Practised Incompetence

Discovered to be incompetent
Oh no! They’ve discovered I’m incompetent!

Children play, are spontaneous, try new things and mistakes are an accepted part of the learning process. As adults the norm shifts towards maintenance of what we know, feeling safe and secure in our capabilities, with our security built on our competence. Ego demands that any threat to our emotional, mental or physical being be dealt with and encourages us to rely on fear-based survival modes – fight, flight, freeze or fabricate.

At every level of organisational life, ego-driven behaviours can be seen. Fiefdoms are created as individuals and groups seek control, desiring the means to ensure their security, and layers of protection are implemented. Authority (the right to do something) is often confused with power (the ability to do something), and unfortunately do not truly reside with each other as often as we might hope or expect. Too often authority leads to ever greater need for protectionism. Control becomes the key competence as fear runs rampant, and excellence suffers as only the tried and true methods are used, the only ones in which competence is held.

Such behaviours and approaches pose their own threats when we are in an unstable, changing environment. Recent events in the world’s financial markets highlight how uncertain life really is. Organisations are crashing down around us. Job and financial security have deserted us. Old patterns, behaviours, and beliefs are being tested, often to breaking point. The rubble of such change leaves in its wake a cloud of confusion. This is seen at personal, business, societal and global levels.

Is there an alternative? When there is an over-reliance on appearing competent, the willingness to take risks, try new things, and engage with creativity is diminished.

I have spent my life largely reliant on intellect, isolation, and protectionist behaviours to feel safe and navigate life with a false sense of control. Now I choose to engage with life and the people I encounter with authentic, heart-felt connection. Feeling vulnerable is common as I hold this intention. Yet I also feel powerful, grounded and alive in a new way. I am releasing reliable patterns I have drawn upon in the past. I feel incompetent in situations where I have feigned confidence or used practised behaviours. Sometimes (frequently) I fall back into old patterns. One measure of my embracing life in an authentic manner is that more frequently I feel incompetent, don’t know what to do. I have to do something anyway. Sometimes it works. It is always real. I feel very much on my edge. I confront long held fears that my protections have masked. This is a form of incompetence I choose to embrace and experience as an integrated part of my life. I choose to live spontaneously, enthusiastically, authentically connect with myself and others, and fully engage my heart. Goodbye to protections used to offer false security, the maintenance of which robs me of life and energy, and debilitates my availability to love, care and connect fully and freely.

Now I am actively learning to step out into the unknown, encounter vulnerability, be with the new, the unknown, and the chaotic. I am discovering how being competent in not knowing opens me up to new possibilities, and provides greater versatility and capacity to deal with change. I am practising incompetence, becoming better at it. While that does not mean I am abandoning what I do have competence in, it does open the door to greater versatility and being more capable in new ways that may enable greater resilience in the future. It enables me to be more spontaneous, better able to be adequate in new situations, or to take new approaches adequately in old situations.

Imagine managing a project where the team were comfortable giving new ideas and approaches a try; an organisation that recognised and rewarded innovative practices without penalising the learning process; or a partner in a relationship who welcomes and encourages a new, even if stumbling, approach to communicate. Such possibilities do exist, but not nearly enough.

Are you up to practising incompetence and developing greater capacity personally and professionally? Will your organisation support you in such attempts? Practised incompetence is one benefit of truly appreciating the fog associated with the new, the unknown and the chaotic, and choosing to develop personal and organisational power in such situations.

Choosing a Project Manager

Qualities sought in project managers
Qualities sought in project managers

Choosing the right person for a Project Manager role is crucial if you are to gain the benefits you seek. Those benefits are likely to include delivery of your project(s) in alignment with objectives (scope, time, cost, quality, stakeholders, benefits realisation, strategic fit etc.), team leadership and development, and possibly strengthening of project practices and processes. The right person for the role will have the required competence and will have a good cultural fit with the organisation.

Competence is commonly defined as Knowledge, Skills and Abilities. Knowledge needs to include an understanding of tools, techniques, and skills identified as good practice across a broad range of project environments. It may be important to consider specific technical and industry requirements, whether that be non-project management certifications and specific knowledge, experience and practices that are demonstrably beneficial for projects in your environment. Skills are assessed through a review of their track record of delivery, particularly within an environment comparable to the environment you’re seeking to apply her or him and Abilities will include verbal and numeric reasoning, emotional and social intelligence, behaviours, attitudes, perceptions and beliefs.

The leading KSA (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) for Australian and New Zealand industries (Ahsan, Ho & Khan, 2013), when recruiting (provided in advertising frequency order), include:

  • Communication (reporting, presenting, relations management, and interpersonal skills) (62%)
  • Technical skills (related to the technical area of the project) (44%)
  • Stakeholder management (42%)
  • Cost management (37%)
  • Time management (33%)
  • Educational background (29%)

The first five of these are Skills, the last from Knowledge. The leading Ability is Result-Oriented with 16% of recruitment advertisements identifying.

Cultural fit for the organisation. Key factors to consider include:

  • leadership style (e.g. authoritarian, consultative, facilitative or delegative)
  • behavioural style (e.g. dominance, influence, steadiness, conscientiousness)
  • conflict resolution style (e.g. competing, avoiding, collaborating, compromising, accommodating)
  • personal purpose, values and motivations

These factors can greatly impact the Project Manager’s ability to engage key stakeholders, manage the performance of project teams and suppliers and raise and resolve issues.

None of these items, can be taken for granted when bringing someone in to manage a project. Some of the more important cultural items may also be covert, not even recognised by the organisation but very real for a person coming into it. The fact that there may not be a cultural fit is not necessarily a problem in some areas. Perhaps a different approach is precisely what is required. Be aware that any differences between culture of the organisation and the culture of the project manager will manifest as rubbing and potential conflict, and will need to be adequately resolved for effective results. In my experience, it is often the organisation that struggles with the approach of the project manager more than the reverse, given the PM arrives with a mandate to create something at least a little different, and encounters rigidity from the establishment that holds inertia against change.

Once the initial selection has been made, many other factors need to be addressed such as compensation and benefits, working conditions etc. However, as a recruiting organisation clearly indicates to the market what they seek in a project manager, a better capacity for candidates to self-select exists, and recruitment against clear criteria assists organisational selection of their next PM.


Ahsan, K., Ho, M. & Khan, S. (2013). “Recruiting project managers: a comparative analysis of competencies and recruitment signals from job advertisements”. Project Management Journal, October 2013, 44(5), 36-54.