and those things aren’t conscious incompetence, merely resultants of circumstance. I would consider understanding that these things are a problem, but not knowing how to fix them would classify as conscious incompetence.

A lot of the road blocks in the way are largely cultural, or things I don’t have the power to correct.  How do you fix those things? How do you, in effect, override the “upper influence” and correct things outside of your circle of control?

An interesting point was made by a coworker of mine. He brought it to my attention that it’s not just your circle of control, but your circle of influence (I think he read it in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”).  How do you grow your circle of influence without crossing your political bounds?

I’d like to expound on that idea bit more, but unfortunately I’m dead dog tired. I just want to get these things out there, and possibly start discussing them before the thought gets lost in the clutter.  I’d appreciate comments if you have them, and perhaps examples of how you’ve used your circle of influence effectively to change those things that are classified “conscious incompetence”, but outside of your immediate control.



  1. People are smart, groups are full of idiots. It seems your realizing that. You will never move any project to a stage of excellence using a group mentality (which is what your trying to do). it eliminates accountability and removes reward. You will sit and discuss things with one another, tell how great you are and how fantastic your ideas are, but those will never be implemented. Why? you have already built in your failure state, nobody is accountable so nobody will be rewarded. you have also built in limiters and accepted them as fact instead of addressing the deficiencies as they are identified. If the chain on your bike has a week link, do you say … “well, ok, but the next one is good”… no? why do you do that in your business processes? and lastly “I don’t have the power to correct”, then your doing the wrong job… either it is yours to fix, and you need to be able to do so with the authority inherent in that, or you need to remove yourself from the task.

    So, if doing less than great is ok, than “I can’t fix it” Is that a valid excuse?”, is valid.

    • Good good points. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. Good post, have you heard about Shu Ha Ri?

    • YES! I was trying to remember what the words were yesterday and couldn’t! Thanks a bunch!

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