Embracing Incompetence Can Be the Key to Marketing Success

September 8, 2015

“You suffer from unconscious incompetence,” he said, then he sat back with a look of calm indifference. My first instinct was to punch him in the face, but I learned long ago that it’s not always a good idea to follow your first instinct, especially when it’s to punch someone in the face. Instead I sat back and thought for a moment. Here I was, sitting and talking with one of the top Quality Management experts in the world. He had been all around the world consulting with major businesses on how to improve quality and communication in their companies, and now he was sitting in front of me, trying to help me employ some of those same quality management principles into my marketing and advertising business. With his credentials, it was probably safe to assume that he knew what he was talking about, but that doesn’t mean my ego wasn’t any less pricked. So, even though my pride was percolating just beneath the surface, ready to burst forth and defend my intellectual honor, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and dig a little deeper. “What exactly do you mean,” I asked, my fingers relaxing out of the fist clenched by my side. “Well, he said, “it’s not uncommon in business, or life for that matter, but ‘unconscious incompetence’ is when you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s part of the ‘Four Stages of Learning Any New Skill’ and it simply means you don’t know how to do something and don’t realize that there’s a deficit in your knowledge. In this case, you do not realize the actual processes that need to be put in place for satisfactory quality management to take place.  Unfortunately, even though your efforts are born of good intentions, the truth of the matter is, you may be wasting time and resources pursuing practices that are not the most efficient, or may not work at all, simply because you aren’t aware of the tried-and-true practices that have already been developed and are available to you.” And with that he handed me a sheet that listed the Four Stages of Learning…

  1. Unconscious incompetence – Not knowing what you don’t know.
  2. Conscious incompetence – Knowing what you don’t know.
  3. Conscious competence  – Knowing or understanding how to do something with concentration.
  4. Unconscious competence – Knowing or understanding something so well, it can be done “second nature.”

“The goal,” he said, “when acquiring a new skill, like quality management, is to move from stage 1, unconscious incompetence, to stage 4, unconscious competence, or rather, the ability to do something well without having to think about it.” As we discussed the concept further, and filled in the blanks between the various stages, it became apparent to me how this paradigm was true for anything we undertake, whether it’s yoga, playing piano, or running a business. We all must go, at some point, from not knowing anything at all about our subject, to achieving at least a basic level of competence that allows us to perform the necessary tasks. Without this evolution, we never get better or see any improvement in our situation.

As a marketing consultant, I see this concept come into play over and over again. Although no small business owner wants to be told that he or she is “unconsciously incompetent,” the truth of the matter is, when it comes to marketing, this factor is probably the single biggest impediment to a small business’ success. All too often, small business owners mistakenly treat marketing as simply an “EITHER-OR” factor, meaning EITHER they are doing marketing, OR they are not.  Even though many businesses are taking steps to market, they are not taking steps founded in awareness, or “competence,” in marketing techniques, science, and art. Too often, small business owners think that as long as they have an ad in the paper, or online, or on the radio, that they are marketing. The reality is that there is a big difference between marketing and GOOD marketing. The detail and finesse that go into producing great graphic design and great copy can mean the difference between attracting customers or just wasting money on expensive media buys.

It hurts me when I see small business owners designing their own websites with ultra-low-budget or free providers, printing business cards at Office Depot, or allowing their office administrator to write brochure copy and press releases. Sure, anybody can write words, but not everybody can write well. If everybody could write as well and creatively as everybody else, we would all be millionaire authors and Oscar-winning screenplay writers. But, most of us are “consciously incompetent” on those fronts, meaning we DO realize that there are many people who write better than us, and we have a lot to learn on the subject.

When it comes to marketing, small businesses that want to be successful should recognize this same principle; anybody can buy ad space and write copy, but not everybody can do it well. At the very least, business owners can recognize what they don’t know and acknowledge that there is room for growth or outside help.  This recognition at least moves them to stage 2 of conscious incompetence, or the recognition that there is a knowledge and skill set they don’t possess.  The point is, there are a lot of things we all don’t know about.  Smart and successful small business owners recognize the deficiencies in their skill sets and delegate accordingly.

If business owners are aware of these concepts, and manage their affairs accordingly, they can take advantage of the concepts, surround themselves with appropriate resources and capable people, and drive their business towards success in the most efficient manner possible.  And they never have to worry again about anybody calling them “incompetent.” After all, nobody wants to punch anybody else in the face.


Here’s a link to MindTools.com that elaborates on the Four Stages of Learning… https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_96.htm


2 Comments. Leave new

It really applies to everything but especially business! I’m still working on mastering the last two steps!




Great article! Well written and easily understood. I live in the world of technology and these four stages get repeated over and over in this field. I can use this model with my clients. Thanks, Kenn.


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