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Mental Models: Circle of competence

Someone who has a circle of competence has developed a deep knowledge within their circle.

If you have a circle of competence in a given area, your knowledge is deep enough for you to know what you don’t know.

You’ll understand your circle and its boundaries aswell.

The danger with some people is that they don’t know their circle, so they don’t know what they don’t know.

For example:

In organisations where there is a poor understanding of the circle of competence, meetings take place where consensus decisions are made by people who don’t have a competence in the area they’re making decisions on. The group in these meetings don’t know what they don’t know so the quality of a decision may be poor and because of this there's a big risk of not realising why outcomes might be poor.

Managers or HIPPOs are at risk of falling into this category.

Over time, if people always make decisions in this way, it can affect the outcomes and more importantly erode the value of someone else's circle of competence.

E.g working in product management, I’ve seen senior stakeholders describing how they think they want a user interface to look. When the UX designer provides reasons why their prescriptive ideas may not be viable, stakeholders can feel under valued or not listened to. And of course, there's tons of techniques for the UXer to be able to articulate themselves sensitively, but equally, they wouldn't have to if the stakeholder had a self awareness of their competence.

If the stakeholder knew what they didn’t know, maybe they’d lean on people who have a circle of competence in the given area.

Circle of competence in politics

What if this is applied to voting? A conventional theory is that the Brexit vote which resulted in Britain leaving the EU happened happened because many voters didn’t have a circle of competence in what they were voting for.

They were convinced that their knowledge was good enough to have a say with a question that contains seemingly infinite unknown unknowns.

Politicians may have have a circle of competence or turn to their counsel but the wider public can’t possibly know every detail so therefore it can be concluded that putting a brexit vote to the people was a Machiavellian idea. E.g use the public's ignorance to favour Brexiteers in Government.

Developing a circle of confidence

  • Keep a diary of your performance and lessons learnt - you can’t improve if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong
  • Gather external feedback from people you trust
  • Never take your circle of competence for granted

People who have a strong circle of competence in an area can easily become complacent, their knowledge outdated or become entrenched in their confidence of their circle.

These people risk falling behind especially if their area is evolving. The world is dynamic after all. E.g a teacher may have have the lessons learnt from 30 years of teaching, but if they're not reflecting or checking themselves systematically, they risk having a deep circle of competence where the knowledge is outdated.

Teachers who have learnt everything through teaching in the classroom can quickly find themselves institutionalised  having narrowed their feedback to the classroom environment. Their methods may become outdated if they don’t make sure they’re consciously staying abreast of developments in their field.

You can’t be inside a circle of competence for everything so seek advice

It’s easy for people to give advice. Go and ask people advice on anything and quite often people will give you what they think is good advice.

  • Seek advice from people who have a circle of confidence you’re interested in
  • Probe the limits of their circles, especially with higher stakes decisions