How the 4 Stages of Competence Build Awareness and Project Success

Abraham Maslow, the famous psychologist who created the hierarchy of needs, is also often credited with developing the stages of competence matrix. Competence in a field of study or practice, according to Maslow, can be assessed in terms of the relationship between ability and your awareness of your ability.

The first phase of competence is unconscious incompetence, or you don’t know what you don’t know. As you begin to learn about a subject, you begin to realize what you don’t know. You reach a stage of conscious incompetence. At this point, you begin to understand the task that lies ahead to become competent at the subject.

In the next phase, conscious competence, one is good at a particular task, but performing at an acceptable level requires focus and concentration. Finally, when one becomes unconsciously competent, one can “do it in your sleep.”

I’ve always found this analysis to be fascinating. It is a great tool for assessing people and their capabilities and aptitudes. Likely, the faster one moves through these phases, the greater aptitude one has for that particular task. What's more, managers cannot expect someone who is unconsciously incompetent to take on a task and achieve the same time and schedule parameters of someone who is consciously competent at it.

We may meet someone from a client’s organization who has been tasked to lead a project, but who has no background in leading projects. They may have aptitude, but at the time we encounter them, they may be unconsciously incompetent at the assignment. Maybe they are good at managing manufacturing operations, they are organized and technically oriented, but they have never built a project before.

Problems can arise when an experienced project manager who is unconsciously competent encounters an unconsciously incompetent counterpart. The project manager can successfully perform the task without much thought, while their counterpart “doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”  

At that point, the project manager has an opportunity to sink or swim. They have the stress and challenge of managing an important project with significant risk for the company. The client has the same risk, but with the added stress of being tasked to handle the project, despite lacking the necessary experience to excel at it. He is relying on us to help, but may not even realize it, since he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

An emotionally intelligent project manager will sense that the client doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and will patiently endeavor to accelerate them through the four stages. This type of collaboration, while initially often a bumpy ride, creates trust and an enduring relationship that leads to great references and repeat business.

One of the best aspects of a career in designing and building complex facilities is that it requires the building of complex relationships. It makes work that much more interesting, challenging and rewarding, because, when you think about it, every time we meet somebody new, we don’t know what we don’t know about them…and the learning process begins again.

“Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell 'em, 'Certainly I can!'

Then get busy and find out how to do it.”

Theodore Roosevelt

“It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.”

Martin Van Buren