A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but lots of knowledge too can have its pitfalls. Can we ever become too competent to consult a manual or follow a checklist? Steve Punter examines conscious and unconscious approaches to working.
Sunday morning (early) and my three year old is watching Sleeping Beauty for the
323rd time. It’s not easy writing this story with one eye
watching the Wicked Witch offer the poisoned apple, one hand working the
occasional spoonful of porridge into the mouth of a mesmerised child, and the other
eye and hand operating a notebook balanced on my knee. I’m writing this on
a Toshiba 440 CDT notebook – about 3 years old, a Pentium 133, already a
combat veteran and almost obsolete.
My notebook is part of me, and never far away, but it’s due for
replacement soon, since it can’t handle the software and graphics I need to
maintain our company’s website. Software?
Graphics? Website? In 1970, ‘software’ might have been a marketing word for
a cashmere sweater, velvet pants, or a really comfy set of underwear…
consider myself part of a lucky group, not a big group either, a sub-group
really, of the ‘chronologically gifted’ set who by virtue of their
management positions were forced to embrace computer technology just as it
started to take off in the mid-80’s, lucky enough to work as a manager for a
company who sent me on my first computer training course in 1984 (Avon
Cosmetics, God bless ‘em), and then allowed me time to experiment at work,
since I along with thousands of others could not afford a ‘personal
computer’, otherwise known as the PC. I’ve only attended one ‘training
course’ since then and it was a complete waste of time, a 6-hour farce of
‘can you keep up with the trainer’, ironic since I attended it mainly to
pick up any basics I might have missed... Everything else I have learned has
been through reading the manuals and experimentation – but that’s just me,
we all learn in different ways. Some of you may have noticed that these days you
don’t get a manual with your new computer. It’s all in the ‘on-line
help’ function, so off I go to Whitcoulls or Bennett’s, a walking
anachronism (in this respect at least) to buy my 3rd-party-published
manual, shuffling along the shelves with other paper-heads, hesitating near the ‘Windows
(or whatever) for Dummies’ racks, furtively purchasing a copy in a
plain brown wrapper. Hey – they put humour into computer training; therefore
they are Gods and worthy of my custom. And let’s face it, some of us learn
best by leaving said manual in the smallest room in the house and absorbing it
in small but regular Bytes.
some ways I could draw a parallel with the fact that at age 19, my mate and I
reconditioned a 1953 Ford 10 motor in his Dad’s garage, and for the bits where
we didn’t know what we were doing, we had a manual. With photo’s!
These days I look under the bonnet of my Mitsubishi Diamante and I
recognise the battery, radiator, intakes, exhaust… er… and that’s about
it. So I drive the car, only having a rough idea of what’s going on under the
bonnet. I consider myself a competent, safe, driver. As we all do… but would I
attempt to tune my car? Hell, no. In this matter I am a Conscious Incompetent
(explained below). If it were sapient, my car would breathe a sigh of relief.
So let’s have a quick look at ‘States of Competence’, and I’ll
use a commercial airline pilot as an example (because there’s so much
at stake for all of us!), and the common or garden ‘Adult Learner’.
this state we’re totally unaware of how much we don’t know.
We don’t even know that we need to learn anything. A dangerous state: “Oooh
look! – a big green button – I wonder what it does – let’s push it…”
a young child being allowed to play around inside the cockpit of a light plane
without adult supervision and the key in the ignition… Those of you who know
me by sight and have seen me recently will have observed the visual impact of
Unconscious Incompetence. I will never again walk into a hairdresser and
confidently ask for a ‘Number Two’, having only heard it talked about. In
about 6 months time I shall walk in again and confidently ask for a Number Four,
and there’s every chance I shall get what I wanted a week ago, and won’t
have to walk around with a balaclava on to avoid hypothermia or being arrested
as an escapee. I initially attempted to pass it off as an experiment that went
badly wrong but the truth is I mixed the numbers up. I can’t think of an
analogy with an airline pilot. The mind Biggles. Joke. Oh, never mind.
to the Workplace Adult and technology – how many people are out there who have
no idea of the ever-widening gulf between their present technological skills,
and that required as entry-level to an increasing number of jobs – perhaps
even theirs? As the number of unskilled jobs decreases, a bigger and bigger pool
of people will be competing for them. Inevitably that must mean more unemployed,
and unemployable. Social consequences?
