Conscious Incompetence - The need to transcend conventions

In his recent blog posting Seth Godin once again questions the value of competence. Sure, he does not want to people dumber. He just argues that sole reliance on competence as a compass to navigate the future can - well - be a hindrance. He´s written about it already in 1999 and made clear, that competence is about accomplishing something on the basis of existing knowledge - and thus is different from finding new ways of doing stuff. Whoever is competent is not necessarily innovative or imaginative. But that´s what we need in the face of constant change.

If the environment keeps changing you need to constantly adapt. Adaption is trying out new ways of coping with the environment - hopefully finding better ways to deal with it than in the past. So adaption needs innovation, not competence.

To understand what Seth Godin means and what I see necessary for the software industry let me put the argument about competence into perspective:

In the beginning of any issue there is incompetence. People have a hard time to get things right. The need to build up competence. They need to gather a body of knowledge and rules. Conventions need to be established on how to most effectively reach desired results. This is the pre-phase of any issue. It´s pre-conventional.

Then there is a long phase of competence. It´s about rules, regulations, canonicallity. Conventions rule, so to speak. There is a way to do things right. To become competent you learn to adhere to the rules. Whoever knows and executes the rules best is most competent. You don´t know the rules, you´re incompetent - say the competent ones. It´s a phase of duality. The good are the competent people, all others are the bad who need to be converted (or just faught). To the competent ones this phase is the pinnacle of development.

But, alas, the competence phase is just a phase. Although many can live in it pretty well, in the end it´s a dead end. Innovation is hard under a regime of competence driven people.

Enter the next phase: After competence comes... conscious incompetence. Transcending competence is about knowing when it´s right to apply - and when not. Whoever "is trans" (and not just competent) knows the rules, but feels free to abide by them or not. He knows about the reasons behind the rules, their history, the conditions that once formed them. So if conditions change he can step over any no longer fitting rules and start anew as a "pre".

The cycle of pre->conventionalism->trans starts again. And with it begins innovation.

Becoming trans might not be for everyone in the competence phase. But at least the competence people should recognize the importance of stepping up. So they should allow for people to become trans and move on. They should even foster trans-formation.

Not seeing beyond the pre- or conventionalism-phase is falling prey to the pre-trans-fallacy. It´s either asserting there is nothing beyond competence. Or it´s asserting to already be trans. The latter might be more dangerous, because it´s mostly mixing up being pre with being trans. "No rules" is true in the pre and trans phase - but for different reasons. Whoever is pre denies the rules or the necessity of any - just per se. But who´s trans has gone through learning rules but sees their limitations - and thus does not feel compelled to abide by them. However, being trans means to empathically admit the (passing) phase of conventionalism.

So if we want to move on in the software industry we need to be conscious of not falling into the pre-trans-fallacy trap! Otherwise we might get stuck with our software projects in the ever changing morast technologies and requirements.

PS: If you want to read more about the pre-trans-fallacy try to google it. But never mind the context of spirituality and esoteric thinking. Although the fallacy got pointed out first in those circles it does not mean it can´t be applied to technical issues.

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