From my years of work, there are a few models and ideas that keep coming back to me. One of those is the Conscious Competence Ladder, a way of thinking about how we learn things that is attributed to Noel Burch from a company called Gordon Training.

The idea is quite straightforward. We are either competent or incompetent in a thing, and we are either conscious or unconscious of that (in)competence.

To explain it, I often use the idea of learning to drive…

When we are kids, sitting in the back seat of a car, driving looks easy. Our parents drive without a thought, it is easy for them. They are unconsciously competent. We, however, are unconsciously incompetent. We don’t know what we don’t know.

The first time we sit behind a steering wheel, however, our incompetence is brought into stark relief. We suddenly are shockingly aware of everything that we don’t know. This can be overwhelming, and why sometimes people fail at the first hurdle when it comes to developing new skills.

As we learn to drive we shift from consciously incompetent to consciously competent. We can do the thing, but we have to consume a great deal of mental energy doing the thing. We use mnemonics to help navigate this complexity – mirror, signal, manoeuvre and all that jazz. Again, the cognitive load required to maintain this can often make people give up – it’s too much like hard work because it is hard cerebral labour.

It’s only after more time that we get to a point where it becomes second nature, we reach a stage of unconscious competence. And then driven journeys can pass by seemingly in a flash, and the risk of complacency rises.

As I come towards the end of my first week in the new role, I’ve been thinking about where I currently stand on the ladder.

There are elements with the new organisation where I am at the first two rungs – trying to get my head around what is a very different organisation to anything I have experienced before (it is a totally flat structure without people managers).

There are bits where I am refreshing my memory of working in different sectors, and also being back in consulting, where I was at unconscious competence in the past, but have dropped back a rung or two.

The role itself is new but forms elements of many things I have done in the past. I’m not quite sure yet where I stand on that, but it’s early days and I’ve not yet got time with my clients.

I have an advantage that the very skills of “starting a new job in a new organisation” aren’t too unfamiliar, but again it’s been a few years so there are elements there too where I’m a bit rusty.

Out of all of this, the ladder probably forms a useful way for me to express to myself, and to others, how I am adapting to the new environment, where I need to seek out help, and who might provide that help. There’s no master plan as such, but thinking about competence might well help me to track my own progress.

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