from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 10 October 1993
of Skilled Incompetence
Argyris is James Bryant Conant Professor of Education and
Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Graduate School of
Business. He has published numerous books, including Overcoming Organizational Defensive Routines (Allyn-Bacon, Needham,
MA, 1990) and Knowledge for
San Francisco, CA, 1993).
a manager who always gets along with others an asset to the
By skillfully avoiding conflict, some managers can be
destructive to an organization. It’s their skill
that’s the problem.
call this phenomenon "skilled incompetence."
Consider the problem of meeting to formulate a new R&D
vice-president of R&D assembles the department heads, and
since the subject involves technical issues under the purview of
department head Smith, several of Smith’s scientists are
invited. The VP
outlines his preferred strategy.
Smith is convinced this is a loser, but because he wants to
avoid conflict and please the VP, he quickly mentions his views,
without showing the actual depth of his concerns.
What happens? Nobody pays much attention to his concerns.
happening here? Smith
is a skilled communicator, and he thus produces what he intends to
produce—an exposition of his views that avoids conflict.
He has used his skills to reach his primary goal—to avoid
upsetting the VP—and thus his skills have produced a policy
based on ignorance.
feels that the VP and the other department heads really don’t
care to learn the facts. They
didn’t prod him for more details.
The bench scientists, aware of Smith’s opinions and
seeing timidity in their chief, lose respect for him and start to
emulate his behavior. Things
don't look any better from the top.
Won't the VP and other directors conclude that Smith is not
interested enough in the organization to fight for his ideas?
what results is a seemingly-smooth and harmonious loop of
communication that is actually rooted in suspicion and ignorance.
The VP can easily feel good about pursuing his favored
strategy, not having heard any strong opinions against it.
participate in this loop takes skill.
It can be difficult to elucidate many viewpoints so they
don’t surprise, embarrass, or threaten—but people learn to do
incompetence easily pervades an organization, until the corporate
ideal start to read like this:
Agree with your superiors.
Provide information, but don't create conflict.
Don’t change the course of action.
version of this scenario is when the VP doesn’t have strong
opinions on the issue and genuinely wants the department heads to
arrive at a conclusion. If
department heads tends to dominate, then arguments are suppressed.
Such a meeting results in a list of things to do, but no
everyone—all the people who are so skilled at avoiding potential
interpersonal friction—wonders why nothing gets done.
space shuttle disaster is an example of such a closed loop.
Only when outsiders questioned the participants, were the
mixed messages and defensive routines during the decision to
incompetence is a hothouse for breeding mixed messages, which are
in turn convenient for several levels of the organization.
Managers say, “Be innovative and take risks, but be
careful,” but this
translates to: “Go,
but only so far” without specifying "how far." This ambiguity covers the exec who doesn't want to state in
advance what is "too far."
The receivers may like ambiguous messages since they help
cover their own shortcomings:
The department heads understand the mixed messages and
avoid making discomforting requests for clarification.
common example of skilled incompetence occurs when the VP gives
his department heads the welcome message that they must be more
autonomous and take more responsibility.
The VP says, “I mean it—you
run the show down there!” The
department heads, looking forward to demonstrating their
abilities, believe him. Then
an important issue comes up, and the VP forgets his promise and begins
well up, effective management diminishes, and defensive routines
defenses, as in the space shuttle disaster, are hard to identify
until a glaring error blows things apart.
messages destroy trust, but the department heads find ways to live
with them, by explaining to themselves and their subordinates:
“He never really
meant increased autonomy.”
Or, “He’s not really interested in us.”
Department heads never bring these concerns to the VP, and
the VP won’t discuss why he doesn’t trust them.
can’t abandon their skilled incompetence without overcoming
suspicions, and they can't do that without discussing the
suspicions. But this
openness violates an unstated rule in most organizations:
Uncomfortable situations shall not be discussed; business
will continue in its cordial but ineffective manner.
people are unaware of their skilled incompetence.
If skilled incompetence is so pervasive, so
"normal," how can we break out of it so our companies
can avoid the damage it causes?
takes practice to overcome skilled incompetence.
You must devote time to reflect on it.
When you find yourself playing skilled incompetence tricks,
concentrate on overcoming them. Concentrate on getting your views across—on helping the
company benefit from your expertise.
group I worked with arranged a meeting away from the company in
which managers were instructed to:
Describe, in a paragraph, a key organizational problem.
Describe, in a paragraph or two, a strategy to discuss this
problem with anyone.
Divide a page into two columns.
On the right, explain how you would begin a meeting to
discuss this problem, and what you would say.
Add the anticipated responses, then write your reaction to
In the left column, outline ideas or feelings that you did
not want tocommunicate (for whatever reason).
action of writing a case study was an eye-opener for many of the
the stories were distributed among the managers, reactions
included: “Oh my
God, this is us”; “Joe does
this all the time”; “Oh, there’s a familiar one."
exercise exposed several examples of skilled incompetence.
For example, to the comment, “I don’t understand.
Tell me more," the response was, “I’m sure you are
aware of the changes." But
the feelings behind the
response were, "Like hell you don’t understand.
I wish there was a way I could be more gentle."
Don't Want to Bother You with the Truth
saw how each person skillfully avoided upsetting colleagues, while
at the same time trying just a bit to change the other's mind.
We could examine behavior which originated in less than a
second, and we therefore had the chance to alter it.
Members noticed both interpersonal actions and substantive
issues, a balancing act that's usually difficult at best.
exercise also increased sensitivity to the defensive routines that
prevent us from solving organizational problems, routines that
prevent managers from making honest decisions.
People naturally use defensive routines to avoid
uncomfortable situations—to prevent surprise, embarrassment, or
bad the routines also prevent learning.
politicians are skilled communicators. A successful politician who
is a skilled communicator is usually excellent at concealing
problems. We’ve got
to work to reveal and overcome these defensive routines; otherwise
they will pervade our organizations and prevent us from reaching