Why the long wait? A ‘tour’ of competence

Winning ‘le Tour’ starts with the first wobble

It has been encouraging to see some positive action coming through this summer with new people being engaged in change activities. In our experience this year the Change Academy team has noticed that, on occasion, things have moved more slowly than expected in our first year. Is this normal?

We should be encouraged to hear that experienced practitioners often see that change efforts go through a ‘lull’. This appears to be caused by a typical learning curve experienced by people going through organisational transformation (Scholtes 1998). This can be attributed to the steps made by people experiencing the change.

If we challenge ourselves with new concepts, we are faced with the question – how do we do this? We move from a state of ‘unconscious incompetence’ (we didn’t know that we didn’t know) into ‘conscious incompetence’ (now we KNOW that we don’t know). It’s like learning to ride a bike; until we sit on it and make our first push forwards (and start wobbling, panicking and falling) we don’t really understand that we don’t know how to do it. With new experience and insight, now we truly KNOW that we don’t know how to ride! That experience leads us to consciously learn more: to balance and shift our weight, to steer (but not over-steer!), to pedal left and right.

Steps to competence – (Adapted from Drejer, 2000)


At that point it appears that people can sit in a lull, where we mull over how to put the new concepts, ideas and learning  into action. Scholtes suggests this lull can take a year.


Deming is more frank:

¬†“It does not happen
all at once.
There is no instant pudding.”

However, once people have got their heads in gear (I know, another cycling analogy) thereafter they are able, with conscious effort, to apply the new thinking in their work. Over time, with continued effort, this new level of competence becomes unconscious – a habit. As long as we keep our eyes open and purposeful in our efforts, we will not slip into complacency. Instead our proficiency will progress into expertise and we can look for other challenges.

More reading:

Drejer, A. (2000),”Organisational learning and competence development”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 7 Iss: 4 pp. 206 – 220

Scholtes, P. (1998), The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New Yok: McGraw-Hill.

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