Leadership, Competence and Unknown Unknowns
Wouldn’t it be great to know that your team could respond to an unexpected challenge or crisis?
Wouldn’t it be good to understand fully your own competence, and the competence of your team?
How about having a process to identify the unknown threats to your business or team?
Wouldn’t it be an amazing feat of leadership to develop your team, yourself, and future proof in the most comprehensive way possible?
Well it is possible, I am pleased to report, and I hope that this article succeeds in weaving together three concepts to enable you to do all of the above.
Why can I talk about these things with authority? The answer is I can’t, but I do have some experience in using these techniques. The proving ground for which was on the battlefields of Afghanistan, which I will explain once we know exactly what we are talking about.
The British Army trained me to lead, and fortunately for my soldiers, they did a reasonable job.
I led soldiers on three operational tours of Afghanistan, and met with reasonable success. Unfortunately the soldiers with whom I had the privilege to serve did not all return uninjured, but we never failed to achieve our tactical missions against a formidable and tenacious enemy. The broader success of the campaign was above my pay grade, and is not something I will discuss here.
As a result of my training, leadership and how to motivate my soldiers in the most high stake and intense situations was a daily challenge. These are incredible men and women; I needed to make the best decisions I possibly could — they deserved nothing less.
The start point is John Adair’s Action Centred Leadership Model of Task, Team, and Individual, as seen below:
I developed an approach named the “Knowledge Competence Model” which was an amalgamation of four concepts as a useful framework for rationalising activity and focusing efforts.
Based on Adair’s Action Centred Leadership, it uses three additional models to set the conditions for success:
- Task: The Knowledge Matrix
- Team: The Four Stages of Competence
- Individual: The Johari Window
I will pull these together at the conclusion of this article, but first let’s start with understanding the task, with the help of Donald Rumsfeld…
1. The Task: Unknown Unknowns and Rumsfeld
On 12 February 2002 Donald Rumsfeld was briefing from the podium in the Pentagon about the existence of weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. It was here that he said the now famous statement:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
Initially lambasted for the phrase — not surprising due to the context and subject matter, he was later to receive some credit for the reductive intelligence behind the phrase. He ultimately attributed the idea to a NASA Administrator William Graham, whom he said he had first heard a variation of the idea from.
NASA had actually been using the phrase for years, and it was derived from the work of Joseph Luft (1916–2014) and Harrington Ingham (1916–1995) while they developed the Johari Window (more on that later).
Further thought from Psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek would add another element: the Unknown Known.
This model would prove to be an invaluable analytical model, particularly in defence, politics and strategic planning, but with widespread utility in other areas.
The Knowledge Matrix
The concept is that every event, action, occurrence, or piece of information can be categorised into the following:
This model enables you to fully audit the situation. It provides you with a thorough understanding of the context within which you are working, and critically, your knowledge gaps.
The aim is to get as many elements into Box 1 as possible. If there are things in Box 2, try everything to learn what you need to know.
Box 3: embrace the difficult facts, this could be uncomfortable truths about you or your team — understanding is the key to success. An Unknown Known is what we do not like to know, and is the basis for Risk Assessment and mitigation.
Box 4, as Rumsfeld said, is the tricky one. There will always be things we can not know, about which we have no idea.
How It Works
As a worked example, I will use the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) threat: a weapon used to great effect by the insurgents of Helmand province.
- Known Known: The enemy have an extensive array of IEDs and are effective in their use.
- Known Unknown: The enemy will use IEDs to target our patrols, but we do not know where or when.
- Unknown Known: We may fail to conduct our counter IED drills effectively, or the equipment may fail, which will raise the risk of being struck significantly.
- Unknown Unknown: The enemy may employ new IEDs or tactics which will counter our own procedures and tactics. As the saying goes “no plan survives contact with the enemy”.
So what did we do?
For Box 1 and 2: learn everything we possibly could about how IEDs have been used in the past, the terrain, the patrol routes, everything we could know to reduce the chance of being struck.
Box 3: Train, Train, Train. Drills must be second nature and preparation for patrols extensive. This is the only way to reduce the risk.
Box 4: Trust that our current knowledge and understanding of the threat would be enough to deal with a new situation.
Once the relentless pursuit of understanding the context within which you are working is complete, the task should be fully understood. Or at least, to the best of your ability.
The emphasis is on mitigating those things in Box 1, learning about Box 2, addressing those in Box 3, and preparing for Box 4.
Next step: Understand the competence of the Team.
2. The Team: The Four Stages of Competence
Also known as the “the four levels of teaching”, it was developed by Management trainer Martin M. Broadwell in February 1969. It was repackaged and recirculated by Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren in their 1973 book The Dynamics of Life Skills Coaching.
