The importance of knowing what you don't know

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so
— Mark Twain

Having an expertise in a subject area is an advantage in business. It's stating the obvious that having an expertise in one area does not make you an expert in all areas (this applies even to CEOs). It does beg the question why we ask our accountant or lawyer for advice on business in general and strategy in particular. Accountants have become seen as general business adviser's when they remain a limited expert in one very narrow area. That area, by the way, faces towards the past and not the future which isn't helpful for strategy.

So what I believe is very important is to know is what you don't know. The vast majority of areas in business are specialist areas and not, as we sometimes erroneously think, are common-sense. Marketing and branding, human resources, IT, strategy and governance are just a few examples where people think they are "experts" when they are actually incompetent.

I developed the following graph as an aid to explaining the importance of knowing where you are in regards to competent versus incompetent in any particular subject area.

Competence graph.jpg

Basically everyone starts off as incompetent, no one is born an accountant (thankfully). Over time you gain experience and you gain competence. However there are a few important points:

  • You have to learn from experience to gain competence. The lower grey line demonstrates it is entirely possible to have 1 years' experience twenty times over (which is what many people actually experience).
  • You have to know where you are with a degree of honesty. You are only fooling yourself if you think you are competent or an artist if you are closer to a novice. Public sector managers (especially health sector CEOs), take notice!
  • Increasing your knowledge does not increase your competence. If it did, academics would be the best practitioners and I hate to break it to them, they aren't! A training course only adds competence when you put the lessons into practice. Just think about the difference between sex education and sex. 

The main problem that limits improving strategic and managerial competence is that we often don't know how badly (or well) we have done. If you stuff up an operation as a surgeon then the outcomes are embarrassingly obvious. Strategy - planning and execution - is impacted by many confounding variables and we don't have the luxury of turning the clock back and see what would have happened if we had involved someone to do the job properly. Many senior managers simply blame the problem on someone else and miss the vital opportunity to learn dooming them to repeat the exercise in their next unfortunate organisation (victim).

Strategy (my own area of interest) is the most obvious area where I believe expertise is under-valued. Most senior managers, and possibly all CEOs, think they are brilliant strategists yet most are dangerously incompetent. Dangerous because they don't realise they are incompetent!