Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Are you too competent to give advice?

"Trust me, I know what I am doing"
Inspector Sledge Hammer

Why do they cancel all the best TV shows? Take "Sledge Hammer!", it only ran for two seasons. Crazy.

Recently I've written a couple of posts on Instant IT Experts and ITIL as a Cargo Cult that have attracted some attention. Both of them highlight examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect summed up by their excellent paper "Unskilled and Unaware of it". For those who haven't come across it before the paper provides evidence that those who lack a skill are not capable of judging how bad they are at that skill compared to others, or how good others are at that skill. Hence they tend to massively over estimate their own ability and underestimate that of others. 

I first became aware of this effect at an organizational level during my involvement with the BQF and the EFQM Excellence Model. Organizations that were new to the scheme tended to self assess themselves at a level that exceeded what you would expect from world class operations.

In the educational world a model of concious competency has been around for may years. This posits that people move through four stages:
  • Unconscious incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence
  • Concious competence
  • Unconscious competence
The point I want to make in this post is that we have a responsibility to identify which of those stages people and organizations are at before we offer them advice, and the advice we give should be tailored to the stage they are at. 

A lot of the "bad" advice I'm seeing out in ITILland is not intrinsically bad, but it becomes dangerous when handed out without due care and attention. I suspect a particularly dangerous kind of advice is the sort that is intended to only apply in specific instances, but which can be taken as a general rule.

And I guess most of us have fallen into that trap at one point or another. As a trainer I became very aware that a throwaway comment could often be picked up on as a guiding principle by a student who totally ignored the bit which you went out of your way to say was really really important.

Where ITIL is concerned I think it is particularly dangerous because ITIL itself does not conform to any clear sound generic principles. Hence attempts to characterize it, including my own, are probably doomed to failure.  Bits of it are proven good practice, some of it might be considered best practice, other parts might be sub-optimal and yet others untried blue sky thinking. Some of it might be considered descriptive, other parts are clearly intended to be prescriptive for all practical purposes. In places it tells you the why, in others it tells you some of the how, but  not always. We live in a world though where people struggle with ambiguity and want black and white answers.

There is a tendency when talking to others to take their own assessment of their competency at face value and to see their understanding through your own eyes. The less concious you are of your own ability the less you might  realise that not everyone shares your wisdom and some still need to learn the basics of ITIL 101.

A physicist I know put it like this.

"At school in the lower grades they teach you that physics explains how the world behaves, but they lie to you about how it does that.

In the higher grades they tell you that how it really works is like this....but when you get to university theyt ell you that was a lie as well and how it really works is like this...

Then you become a professor, and realise nobody has any real idea about how it really really works."

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