Are You Unconsciously Incompetent?

Written by our Co-Founder & Master Dieuwke Hoogland

As Masters of Scale International, we speak with a lot of potential clients and founders. We need to understand what’s driving them before they can team up with our Masters. We would like to share  another learning from these interesting discussions.

This time it’s about culture and mentality. Founders we speak to are very ambitious and eager to be successful and hopefully become the ultimate founder of a unicorn. Social media, press and books are filled with stories of founders who were extremely successful and it’s understandable that founders take it as an inspiring  example for their own route. And founders aim to show this in their LinkedIn profiles and resumes.

And yes, in general founders are highly educated, skilled and competent. Experienced even. It may need some observation to notice there may be some blind spots. They often pop up as a challenge in growing the company. The question then is;  Is this clearly identified as a challenge, as an incompetence of a team or a founder? And secondly, are founders asking for support or do they stick to personal pride, eagerness and ambition to be competent in ‘everything’ the company needs when it comes to scaling.

What we describe here is fundamental for an ambitious founder or team of a start- or scaleup. Ambition is everything and will help strategically scale the company. 

But here’s something else at stake that may become a critical factor. It’s referring to the self-awareness of founders and teams of scaling companies:

  • How do you know what you don’t know?
  • How to ask for support when you don’t see the need to ask for what you don’t know?
  • How to realise that you may profit from senior support and competences if you don’t know what you are missing out on.
  • Is it the best approach to grow your business and for example close your next funding round all by yourself? 

Several elements, including “know what you don’t know” or recognizing a blind spot, are very important for founders at this stage of scaling. Here you can apply the stages in the pyramid of Maslow, frequently attributed to Abraham Maslow. 

(incorrectly since the model does not appear in his major works; according to Wikipedia) 

The four stages suggest:

That individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.

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.

Conscious incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they 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.

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.

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.

From our discussions with (prospect) client founders we learn they are generally competent at scaling. And when onboarding at Masters of Scale to find support for certain aspects of scaling like finding intelligent capital or building a multi-year strategy, it is exciting to see they clearly envision their blind spots. We see them transform from ‘unconscious incompetent’ to ‘conscious incompetent’.  

Other founders tap into the expertise of Masters of Scale because they are already aware of their status of being ‘conscious incompetent’. They deepdive into a learning cycle with us so that they are soon able to accelerate their company, and soon become ‘conscious competent’ for specific elements in their scaling route.

At Masters of Scale, we support founders who can step beyond their pride and ‘can do myself’ mindset. They are eager to learn and will quickly pass through Maslow’s pyramid together with our Masters. It is incredibly rewarding to see these founders grow and as a result their companies successfully accelerate their scaling. And maybe on their way to become the next unicorn… 

Sharing these experiences also means asking you to share your vision on the topic. So we are happy to receive your insights. Together we all grow from unconscious to conscious and from incompetent to competent. 

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