How to become Instantly Incompetent

Many engineers and designers fall into a really simple trap, one that makes them instantly incompetent. These are not stupid people. They have the qualifications, so what is it that can catch someone out this badly?

It’s called ‘complacency’. Complacency is that state we all get into from time to time where we feel like we know what’s going on, and we’re comfortable there. it’s that  feeling of uncritical satisfaction with the situation. It amounts to ‘zoning out’ on the situation around you while believing that everything is great. It means you’re no longer paying attention, and as with most situations, that’s when you get bitten.

So what does it mean to be ‘competent’? Competency is defined in Wikipedia as:

Competence (or competency) is the ability of an individual to do a job properly. A competency is a set of defined behaviors that provide a structured guide enabling the identification, evaluation and development of the behaviors in individual employees.

Epic Fail!Part of developing competency in an engineering field is understanding problem definition. In primary school we start learning about problem definition as the first step in solving any problem, particularly in the maths and sciences. This process involves developing as clear an understanding of a problem as possible with the information available, and then applying our creative and analytical abilities to solve the problem. This process is developed and refined as we advance in our education, until we have it refined to a razor’s edge by the time we graduate from college or university.

The requirement for competence in practice is so important that engineering organizations everywhere have included the requirements for safety and competence into their codes of ethics. For example, the following comes from the American Society of Civil Engineers, as found on Wikipedia:

  1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.
  2. Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence.

Similar requirements exist in the OACETT Code of Ethics in Ontario, a professional organization that certifies Technicians and Technologists, as well as in the IEEE Code of Ethics.

I see the well understood problem definition process go by the wayside every day in my practice. Otherwise competent people ignore regulatory requirements and standards, getting caught with their pants down in some very embarrassing, frustrating and expensive ways.

In my view, the design process for a product starts with understanding what the thing is supposed to do. This is the user requirement. But wait, there’s more! Next you need to understand the technical requirements for the product, and this includes the regulatory and safety requirements. Only once these things are well understood can the design process begin. Understanding these requirements at the beginning of the process saves time, money, and stress for all those concerned. Taking the time to understand ALL of the requirements before the detailed design process starts is critical to success.

So why is it that so many otherwise very competent people blow it completely and miss out on the regulatory and safety elements in defining the design problem? I wish I knew. What I do know is this:

This is how you too can become Instantly Incompetent.


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Acknowledgements: Portions of the ASCE Code of Ethics.
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Author: Doug Nix

+DougNix is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Compliance InSight Consulting, Inc. ( in Kitchener, Ontario, and is Lead Author and Managing Editor of the Machinery Safety 101 blog.

Doug's work includes teaching machinery risk assessment techniques privately and through Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, as well as providing technical services and training programs to clients related to risk assessment, industrial machinery safety, safety-related control system integration and reliability, laser safety and regulatory conformity.

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  • You stated the incompetency issue well! The argument must be taken and evaluated by each individuals that are working. Workers must set their mind to have competent outputs for their company and to them selves.

    • Thanks, Sylvana! The issue of incompetency is an important one, and one that is often overlooked I think. In my practice I have seen some otherwise very competent people make some very incompetent decisions because they didn’t get all the information they needed BEFORE they made the decision. Recognizing that it is easy to get caught in ‘analysis paralysis’, decision makers need to be cautious about getting hung up in the data gathering stage, but engineers and designers only need to select the standards and read them, or look the regulations up on the Web to get the info they need. Failure to do so is the source of ‘Instant Incompetence’!

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