Five Tips for Recognizing and Avoiding Incompetence

Over the years, I’ve encountered hundreds of executives and managers who were absolutely sure that they had a strategy, and similarly were confident that that they were good strategic thinkers. Their actual performance shows that their confidence is unjustified.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the phenomenon of incompetent people who act and believe as if they were competent. Let’s take a moment to see some evidence of the Dunning-Kruger effect in the real world. This video is hilarious. It is from the TV program Jimmy Kimmel Live and involves an interviewer asking people at the South-by-Southwest festival their opinions on some non-existent bands. Notice how confidently they provide their opinions!

Writes David Dunning, in an article titled, “We Are All Confident Idiots,”

Incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

This is because our minds develop by accumulating and associating random bits of knowledge. People are not ignorant, they are misinformed:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous.

The Jimmy Kimmel Live video seems like harmless fun. But it shows up in business and government. To see another scary-but-funny example of the Dunning-Krueger effect, watch this analysis of Donald Trump’s answer in a December 2015 debate for the Republican nomination for the US presidency.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a paradox. Dunning writes,

The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise.

Strategic Thinking Tips

A competent strategic thinker will recognize that the Dunning-Kruger effect exists in all areas of life, including strategy making.

Tip 1 – Watch for overconfidence in others.

Tip 2 – Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

Tip 3 – Find a colleague to be your strategic thinking partner. Each of you have a responsibility to be a devil’s advocate to the other. This article gives you some develops the idea that strategy making is similar to jury duty.

Tip 4 –  Use the prospective hindsight technique. It involves imagining a future outcome (disaster or delight), and then asks the question “What happened to cause that outcome?”  More can be found in this article.

Tip 5 – Don’t assume that a person’s training or education has been remembered or practiced. I know a senior executive who gets upset when people don’t manage projects well.  “They’ve been trained,” he says, as if it is a definitive declaration. The fact is that they attended a 2-day awareness session and got no follow up support from their organization.

What other examples do you have to share?  

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