To what extent might you be Unconsciously Incompetent?

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Increased knowledge can be worrying and a lot of knowledge is empowering. This is something it took me years to learn when I was in practice.

Think about your own knowledge of how a specific tax rule works. One you don’t have cause to think about very often.

The question is where are you on the learning ladder?

You may be aware of what you don’t know. Or you may be unaware and think the rules are quite simple.  Essentially I’m asking whether you are

  • Unconsciously incompetent – where you don’t know what you don’t know? or
  • Consciously incompetent – where you are aware of what you don’t know?

There are two further steps on the learning ladder:

  • Consciously competent – where you know stuff but you have to think about it. A little like a novice driver of a car.
  • Unconsciously competent – where you can do stuff without having to think about it. It just comes naturally.

The same four steps are relevant as regards many of the key business skills we need to be successful in our business lives.

We start by not knowing what we don’t know. We are unconsciously incompetent. This doesn’t matter generally as long as we don’t try to advise clients or to attempt risky adventures whilst in this state.

Then we start to realise there’s stuff we don’t yet know – so we become conscious of our incompetence or lack of knowledge. This is one of the reasons why accountants are typically so diligent about keeping their technical knowledge up to date. Even when you don’t learn anything new your confidence increases that you are more competent than you might have hoped.

There are some exceptions to this common sense principle but for the most part it’s true.

In the early years of this century I was headhunted to be the first tax partner for a long established firm of about ten general practitioners. I didn’t pursue the opportunity for one very simple reason.

I suspected that the partners in the firm were, to some extent, unconsciously incompetent as regards the tax advice they gave clients. In other words, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

I felt that if I became their new partner I wouldn’t be able to overlook this. I felt I would need to review their files to identify potential negligence claims and exposure to allegations of mistakes and errors.

It probably didn’t help that in recent years I had been in involved in expert witness work related to professional negligence. And I lectured on the topic too.

I explained my thinking to the partner leading the search and suggested that anyone good enough to warrant bringing in as a partner would share my concerns – even though they were pure speculation.

I had spoken with enough general practitioners over the years to know how common was the problem.

Equally I, as an experienced tax specialist, knew what I didn’t know. I considered myself to be consciously incompetent as regards tax issues outside of my experience. And I anticipated that the partners would be unimpressed if I (as their resident tax partner) wanted to get second opinions from more specialist tax experts.

At the time there was still an expectation in some quarters that a tax partner could/should know everything about tax. That assumption is even less reasonable now than it was all those years ago.

This is one reason why so many general practice accountants have relationships with tax specialists (and why so many use the Tax Advice Network to find such specialists).

The challenge we all have is that we don’t know that we don’t know.

The learning ladder has us going from a state of Unconscious Incompetence (you don’t know what you don’t know) to the realisation that there is something we need to learn – Conscious Incompetence.

This concept applies equally to all key business skills, not just to technical topics. For example, where are you on the learning ladder when it comes to being able to do any of the following?

  • Promoting your practice and services in a way that appeals to and engages your ideal prospects?
  • Pitching your services to these people so that they agree to pay decent fees?
  • Managing your time so that you have time to do more than simply plough though all the compliance work that needs doing for your clients?
  • Onboarding new clients efficiently?

For each of those would you say you are:

  • Unconsciously Incompetent?
  • Consciously Incompetent (CI)?
  • Consciously Competent (CC)? or
  • Unconsciously Competent?

There are many other skills that are necessary to be able to run an accountancy practice and live the life you want. We tend to address them over time at meetings of The Inner Circle for accountants (Sole practitioners only I’m afraid).

Obviously this blog post alone won’t motivate you to do anything differently. Chances are you will only take action when you feel frustrated and uncomfortable with being ‘incompetent’ as regards any of the key business skills you need to be more successful in your practice and career.

Once you start taking the first steps you can expect to quickly become Consciously Competent as you begin learning and practicing each new skill.

When I work with accountants here I aim to help reduce any discomfort and awkwardness. Trying and practicing new skills often requires a lot of concentration and effort. In time though if you push through the discomfort and continue mindfully practicing, you will complete the learning ladder and arrive at the state of Unconscious Competence. It means you can confidently operate on auto-pilot as performing the new skill takes little conscious effort.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Increased knowledge can be worrying and a lot of knowledge is empowering. If you’d like to talk about how I might be able to help you move from CI to CC as regards any key business skills, do get in touch. There’s no charge or obligation if we simply have an introductory call. Book one here now >>>>  If I can’t help you I will probably know of someone else who can.

About the Author:

Mark Lee FCA is an accountancy focused futurist, influencer, speaker, mentor, author and debunker.

One Comment

  1. Jon Stacey 30th July 2019 at 9:06 am - Reply

    Mark – Interesting stuff.

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