we have some idea of what we don’t know, and we’re actually aware of
it. We can start to choose what to learn. A much less dangerous state: “I
won’t push that big green button because I have no idea what it does. How do I
go about finding out?” A danger here might be impatience – the desire to
learn coupled with curiosity and enthusiasm might overcome caution. Therefore
those adults in the workplace who are expressing a desire to learn should be
given the opportunity to do so, or in the interim at least shown enough to
hi-light the danger of untrained activity. It’s no coincidence that in
Brookfield’s Six Factors for motivation in Adult Learning, the first Factor is
that Adult Learning is a Voluntary event: “It may be that the stimulus for
learning is external to the learner, but the decision to learn is the
Learner’s”. So you can see from a Trainer’s point of view that
Conscious Incompetence is a great state for a prospective learner to be in. To
use the Pilot analogy, a fully qualified 737 Pilot knows better than to hop into
a helicopter and try to fly it, without significant training and qualification,
but if helicopters were the only future employment, the Conscious Incompetent at
least knows what they don’t know, which tells them where to start in terms of
we know what we are doing, and are fully aware of what we are doing, as
we do it. Less danger here: “I am pushing the green button because it
does a specific function and I need that function performed right now”
workplace Adults, a skills and knowledge audit accompanied by competency testing
is a valuable thing since it establishes in the mind of the Adult exactly what
level they are at and how competent they really are. They are less likely to
attempt tasks that are way outside their range, and are often motivated learners
purely through that ‘real time awareness’ of their competency. It is easier
for them to sense a shift in technology because they tend to be attuned to it.
Somebody who has ‘recently qualified’ or just learned a new skill, is more
likely to be in this state. This is actually where we want our Airline Pilots to
be, consciously flying the plane, however that ‘newness’ is in
conflict with another desired attribute in a Pilot – that of significant experience.
when I’m doing a complex task in desktop publishing (I describe myself as
competent but not expert), you might hear me talking to myself. Mumbling. It’s
not the medication, honest. Lean closer and you might hear… “right, now
select all that, stick it on the clip, change over to that page… and stick
it..right.. there! Good, now save that and open…” and what you are hearing
is conscious competence. I am thinking through what I am doing, as I am doing
it. Facilitating workshops which I’ve done most days for 10 years, as I work
with my groups I am at one and the same time sensing their mood and reaction and
response, and deciding which tools to use to make that group work better,
produce and enjoy more. In a state of conscious competence I am likely to be
aware of my technical skill or knowledge and the changes in technology that have
an effect on me. I am more likely to be concerned at keeping up with advances. I
am likely to be a motivated learner.
happen on ‘auto pilot’. You are so trained, so experienced, that things
happen on an almost subconscious plane. Danger! - “Did I push the green
button? I can’t remember. I think I did. Yes, I must have done.”
an example, next time you are flying somewhere, before boarding the aircraft see
if you can get yourself into a position where you can see into the cockpit –
perhaps from the ‘gate’ area, or even while walking down the air bridge –
and there’s a good chance you’ll see two supposedly experienced pilots
apparently consulting a checklist, and ticking them off.
2.” “Check, I see 2”. “Engines, 4.” “Yes, we still have 4”. For
those of us who fly in smaller aircraft, have you ever noticed the pilot
actually walks around the plane looking at things like the wings etc before
getting in? Why? Are the wings likely to be missing? Well, they might be. The
danger is that experience and familiarity may result in assumption. I well
remember a flight to Wanganui from Hamilton in a small plane (any plane where
you can see the Pilot is a small plane and therefore highly suspect)
- after disembarking in Hamilton from our ‘proper’ aircraft to
transfer to the Wanganui flight we were told to board (“that’s your plane
over there – the little one rocking in the wind – sit anywhere”) and sat
patiently waiting for the crew to arrive. An older woman with a large umbrella
had the temerity to sit in the front right Pilot’s seat. A pale, thin,
pimply-faced lank-haired youth arrived and sat in the front left Pilot’s seat.
I waited for them both to be rebuked by the crew when they arrived and made to
shift… Instead the youth half-turned to us and said, “Welcome everyone”,
then we taxied and took off… Shortly after take-off the Pilot reached for his
sunglasses but instead only succeeded in lodging them in a small space between
the windscreen and dashboard. The sharp point of the woman’s umbrella became
the main instrument in a 20-minute battle by the Pilot to recover them, all the
while flying at tree-top height over the Parapara Ranges. It was then I noticed
that the fuel gauges, which I could clearly see on the overhead display, showed
‘empty’. I worried and fretted, expecting any minute to run out of fuel.
About ten minutes out of Wanganui, by which time I felt closer to my God than at
any time before or since, the Pilot reached up, flicked a switch between the two
fuel gauges, and they both instantly showed ‘full’. I wanted to kill him
(after we landed). He had absolute confidence, to the point of not really
thinking about what he was doing. Who was flying the plane? For significant
periods of that flight, it’s my opinion that the plane was flying itself. In
an emergency, how would he react? Have you ever driven a car a reasonable
distance, say a couple of hours, and on arrival been unable to remember
passing through certain towns? Who was driving?
our adult workers – take a look around your organisation. How many of them
actually think, on a conscious, real-time level, about what they are doing? How
many of them are on autopilot, and could do the job in their sleep? How many of
them are doing critical jobs where mistakes have potentially life-threatening
consequences? They are likely to be aware of technological advances, but less
likely to admit or be aware that they may need training, and less likely to be
motivated learners, accepting learning simply from a ‘compliance’ point of
view rather than from interest or other internal motivator. What processes have
you got in place to stimulate awareness and/or guard against the problem?
do highly skilled and experienced Pilots still use checklists? To guard against Unconscious
Steve Punter ANZIM,
Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author.