When you first meet a person, do you rush to judgment and decide how competent she is?  And if you are proven right do you generalize on her behavior for all circumstances?  And do you use the same decision-making process for businesses? If you do you are making such a big mistake!

When we think about people’s skills and interests, and business’ capabilities, we must remember that on any specific topic or subject each person or business falls within one of the quadrants on this matrix:

Now lets define, by example, each quadrant:

Consciously Competent – we (the person or business) know what we know.  When we say we are experts in something, we know that to a certainty.  For example, last year my wife needed carpel tunnel surgery on her right hand.  Her regular physician recommended a surgeon who really impressed both my wife and, less importantly, me.  As we talked I in the first visit I noticed her name and title embroidered on her smock – the position was “Director of Upper Body Extremity Surgery.”  It sounded important so I, naturally, asked what upper body extremities are and she said “hands”- duh!  So I quickly retorted with “Do you do right or left hands?”  She replied, quite seriously “both but I have some associates who specialize in only one.”  These people, and my wife’s surgeon, are consciously competent and her surgery was quick, painless and accomplished exactly what she needed.

Consciously Incompetent – we know what we don’t know. For example, Middlesex Consulting specializes in working with B2B clients, I know that retention is a universal need and that the basic concepts are the same but the B2C world deals in different volumes, scope, value, and even has its own terminology.  When I am asked to discuss a B2C engagement, I explain that I can start the prospects down the road to growth and retention but at sometime they will need an expert in their specific field.  Sometimes they want me to do my thing and they provide the expertise that I am missing and sometimes we shake hands and go our separate ways.

Unconsciously Competent – we don’t know what we know.  While this sounds strange it happens to all of us.  We read books and magazines, watch about various topics on television, follow interesting but off our track blogs and, in general, had a series of life experiences that qualify you at some level.  I know I will never be able to perform upper body extremity surgery but recently a friend of mine talked to me about his upcoming carpel tunnel surgery and I was able to answer many of his questions and brief him about what he would encounter during his process.  Of course, it was easy for me since he took my recommendation and used the same surgeon as my wife.  The point is that I never would have thought that I could offer useful pre-surgery information until he asked and then the floodgates opened.

Unconsciously Incompetent – we don’t know what we don’t know. This is the really scary one because we (or they) think we know something and proceed to give advice or answer questions with full conviction and authority and we are wrong.  The simplest example I can share is when asking a stranger for directions (maybe your GPS is home there is no place to pull over and set it up).  Anyway, you pull into a gas station, ask directions, and get a precise answer from someone who appears positive.  You head off and after a while, there is not even another gas station to stop into and get correct directions.  Annoying but what if you are asking for advice about whether to load your 401K up on equities of bonds or whether the car you like will really last to 150,000 miles.

Why does this matter?

It matters because you are constantly evaluating your employees and want to provide them with new assignments to remain engaged and to grow.  Or you are selecting suppliers and service providers to help you achieve your MBO’s. Or, in real life, you have to choose a new nursery school for your first-born or a body shop to undo some creative parking by your teenager. In each case, it is your responsibility to evaluate the other party, determine if they are the one for you and then move ahead.

Let me give you a final example.  Last year I needed a carpenter to do some repairs on my home and located a small group who said all the right things and gave me what I thought was a fair price.  When I checked their references I spoke to someone who praised them for doing what they said they would do, being on time, cleaning up each evening, etc.  I felt good and them he asked my the perfect context question – “will this be outside or inside work?”  I answered outside, why? He said good because they are NOT finish carpenters and would not recommend them for finish carpentry like installing trim or building cabinets.  I stuck with my choice and was really satisfied but also glad I learned the limits of their competency.