Employment Today – September 2001 issue      back to articles menu

"Altered States of Competence"

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.

It’s 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…

I 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. 

In 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’.

Unconscious Incompetence:

In 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…”

Imagine 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.

As 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?

Conscious Incompetence:

Now 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 learning.

Conscious Competence:

Now 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”

For 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.

Sometimes 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.

Unconscious Competence:

Things 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.”

As 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.

“Wings, 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?

For 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?

Why do highly skilled and experienced Pilots still use checklists? To guard against Unconscious Competence.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author.

steve@sta.co.nz                                                                                                                       back to articles menu