competence cycle.jpeg

Many law firms have their rainmakers conduct BD training classes. Maybe some go this route because those lawyers are there already, so there's no incremental direct cost. Most, I suspect, assume that successful rainmakers can share what they know with others.

This is a flawed concept. The most adept practitioners at anything are often the worst at training others to do the thing they've mastered, because they're no longer aware of how they do what they do. They just do it.

The Four Phases of Competence

  1. Shown in the Competence Cycle graphic above, this is a concept that describes what we can and can't do, and why, based on our degree of exposure to any concept. The starting point is Unconscious Incompetence, i.e., we don't know what we don't know. At this stage, we see no reason to seek training, advice or assistance because we're unaware of a deficiency. 

  2. At Conscious Incompetence, we become receptive to help, advice, training, direct assistance, outsourcing, etc. because exposure has caused us to recognize that there's more to Concept X than we thought, and we acknowledge a deficiency, e.g., understanding, or capability. At this point, if the deficiency has negative impact on us, or promises significant opportunity, we seek training.

  3. If the deficiency is a lack of skill, and our having achieved Conscious Incompetence caused us to get training, over time we progress to Phase 3, Conscious Competence. We can perform the function, but it's a conscious, actively aware process. 

  4. As we gain experience and have success, we eventually may reach Unconscious Competence, where we perform well without thinking about it. This describes experts in any field. 

Studies have shown that when unconsciously-competent experts are asked to instruct or train others in their skills, to do so they must first revert back to Conscious Competence, which often has the unfortunate by-product of causing their performance as practitioners to degrade. 

Practicing does not equal teaching

As one expert puts it, teaching is a different skill set than practicing:

"The ability to recognise and develop skill deficiencies in others involves a separate skill set altogether, far outside of an extension of the unconscious competence stage of any particular skill. As already mentioned, there are plenty of people who become so instinctual at a particular skill that they forget the theory - because they no longer need it - and as such make worse teachers than someone who has good ability at the conscious competence stage."

In The Nature of Expertise: Implications for Teachers and Teaching, authors Smith and Tiberius point out that longstanding experts operate through a lens unavailable to novices:

"There is a downside to intuitive expertise. Experienced teachers, characterized by instant recognition of problem situations and efficient actions, tend to make decisions without deliberation, without being aware of the rules, or without having rules. Such teachers often have difficulty explaining to students their thoughts or actions that constitute expert practice. They make decisions on the basis of subtle, contextual features of the situation, features that are unavailable to the novice."

Finally, John Addy argues that experts may fall victim to complacency, and cling to outdated methods based on conditions that are no longer present:

"I suggest the 5th stage can be 'complacency.' That is, when the person continues to practise the skill which has become automatic and second nature, but, over time, allows bad habits to form. For example, an exemplary driver makes a silly mistake. Or, a trainer, believing himself or herself to be an expert, fails to prepare adequately for a training session and drops a clanger. These are the dangers of thinking you can do something so easily, you become complacent. Complacency can also cause problems if the person doesn't keep up-to-date with the skill. As techniques and approaches move forward, the person remains behind using set methods which have perhaps become stale, out-dated or less relevant to today. In each case above the person must reassess personal competence (perhaps against a new standard) and step back to the conscious competence stage until mastery is attained once again. Complacency provides a useful warning to those who think they have reached the limit of mastery. It can also encourage people to search for continuous improvement." (John Addy, Aug 2004)

This last accurately describes many rainmakers who became successful during the 20-year legal service boom, when sky-high demand enabled them to build impressive books of business without need for the sophisticated skills required in today's Buyer's Market? Should they teach those outdated ideas to the next generation, who will never experience the market conditions that made these established lawyers' approach work?

You may get lucky and have rainmakers capable of practicing and teaching, but it's an outlier condition, and definitely not the way to bet. That's why it's usually a bad idea for law firms to try to save money by having their rainmakers serve as BD trainers.

Mike O'Horo

It's not only your rainmakers who are deficient as skill-builders. Compared to computers, all human instructors come up short. Learn why technology-based training outperforms instructor-led training on all 14 metrics recognized by learning experts.