Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – The Soothing Balm for Pseudo Competence Syndrome

Not exactly MVP. More of a ‘trial & error’, ‘make it up as you go along’ approach to building a Poly-tunnel from recycled trampoline frames. My pic. Me & my “Dad, why don’t you just buy a new one?” son.

I’ve no Idea what I’m doing. Here’s a a confession. Quite a lot of the time I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I don’t know precisely how things are going to end up. I’ve usually got a rough sense of the direction where things are headed. I’ll be aware of the danger zones at the edges, and generally have plenty of enthusiasm to keep things moving forward. Its around the ‘bits in the middle’ where things can be a bit ‘messy’. I’m mostly OK with that. The picture above illustrates my most recent ‘messy adventure into uncertainty’.

Oddly, my wife has complete confidence in my ability to do lots things. Based on my track record, I’ve no idea why she thinks this way. However, it has led to me developing a way of behaving that I recently learned is called ‘Pseudo Competence’. Basically its a description of the situation where someone has reached a position where they lack the competence to perform a task or do a job, and they fake it.

Learning about Pseudo Competence came from a discussion about how organisations (and people) respond to failure. One specific observation intrigued me. What does this means for people who’ve been promoted rapidly or ‘fast tracked’ in an organisation? If they haven’t had time to ‘learn the ropes’ and develop ‘deep competence’ are they automatically in the zone of ‘Pseudo Competence’. If they aren’t comfortable with that situation, what does this mean for their state of mind? Interestingly, someone who had experience of this situation described its as, “standing on the edge of the abyss… knowing that you don’t know what to do, but people expecting you to know, because of your job title…”. That feels mildly terrifying.

Possibly more on that in a future post. If you can’t wait, this post on the value of apprenticeships (Learn the Rules Like a Pro, So you can break them like an Artist) gives a clue about where I’m coming from.

Pseudo Competence has close cousins. I’m not going to dwell on pseudo-competence other than to say, there’s a lot of it about (it’s not just me), and it has some close cousins. I’ve taken the liberty of condensing some of the most commonly described examples of ‘competency issues’ into the table below. It’s a big subject area and I’ve just scratched the surface.

You’ll notice is that I’ve created this as a handy ‘print out and keep’ version, with a column for you to insert those people in you life that my not be ‘fully competent’. I won’t make them any more competent, but it might help you think about coping strategies… You’re welcome!

One thing I should have mentioned is that you might want to insert, ‘yourself’ in the candidate boxes. That’s fine (it works for me). If you want some helpful suggestions on how to cope with Pseudo Competence have a look at this article by Jane Alexander, Achilles Syndrome, Do You Feel a Fraud? Alternatively, you can try what I’ve been doing and talk about MVP… Minimum Viable Product.

Minimum Viable Product. I’ve written about MVP before in Minimum Viable Transformations; Change Should be Small and Imperfect. The basic idea is that you start small (the minimum version of what you are aiming for), get the users to test it, act on the feedback to improve what you’ve got, take it back to the users. Then repeat the cycle until you’ve got a ‘finished’ product. It’s beautifully illustrated in this graphic from Greg Holt (@gh0lt). I don’t think MVP needs any more explanation than this.

Graphic by Greg Holt (@gh0lt). With kind permission, Thanks Greg.

What’s this got to do with Trampolines and Soothing Balm? Glad you asked. In the ‘hot house’ of gardening round our place there are certain phrases that don’t go down well with my co-workers, my wife or the”Dad, why don’t you just buy a new one!!” son.

Me saying; “we are approaching this through a series of ‘safe to fail’ experiments” or its all about “trial and error” just doesn’t help the situation. They foolishly believe I know what I’m doing. The ‘soothing balm’ that covers up my Pseudo Competence just happens to be MVP. It’s bizarre how a few simple words smooth away so such angst and uncertainty. I think I need to to use it in other circumstances…

Its all about outcomes & impact. I need to point out that things worked out fine with the Trampoline to Poly-tunnel project. How do I know? Two critical performance measures;

  • The poly-tunnel is still standing after the recent storm with 48 mph winds, and
  • The “Dad, why don’t you just buy a new one?” son sort of complemented me… “fair play, that’s not too bad Dad. It wasn’t the ‘ball-ache’ I was expecting”. Feedback like that is better than winning the lottery! I’m very OK with that.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Full competence to do something only generally comes from deep experience – practice and learning over a long time. Its what the apprentice model is based upon.
  2. Doing something different or new inevitably requires a lot of learning and an admission that you ‘don’t know all the answers’.
  3. It’s better to acknowledge that you ‘don’t know’ in my view. The language you choose to explore ‘unknown territory’ is up to you. For me, ‘we are using a Minimum Viable Product approach’ has worked quite well recently.

Finally: here are a few pics of the Trampoline to Poly-Tunnel experience.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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