The premise is that in any learning progression, an individual goes through four stages of progression:
- Unconscious Incompetence. I call this the “Unknowing” Stage. People simply don’t know what they don’t know or what they should be doing.
- Conscious Incompetence. The “Understanding” Stage in which people start to understand what they should be doing, but are still unable to do it effectively.
- Conscious Competence. The “Functional” Stage, in which people know what they have to do, and can do it satisfactorily.
- Unconscious Competence. The “Mastery” Stage where the correct action is innate, and can be executed without thought or deep consideration. The individual has a fundamental understanding of what is required and can apply it to unexpected scenarios.
The model can be displayed as a hierarchy or a matrix as seen below:
How It Works
This is where the Leadership element comes in. If you are able to identify where your subordinates in your team sit in this model, you can effect insight driven change.
For example, before we began our deployment training, we knew very little about the IED threat in detail — we were “unknowing”.
As the training progressed, we proceeded to “understand” the problem better, but still didn’t know exactly how to mitigate the threat or respond to a strike.
The more we practice, the better we understood, and developed a “functional” capability to conduct counter-IED drills.
It was only as we enhanced our knowledge, understanding, functional ability, that we were able to reach a level of competence which could be considered “mastery”.
We innately knew where to stand and where not to, we observed ground sign as a matter of course, we knew our kit inside out.
It was only through achieving the Unconscious Competence stage that you can relieve yourself of the cognitive burden of the basics in such a high pressure situation.
This leaves you with bandwidth the deal with everything else, and respond intuitively to an unforeseen event.
A Team Effort
This is a Team Endeavour as much as it is an Individual one, for which the Leader is entirely responsible. If one of us stepped in the wrong place, it could have had fatal consequences for many of the team.
Each member of the team must be judged according to their respective competence level: address the team weakness and deliver them to “Mastery” of their role with intelligent training, understanding, and mentoring.
But one can not make the assumption that the leader knows enough to deliver this team development. They will have weaknesses themselves, and must consider their own competence in the same manner. Furthermore, they must consider how to deliver the process requirement to improve the team.
This is where the introspection of the leader comes in, and the Individual assessment of their competence.
3. The Individual (or the Leader): The Johari Window
The Johari Window is a method by which you can conduct a comprehensive review of your own mindset, abilities, knowledge — anything you decide to approach with the framework.
It is an exercise in self reflection, and relies on brutal levels of honesty and self criticism. Full and honest investment and engagement with yourself and your qualities is paramount.
One cannot lead effectively if they do not understand their own ability to develop and nurture relationships, either with themselves or with others.
The Importance of Effective Leadership
Your abilities as a leader, and developing your self awareness to improve the relationship you have with your subordinates is fundamental to building their competence, generating confidence, and leading an effective team.
The model is below:
The linkage with the Knowledge Matrix as detailed above is abundantly clear. It is about identifying, and then amplifying your strengths and reducing your weaknesses. There are many ways to do this in practice, such as the use of Marginal Gains (as I discuss in the linked article).
So now you have understood the Task, identified the development and training requirements for the team, and considered in detail your qualities to lead effectively in the given context, you need to pull it all together.
4. The Knowledge Competence Model
This model is simply a route map through the analytical process that has already been described.
It is centred around the Action Centred Leadership Model, and uses the various techniques to ensure a comprehensive understanding of what you need to achieve and how.
The start point must always be the task, from which you must orientate the requirements of the team to deliver it and inform understanding.
Once you understand the task effectively, you can analyse the competence of the team to deliver that task, and identify the training and development requirements to deliver the outputs required.
Finally, once the scope of the co-ordination, motivation, and mentorship is made clear, understanding your role and requirements as the Leader is paramount. You are the one that needs to drive the process and make it happen.
You, the Leader, are responsible for understanding the context, understanding the team, and understanding yourself.
This article, I hope, will at least provide a start point for any reader that has made it this far, for which I am grateful!
This is about understanding the task, orientating and preparing your team, and understanding how to effectively prepare and lead them successfully.
Every moment invested in this, or a similar process, is worth the effort. The more comprehensively you understand the situation and the task, the better you can prepare, and the more effectively you can lead.
It is through this process that you can give yourself and your team the best possible chance of being successful, and surviving the batterings the unknown future will bring.
I took my soldiers to war, and brought them all home again. Some suffered life changing injuries. Some of our brothers and sisters in arms were not so lucky.
No matter what the stakes are, as a Leader it is beholden on us to invest in ourselves, invest in our people, and work tirelessly to understand the context in which we work.
Long term success is predicated on Leading with Pride, Professionalism, and Purpose. We owe it to those who would follow us, wherever we must lead them.
Thank you for making it this far! I know that your time is precious and I am grateful for you spending some of it on my work. More is available at thenowman.com
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Thanks again, happy reading, and good luck with your writing!