On last week’s WB40, Chris and I spent some time dissecting the arguments put forward in a fascinating article Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre in which Venkatesh Rao proposes that the thing that humans are really good at is being not quite great at a lot of things, and this is the quality that will hold us in good stead against Artificial Intelligence.

This week I’m running a workshop for the technology leadership team of a client. The client’s business is about to go through some pretty significant changes. And it struck me that this concept of mediocrity might be part of the challenge that they face. They’re too good at what they have been doing and the challenges of new things around the corner are possibly problematic because they will represent a need to move out of various comfort zones.

The industrial era model is to head towards excellence – refine practices until you get to “best practice” at which point you can scale. This is great if the world around you is relatively static, but in an environment where there is change and ambiguity best practice can become a liability. If you have become so excellent at doing a particular activity that it is hard for you to alter how you operate, you become a sitting duck in the presence of a black swan (Monday morning metaphors mangled…)

“Mediocrity” however is a loaded and pejorative term. There’s a way of thinking about how we adapt to learning new things that I often fall back upon. Called the “Four Stages of Competence“, it thinks about what we do through lenses of how good we are at them (competence) and how aware we are of our abilities (consciousness).

To illustrate, take yourself back to when you were a child and what you thought it was to drive a car. Driving looked easy, effortless because we observed (for the most part) people driving for whom driving was easy and effortless. We were unconsciously incompetent. If you’ve never learned to drive, you still are.

Step forward in your memory then to when you first got behind the wheel of a car for your first lesson. At that point, your understanding of driving will probably have changed quite quickly and quite dramatically. You were suddenly conscious of your incompetence.

After lessons, and to the point of your driving test (or tests, for some of us), you increased in your driving abilities to develop competence. It was hard work, though, because you were very aware of what it was you were doing. The mnemonics of Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre or “Try not to pull out in front of a beige Ford Orion this time” bouncing around your head on every action. You were consciously competent.

And now to today, when you can complete huge journeys and get to your destination without remembering anything in particular about the journey – you have achieved unconscious competence.

For skills like driving, we want to get to that point, for the most part. Trying to remember the detail can sometimes be confusing – trying to remember which pedal does what when you’re cruising down a motorway can be disorientating. Driving in a country where they use the other side of the road pushes you back to conscious competence for a while.

But if you are in a changing environment, maybe we need to try to keep ourselves more in the conscious competence space for more of what we do? Is the challenge of the VUCA world sustaining the energy that is required to be constantly mindful of our competence, both individually and organisationally?

That’s going to be the core of the workshop.


We’ll play a card game on the board above. First up we’ll identify the competencies that the group needs. Those might be technical (“Agile project delivery”), domain specific (knowledge of our business’ sectors) or softer (“collective decision making”). Those competencies/services/skills will be written out onto Artefact cards.

The group will then place those cards into the quadrants where they sit today. That will take a bit of discussion and consensus-forming. (Where they sit today will be as a group, rather than for the individual).

We’ll then look as to what needs to move over the coming months. The assumption is that in times when there is change and uncertainty, overreliance on Unconcious Competence runs the risk of complacency, and focus should be placed onto bringing expertise from left to right in the top row (and even pulling things back from the Excellence/complacency quadrant back into Mindful Effectiveness.

The rules for moving are that a card can only move at most one quadrant, and only through the gates (you can’t go from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence in one move or vice versa).

We’ll then work out who owns which moves, and what has to happen next.

I’ll report back on how it goes. I think this is probably a game that can also be played with the CxO priority cards too.

One thought on “Mediocrity, consciousness, and competence

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