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

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.