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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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3 thoughts on “How to become Instantly Incompetent

  1. 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.

    1. 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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