Managing Conscious Incompetence – Looking for experience reports.

If you ever go to the Extreme Tuesday Club you are bound to hear the following conversation…

“I have a huge backlog of books to read”… “Yeah, I know. I’ve had to move my backlog to Kindle as I was running out of space”.

This conversation reflects the delight that the people at XTC take delight in their ignorance. When someone discovers a new idea, its added to the backlog of everyone at XTC. I’m thinking that XTC might be the only true learning community that I’m a member of.

As a coach, I find the Conscious Competence model to one of the most useful tools in my toolkit. It is also one of the most misunderstood. Conscious Incompetence means that someone is aware of an idea, AND that they value the idea. In other words, they understand “Whats in it for me?”. That backlog of books is a public indication of your ignorance. Its a public statement that there are ideas that you value but you do not know. I believe it was Plato who said our knowledge is a circle, and the circumference of the circle represents the things we do not know. The more we know, the more we realise we do not know.

In risk averse cultures I’ve observed that people do not want to admit ignorance. They tend to want to learn privately. This may be because there seems to be a correlation between risk averse cultures and those with a high power distance culture. In high power distance cultures, official status is about perception. If you admit that you do not know about something that it is valuable to know, and that someone else knows that, you are lowering your status. As such you will state publicly that the thing has no value, or that you already know it… until such time as you have developed the skill

So here is the hypothesis (theory). Could a community where people have a public backlog of the things they do not know but that they value be an indicator of a learning community. Another hypothesis. Could a public backlog of things to learn be used to tip a community’s culture from risk version to risk management?

One of the challenges of creating an Agile community is shifting the culture from risk averse to risk management. Is the creation of public learning backlog something that coaches and leaders can do to help this shift? I have been part of sessions where attendees create a skill market. Where they publish the things they want to learn, and the things they can help others learn. These have tended to be one off events. Does anyone know of a group that has published their learning backlogs?… and was there any impact on culture? I’m also interested in stories of failure, where the publishing the learning backlog has lead to more risk aversion.


I am a slow learner. My learning style is very slow and experiential. The most valuable things that I do not know are:

  • User Experience ( Looking for a good map of this rather large subject )
  • Culture ( Looking for a good practical guide )
  • Ethnography ( I’m still looking for a good introductory text for the practitioner )
  • Anthropology ( I’m still looking for a good introductory text for the practitioner )
  • Cynefin ( I’m attending the Sense Maker training course in January )
  • Complexity
  • Sense Making

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

6 responses to “Managing Conscious Incompetence – Looking for experience reports.

  • Jamie


    In regards Ethnography, I often return to ‘Real World Research’ when I want to think about how to study groups.

    I also enjoyed ‘Weapons of the Weak’, too.

    I wonder if the wide range of subjects that you and your friends want to read about reflects their natural curiosity. And, as one of those friends, I often wonder when does such curiosity give way to dilettantism? A risk for us all, I think.


    • theitriskmanager

      Hi Jamie

      Thank you for the recommendation. The Amazon gods are sending one my way. Yet another book for the backlog.

      I agree that dilettantism is a real risk. The things that make it to the top of my backlog are things that I hope will help me solve current problems in my work or home life. Dilettantism happens when I indulge is skimming the surface of subjects that I think are cool. I’m now saving them up for retirement when I can study them properly ( Philosophy and Cryptography are at the top of that backlog ).

      Hope to catch up this year.


  • Anthony Green (@anthonycgreen)

    Cognitive Edge has some recommended reading lists. Could be the starting point for a book club?

  • sserzant (@sserzant)

    Hello, Chris!

    If by value you mean “they are aware it exists, welcome it’s existence and opinion plurality” then I agree. It might happen that some new book critical of group’s opinion appears and once they read it they disagree with every sentence. They might know their hostile relation to it from very beginning, they know what’s in it for them. Can we say in this case they value this book?

    I once stumbled onto a discussion on twitter that was somehow connected to Taleb and anti-fragility and that knowing what you don’t know is more important than knowing what you do know. I already had a backlog of blogs, tweets, books to read on social bookmarking account. I was to worried I don’t keep up reading even half of what I save. I understood I don’t need to read all the stuff, but I need to be aware of the topics in case I will need it later. It had helped few times in the past. I count blog posts and social media threads equal to books (which in my case are simply links to Amazon).

    As for question about groups, I have experience from two companies where certain people promoted certain well known books on agile, clean code, tdd etc. The result was that those who read them became more disappointed in current state of the process and code, they had many good questions to those promoters which they couldn’t answer. It resulted in “by the book” vs “in the real world” situation where books and ideas there were not valued. Any book/course advice on driving organizational change is welcome 🙂

    PS This is a second post in two days on topic of reading backlogs (other one is in Russian by one ToC and personal productivity coach)

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