How To Recognise the Four Stages Of Competence

You may have heard saying that “the beginning of wisdom, is to know that you know nothing.” But what does it mean?  Well, it is actually one of the four key stages of competence development that everyone goes through.  As I am sure you know, you were not born with all the skills that you have today.

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Humans have to go through a process by which we learn and acquire skills.  Some of these skills you will learn inductively by trial and error. You’ll find out how to do something by learning from your mistakes along the way.

Other skills you will learn deductively, for example at school, or on a course with work. this is where someone tells you this is the process and framework that you use to achieve the end goal.  Within this, we may have a set of building blocks, and within these building blocks we have smaller chunks, and so on. They give you the whole of these elements step by step, spoon-fed – you don’t have to figure it out for yourself.

There are models available to define and understand competence and how the individual stages of learning fit together. The one that I like to work with has four key steps of competence.

With this model everyone starts, in the same place.  They don’t know what they don’t know.  This is called being Unconsciously Incompetent.  Like before you learn to drive for example, and you have no real concept of everything that you need to learn.  Until your first driving lesson when you suddenly understand that you don’t know anything!

In this moment you have moved from Unconscious Incompetence to being Consciously Incompetent.  And this is a great leap forward. Because suddenly what might have seemed like a little subject, or a small skill set required for a task can suddenly open-up into a world of opportunity, challenge and possibility. A world of things that you never realise existed.  This can also be scary if you weren’t expecting it.

Understanding that you don’t know anything is excellent because you now work out “How do I learn?

Once you have learnt (to drive if we are continuing the analogy) – you then become Consciously Competent. So, this is where you now know that you know.  You feel confident driving around, normally a little while AFTER taking your test!

Building the Level of Mastery

Now moving beyond this stage you’d be in a position where you continue to build these skills up, and over time you build a level of mastery.

Because, you’ve moved from general awareness and where you’re trying to learn and develop these skills, to a position where they are in your day-to-day life. An example of this mastery may be: eating, for most of us, you don’t even think about anymore, you’ll pick up the knife and fork, and you eat. However, this process to a baby is such fantastic skill that initially they didn’t have.

So, imagine learning the new skill of eating with a knife and fork, that skill you don’t have presently but wish to learn.  You first need to work hard to pick the food up with the fork.  Then you have to get that food to your mouth without dropping it.  After that you learn how to cut something up with a knife.

It’s not going to be easy; you only need to watch a baby eating to realise that. So, being able to use a knife and fork subconsciously without even thinking about the process, is where you are unconsciously competent.  You don’t have to think about it. Eating dinner with friends is a great experience because you don’t have to think about how you eat.  So, you are Unconsciously Competent. You now embody that skill set. It’s part of you, and it’s part of your subconscious processes.

You never really forget how to ride a bike

People say, you never really forget how to ride a bike. Because you build up this unconscious mastery of that skill. The amount of reward you get from the skills that you have is high.  Because the effort that you need to put in is less.  Because you already know unconsciously what you’re doing.

Some people may look at this model and think it doesn’t apply to them as they are just good at everything!

They are doing themselves a discredit and if they are also trying to teach others then they’re also doing a discredit to them. Because, the reality is to show others well, you must look back and break down your own skill set.  You need to understand how you originally acquired those skills yourself, to then help somebody else learn. Whether that’s in an apprenticeship situation, whether it’s teaching your children how to do something or whether you are working and mentoring colleagues in your firm or business.

How can you take the Four Stages of Competence model and use it in your organisation?  Can you break down those key areas, skills and steps you use on a day-to-day basis, to make your skills repeatable for others? How will you take them on a journey from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence?