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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Author: Doug Nix

Doug Nix is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Compliance InSight Consulting, Inc. ( in Kitchener, Ontario, and is Lead Author and Senior 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. For more see Doug's LinkedIn profile.