Applying a Psychology Based Model to Improve Business Processes

Often, when we find out that we don’t know something that may be important to know, it motivates us to find out more in order to master the skill. When I find out that I don’t know something that is regarded to be important, I’m motivated to learn more about it. However, if we “don’t know what we  don’t know”, then we are blissfully unaware of our ignorance and there’s little we can do about it.

I recently worked with a team where the Manager had seen Scrum used successfully on another project and wanted to see if it could help improve processes within his team. Using Scrum and a psychology based learning model of competency, within three months we were able to take the team from Unconscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence and provide them with increased efficiencies and a simplified business process to deliver both their Business as usual (BAU) work as well as project initiatives such as the introduction of RecordPoint as the EDRMS, MS Sharepoint integration, MS Biztalk and MS Dynamics.

In psychology, the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model, relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognise their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously they use that skill and eventually, the skill can be done without consciously being thought through. At this point the individual is said to have unconscious competence.

The four stages of the Conscious Competence Model are:

  • Unconscious incompetence — This is the first step to gaining knowledge and recognising you have a need. You don’t know that you don’t know how to do something and therefore do not  understand or know how to do something or that there is a deficit. They could deny the usefulness of the skill however, they must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  • Conscious incompetence — You know that you don’t know and it bothers you so you start to build up your expertise in that area.  Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  • Conscious competence — You know that you know how to do something and it takes effort. The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  • Unconscious competence — You know how to do something and it is second nature – you rock at it. The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learnt.



High Performing Teams – The Fifth Stage – The model is expanded by some users to include a fifth stage, which is not part of the original model from Gordon Training International and the exact composition of this stage varies between authors. Some refer to reflective ability, or “conscious competence of unconscious competence”, as being the fifth stage, while others use the fifth stage to indicate complacency. For me, the fifth stage is what differentiates high performing teams from other teams. Rather than becoming complacent, the individuals within the team  adopt a life long learning approach to continuous improvement of competency, and these high performers will not stand still but instead will continue to push boundaries in their thirst for knowledge. 


This model has been particularly helpful in getting agile teams to understand where they are at in their knowledge and skill level and what they need to learn to improve performance and achieve process improvement.