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When experience becomes incompetence

Experience is overrated. Experience can actually mean incompetence and that is when you need change.

How your performance changes

In most knowledge based professions your effectiveness in your job progresses up to a certain point until your reach your peak effectiveness (in that job). After that point there are two ways your effectiveness can go:

1 – It can stagnate at the same peak level: This can often be observed with high level positions such as CEOs, where they manage to achieve and keep their peak performance for a few years. However, the key point here is that at this point, they are not surpassing their past performances. In the very best scenario they will keep their current strong performance and nothing more.

2 – Your effectiveness decreases: This is by far the most common situation and will most likely happen to most of us in one point or another. If you think it does not apply in your case, think again. When you reach this point, your effectiveness decreases at a fast pace, unless you do something drastic to change your situation.

This phenomenon is better illustrated by what I will call The Effectiveness Curve.

The Effectiveness Curve

The effectiveness curve

The Effectiveness Curve has three distinct parts:

  1. The uprise – Also known as the learning phase
  2. The peak
  3. The road down – When your experience becomes incompetence

The uprise – Also known as the learning phase

Every time you start in a new position, you go to the very beginning of the effectiveness curve and start to progress upwards. This progression means that your knowledge of the work, your effectiveness and the value you provide are growing constantly.

As the name implies, the uprise is the real growing phase, where you develop as a better professional on a constant basis, your ideas are still very fresh, you can bring a new approach to the work and you experience intense learning and growth.

You should try to make this phase last as long as possible while, at the same time, go through it as efficiently as you can – to bring even more to the table. However, the speed and length of this phase are highly dependent on how good you are at the given job and how complex the job and environment are.

For simpler jobs, one might go through this phase in a few months, while in more complex jobs, achieving the level of knowledge required to peak could take any smart individual many years of dedication (some would even argue that is not possible to stop learning in some professions such as programming).

The peak phase

Now you have peaked at your job. At this phase you are performing at your very best at this job. This means that you delivering at the highest level you are capable of in this specific position.

The amount of time you will be able to stay at this level varies a lot. Some will be able to peak and stay in peak for years while others will quickly move on to the next phase of the curve. Staying at peak performance is also highly dependent on the job (how complicated and ever changing it is) and in your ability to keep reinventing yourself to keep yourself on top of your game.

At the peak phase you are not actively learning anymore. This phase is usually characterized by sustained good/high performance based on the knowledge acquired up to here in the most effective way for the context. Typically you know the rules, you know how to use them, when to break them, you know the important stakeholders and how to relate to them well and use all of this to make yourself more effective.

The peak phase is a period of mastery. Your performance here will be as high as you can achieve, which means that different people have different peak levels even when doing the same job. That makes it crucial that you can identify when you have peaked, so you can act on it timely.

As a peak performer you are typically the best person to train your less experienced colleagues. You know the ins and outs, the unwritten rules and goals and you can pass it on. You are the right person to incrementally improve the current situation. However you are very unlikely to be the one drastically innovating upon your current job. As a peak performer you are an inherent part of the current status quo.

As a peak performer you are an inherent part of the current status quo

Since you are a high performer, you will be recognized as such. The praises, recognition and status will come and will have an effect in your eagerness to learn more and to play with the status quo. How you react has a direct effect in how long you stay at your peak.

If this motivates you, you can fuel yourself to move forward, to do more and better .

However, often this causes the high performer to get complacent and this is the start of the descent phase in our curve.

When experience becomes incompetence

Now picture this: Mary has been on the job for many years and she is extremely knowledgeable about her work, the people involved, the company and all the expectations around the work.

Mary has been a key player in many of the most important projects on the process she works on and has an excellent track record.

Mary is the very definition of the peak performer.

She knows so much about her job that her boss and peers often consult with her about how to handle all the complicated situations. Lately, however, Mary’s boss has noticed an interesting pattern emerging:

Mary has been very specific in pointing out why things would not work out an why processes needed to be kept as they are and maybe be even more robust. She has turned into a strong advocate to mitigating risks and avoid rocking the boat.

This change has crept in throughout many years.

Knowing Mary for a long time, her boss realized that this comes in a sharp contrast with Mary’s history of challenging the status quo, risk taking and innovation that led her to be recognized as one of the top performers in her field.

These, my friends, are the early signs of the road down. This is where experience becomes incompetence.

At this point, Mary has stopped learning, since she is the expert. However, the work has continued to evolve.

What should Mary have done?

Now you might be asking: well, it seems I am on the same path as Mary. Where did it go wrong? How to avoid it?

If you look at the curve, you can get an overall sense that you should start taking actions when you are at the peak phase. And you would be right to conclude that.

However, what to do about it might be counter-intuitive.

We discussed that when you reach a peak, you are actually reaching your peak, for that specific job. Which let’s us conclude that, if the combination of you + your current job needs to change.

And this is exactly the point.

When you peak, is time to start looking for your next challenge. Your next job. You might have concluded by now, but this is exactly where Mary (and most of us) has failed.

By staying too long, she made it much more challenging for herself to keep on top of her game, to keep being able to challenge the status-quo (and it always needs challenging) and consequently to keep herself at the peak.

When that fails, she starts to slowly become incompetent. One day at a time. And since this is a slow process, it creeps in without no one notice until it is the new norm.


Where are you in the curve?

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